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Topic: Will Your Music be a Classic?

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  1. #1

    Post Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Will Your Music be a Classic?

    These past two weeks I have been lecturing and presenting a topic on “The Influence of Music on the Classical Community throughout the Ages.” In this topic we discover that the classical community pursues truth, goodness, and beauty in order to cultivate wisdom and virtue. After my portion of beauty was covered, I listened intensely as the literary scholar was giving a demonstration on “What Makes a Book a Classic?” After the meetings the headmaster asked me if I could relate the topic to music, and show what makes a music composition a classic. So with the notes I inscribed on “The Qualities to look for in a Good Book” from “Educating the Wholehearted Child” by Clay and Sally Clarkson, I will attempt to see if there is a connection with music, and then maybe we can discover a clue into what makes a music composition a classic that will live throughout the ages. The main characteristics of books that are endowed as classics all share the same aptitudes: the books are ageless, timeless, living, literary, whole, inspiring, and creative.

    Classic books are ageless. “The story and / or illustrations are appealing both to children and to adults. The book possesses a distinctive verbal power, visual beauty, or both, that is recognizable by an eight-year-old or an eighty-year-old reader.” (Does the music’s overall sound whether it is program music or absolute music appeal to people of all ages, and does the music retain a unique aural characteristic in being both influential and beautiful?)

    Classic books are timeless. “The characters and themes transcend time and culture. It appears to the higher ideals and virtues of the human heart, mind, and experience that are meaningful from one generation to another. It is not dated by passing cultural terms and references.” (Can the music’s themes withstand the test of time and appeal to people of all cultures beckoning higher standards of emotion, awareness, and skill that different generations can find meaningful? Billy Joel once said, “No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music. It’s an explosive expression of humanity.” Editors, publishers, composers, and the media who claim that new music is an “instant classic” are no more than propaganda due to the fact that the work has yet to endure the test of time.)

    Classic books are living. “It is filled with concepts and ideas that touch the heart and mind. Whether fiction, nonfiction, or history, it holds up a mirror to real life and living ideas. It makes the subject ‘come alive’ with enlightening insights about real people, places, and things. It captures the imagination.” (Does the music provide material that stimulates the heart, intellect, and the imagination of a person causing them to reflect on their own life and the world they live in?)

    Classic books are literary. “It is well written with a natural flow of the narrative, dialog, and description. The writing is engaging, clear, and grammatically acceptable. It is a worthy model of the English language used well.” (Is the theory complete and well written providing that each note has purpose, a form that creates a natural progression, and a commendable example of the universal language while still being engaging to the listener?)

    Classic books are whole. “It tells a complete story that is interesting and satisfying. The characters are developed, the plot is clear, and the story has a beginning and ending. It appeals to both heart and the mind. There is a sense of satisfaction and closure when it is finished.” (Does the form of the composition provide structure supporting stimulating themes that start, develop, and conclude in a satisfying finale that will cause the listener to have a sense of gratification and closure in the end?)

    Classic books are inspiring. “It is morally uplifting, providing literary models of sound moral character. It feeds the moral imagination and inspires the reader to higher ideals and virtues.” (Plato once declared, “That there could be no greater detriment to the morals of a community than a gradual perversion of chaste and modest music.” Is the goal of the music to inspire listeners to higher virtues, or to cause perversion of the imagination and moral character of a person?)

    Classic books are creative. “It stimulates the imagination through creatively developed concept, characters, plot, and action. You are drawn into the writing of the author’s creative use of words and writing style.” (Is the composer’s use of music creative and unique in its own sound? Does it stimulate the listener’s imagination through creatively developed themes, rhythms, textures, use of timbre, and theory practices?

    By studying what makes a book a classic book, we may be able to discover if a piece of modern music might one day be awarded the prestigious title of “A Classic Composition,” but I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Thank you so much for your time.
    ~Rod

  2. #2

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Quote Originally Posted by composingatnight View Post
    ...with the notes I inscribed on “The Qualities to look for in a Good Book” from “Educating the Wholehearted Child” by Clay and Sally Clarkson, I will attempt to see if there is a connection with music, and then maybe we can discover a clue into what makes a music composition a classic that will live throughout the ages.

    The main characteristics of books that are endowed as classics all share the same aptitudes: the books are ageless, timeless, living, literary, whole, inspiring, and creative...etc.
    That's quite a post, Rodney.

    I understand this is all dovetailing from your lectures, but I'll write some replies only in the context of what came to my mind from reading what you have here. In other words, I wouldn't want to make an attempt to give input on what your currently studying and lecturing on - I can just pass on some of my reactions.

    The general question, will our music be "classic" - There's no way for anyone to know that. And I don't think it works if someone sets out to purposely write something "classic." Those kinds of designations can only be given by other people, and only after a great deal of time, when a piece of work can be studied in context of history. There's no sense someone wasting time worrying about it really.

    Now - these definitions of classic books - I don't agree with most of them. These sound like definitions approved of by a church, or religious school, but not what literary professors at a liberal arts college would agree on. Far too restrictive.

    --Appealing to both children and adults?-- That's awfully limiting, and I don't find it to be true at all, I don't find a parallel with music. I would cringe to see what great music would have to be dismissed because the average 8 year old doesn't enjoy it. Isn't that why we have "music appreciation" classes? Adults, with fully mature brains, need guidance in listening to music in a way beyond what a child's brain is capable of grasping.

    Classic books are literary - well, yes, they're literature. I don't understand why this is in the list. "Houses are architectural" "Food has taste" "Music is musical." lol--Sorry-- but--?

    Inspiring? Morally uplifting? Feeds the moral imagination---? I beg your pardon again, but I don't find any of this to the point at all.

    I wrote a stage musical based on Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's generally agreed that the book is a "classic" of literature. But it was reviled by many critics and large portions of the public when it was published, and is still controversial. It's hardly something an 8 year old should read. Well, an 8 year old would be bored by it, wouldn't be able to make any sense of it. There's nothing morally uplifting about it, and it certainly doesn't have any "literary models of sound moral character." - It's a Gothic Horror Novel, a great one. The language is beautiful, incredibly literary, and it's the main reason it's never been out of print.

    It's as Oscar said, "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all."

    I'm at a total loss why there's all this emphasis on Morals and Morality, and being Uplifting. I don't think what you've outlined describes classic literature at all - there's no room, for instance, for any of the bloody Greek Tragedies under these definitions.

    There's actually something disturbing to me about what you've outlined. The implication is that only certain kinds of literature and music should get our attention. Young minds filled with these injunctions could develop some very judgmental attitudes towards much of the world's great art. Instead of encountering each book, music composition and painting on its own terms, they could end up disregarding and filtering out any piece of art without a discernable moral purpose.

    --Actually, when something is created to make a point, to impart a "moral"--that's usually when it ceases to be Art. And things that are truly "classic" at the very least have to be considered Art.

    And so I can't find any worthwhile parallels to music here either.

    --and I basically find it fruitless to wonder what will become classic, and I think that trying to analyze why anything is considered a classic to be only slightly more fruitful.

    ---So--Well, those are my reactions.

    Amorally yours,
    Randy

  3. #3

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Randy: I agree with you 100%.

    But just as an explanatory note, I think the topic is confused here. The speakers in question were surely not meaning to reference "classical" music as in "Mozart, Berlioz, Schoenberg, Corgliano...".

    The problem with the statements made above is that the "classical" ideals referenced are imaginary GREEK classical ideals. These are the fictitious ideals that were brought forward during the "classical" period (Mozart's time, for music, a bit earlier for the other arts). Through some bizarre and circuitous reasoning, "scholars" from that period applied these lofty "ideals" to the arts.

    In my opinion, to take them as anything more than evidence of how "scholars" thought in the late 1700's is to fall into a trap.

  4. #4

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Quote Originally Posted by rbowser- View Post
    That's quite a post, Rodney.

    I understand this is all dovetailing from your lectures, but I'll write some replies only in the context of what came to my mind from reading what you have here. In other words, I wouldn't want to make an attempt to give input on what your currently studying and lecturing on - I can just pass on some of my reactions.

    The general question, will our music be "classic" - There's no way for anyone to know that. And I don't think it works if someone sets out to purposely write something "classic." Those kinds of designations can only be given by other people, and only after a great deal of time, when a piece of work can be studied in context of history. There's no sense someone wasting time worrying about it really.

    Now - these definitions of classic books - I don't agree with most of them. These sound like definitions approved of by a church, or religious school, but not what literary professors at a liberal arts college would agree on. Far too restrictive.

    --Appealing to both children and adults?-- That's awfully limiting, and I don't find it to be true at all, I don't find a parallel with music. I would cringe to see what great music would have to be dismissed because the average 8 year old doesn't enjoy it. Isn't that why we have "music appreciation" classes? Adults, with fully mature brains, need guidance in listening to music in a way beyond what a child's brain is capable of grasping.

    Classic books are literary - well, yes, they're literature. I don't understand why this is in the list. "Houses are architectural" "Food has taste" "Music is musical." lol--Sorry-- but--?

    Inspiring? Morally uplifting? Feeds the moral imagination---? I beg your pardon again, but I don't find any of this to the point at all.

    I wrote a stage musical based on Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's generally agreed that the book is a "classic" of literature. But it was reviled by many critics and large portions of the public when it was published, and is still controversial. It's hardly something an 8 year old should read. Well, an 8 year old would be bored by it, wouldn't be able to make any sense of it. There's nothing morally uplifting about it, and it certainly doesn't have any "literary models of sound moral character." - It's a Gothic Horror Novel, a great one. The language is beautiful, incredibly literary, and it's the main reason it's never been out of print.

    It's as Oscar said, "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all."

    I'm at a total loss why there's all this emphasis on Morals and Morality, and being Uplifting. I don't think what you've outlined describes classic literature at all - there's no room, for instance, for any of the bloody Greek Tragedies under these definitions.

    There's actually something disturbing to me about what you've outlined. The implication is that only certain kinds of literature and music should get our attention. Young minds filled with these injunctions could develop some very judgmental attitudes towards much of the world's great art. Instead of encountering each book, music composition and painting on its own terms, they could end up disregarding and filtering out any piece of art without a discernable moral purpose.

    --Actually, when something is created to make a point, to impart a "moral"--that's usually when it ceases to be Art. And things that are truly "classic" at the very least have to be considered Art.

    And so I can't find any worthwhile parallels to music here either.

    --and I basically find it fruitless to wonder what will become classic, and I think that trying to analyze why anything is considered a classic to be only slightly more fruitful.

    ---So--Well, those are my reactions.

    Amorally yours,
    Randy
    I am enjoying reading these responses. Thank you for sharing. I am not sure if you could tell or not, but basically I was simply trying to translate the book and the characteristics into musical terms and see the responses from others who differ in their opinion. This was like writing a research paper, so I am very happy with the responses. When I have to teach them again in late September I would love to share your thoughts on all of this if that’s alright?
    ~Rod

  5. #5
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Hi Rodney,

    This is all very interesting, the literary vs music as classics, but I have to say I am on the same side of the fence as Randy and Michel.

    The comparison pales right off the bat because, as stated by others already, the criteria you listed doesn't even apply to what constitutes 'classic' literature ... at least not in the current, modern sense, which is where we are now.

    To compare music to literature is a dead-end pursuit. Words and language are cast in perpetual concrete ... what was written in the 1400's reads exactly the same way today, translations possibly notwithstanding. Music is much more of an interpretive art ... yes, notes written in 1400 would sound the same today, but look how music has evolved and permutated in the just the past half-century.

    Are we still playing that 1400's music on the exact same instruments it was originally composed for? Will the symphony orchestra of the future forgo the current woodwind section and replace them with kazoos and didgeridoos? The music will still have the same notes, but will it sound the same? And since music is an aural art, we're not likely to be comparing apples and apples. And who would want to? Where music is oh so much more powerful than literature is in the very fact that it is a much more living organism; music ... including 'classic' compositions ... will not sound the same as they do today ... and I think that is all fine and good.

    Lastly, I feel what makes music (or literature) 'classic' (as you can see, I'm not comfortable with the classic tag) has little to do with quality and much to do with popularity ... but, then again, possibly this comparison is only meant for academic pleasures and pursuits? Because outside of academia, people like or dislike something on face value only.

    Feel free to use any of my comments Rodney ... and I still think your paper was interesting; I just don't subscribe to it.

    Regards,

    Frank


  6. #6

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    A couple of ideas that I don't necessarily subscribe to - just 'spanner in the works' thinking.

    Possibly what makes a 'classic' has more to do with the social conditions at the time of its production, than actualy quality. For instance, the Beatles didn't write the greatest songs ever. They were groundbreaking certainly, but there ideas were just the start of something. You might say they occupied the J.C. Bach position in pop music - they took that old Blues, and showed how it could go in new directions - and you'd have expected then for their ideas to be refined by Mozarts and Haydns. The difference is Beatlemania - the absolute hysteria that existed at the time has catapulted the Beatles further through history than they might otherwise have gone, outliving much of that refinement process, and embedding their tracks in our consciousness, to the point where we have stopped making a value judgement of the material itself, and afford them an unassailable status.

    Possibly the fact that we now ask the question, 'What makes a classic?' has completely altered the nature of the classic. In Bach's day I believe there was little notion of 'the classic.' Music was epehemeral, often produced for specific occasion, never to be used again, and almost always performed with the involvement of the composer. The notion of a canon of past works, to be pulled out and reinterpreted, simply didn't exist (thus, I'm convinced, the complete lack of performance detail in scores, up to and including identifying what instruments they were intended for - the composer was going to be in charge, so why litter the score with such detail). Gradually we've introduced that canon and the mentality of the composer has changed - we work with the constant notion that our music may become eternal - almost an unspoken challenge that it should become eternal, and we're already worrying about whether our work will achieve classic status before it's finished. (By we, I mean the composers of our generation, and was not including myself). My professor at university would never help anyone analyse his work, because he lived with the fear that it would probably only have any status until someone had unpicked it - almost an attitude of 'my work can be considered classic until it can be dismissed,' with complete disregard for aural appeal.

    Recording is almost certainly changing the game very rapidly. Whereas Classical music has to be re-interpreted at each performance, giving the piece an identity that is bigger than any one performance, for much pop music the piece becomes immediately synonymous with its initial recorded interpretation. Perhaps this is giving rise to 'classics' that survive because of great performances, despite weak material. And perhaps some great music is destined not to survive because its composers didn't give it a great performance. For instance, Graceland is almost certainly destined for 'classic' status; but in fact most of it is constructed around pre-existing world music tracks (mainly african, but also some Zydeco), and without the actual performances of the musicians on the day of recording, there is little you could point to that makes it Graceland. The 'classic' status resides in a very specific, one-off interpretation, that almost certainly couldn't be achieved by anyone else. Compare this to previous music. We know that the music of Liszt was fantastically well-received when he performed it himself, but he didn't have the opportunity to record his own interpretations; and, in the cold light of day, looking at just the scores, a lot of it has now been re-evaluated as 'showy fluff.' If Paul Simon could only leave a score behind I think the fate of Graceland would be similar, but it won't be.

    Possibly works become classics because we fail to separate content from language. This is more the case with literature, I think. Take Shakespeare, for instance. Quite frankly the plots of his plays now seems lame - on a par with average soap operas perhaps; the characters are two dimensional and often don't behave convincingly; the 'slapstick' and wit are unbelievably naive - slightly lower than pantomime. At the time, though, I'm sure he was the most advanced writer in all those respects, and audiences were genuinely enthralled. That's the point though. They were genuinely appreciative of the plots and humour - there was nothing highbrow about it. As far as they were concerned the plays were in plain English (albeit quite well-used English). Since then we have developed both humour, characterisation and plot development to levels Shakespeare could never have dreamed of, and yet unbelievable superlatives are still thrown at him. 'All of human nature is contained' is the last one I heard. Utter crap! I'm convinced that the reason we now venerate him is the fact that we have to spend hours decoding all the forsooths, sirrahs and prithees, before understanding a jot of what he actually said. By the time we've invested all that effort, it feels as though there is more to the content than there actually is. We invest it with multiple levels of symbolism that are really not intentional (and are probably just reflections of ourselves). And so the cleverness of the language, r rather its unfamiliarity is hiding what is average drama at best, and bawdy, ordinary crap at worst. I don't dispute that there is probably some great stuff in there, but there are also great passages that are the Elizabethan equivalent of Playboy, and yet we venerate the whole canon equally. With music I think the same problem exists. It shouldn't, because it's actually not necessary to decode the language to understand the content. My ears can tell that Ockeghem sounds great without having to unpick the staggering isorhythmic devices. But sometimes we elevate works to classic status, due to the 'cleverness' we know lies behind them, even when our ears are saying 'SO @~{:ing WHAT?' Really the goal of music, though ill-defined, is surely to find structures that create successful aural results. If the music is crap, it's crap. But sometimes the idea seems so much like it should work that we refuse to acknowledge the failed results, and we make works classics purely for the language. Serialism springs to mind. Berg's violin concerto is great music despite the language - much of Schoenberg is nothing more than the language.

    Finally I think many works become classics purely because we have an attitude of 'old is better.' We invest older generations with greater levels of wisdom, greater levels of craft, and simply greater intrinsic worth - in the same way that religion venerates ancient prophets, but can't accept that there could be modern prophets, because people you can see are just ordinary. Phrases such as, 'They knew how to build things back then,' bely a general feeling that old equals classic. My mum used to make me read all kinds of things, purely because they were old, and therefore 'classic.' The result was that I discovered older generations had their fair share of very ordinary, 'consumable' art, on a par with Mills and Boon (sorry, I don't know the American equivalent. Mills and Boon are a publisher devoted to churning out several thousand formulaic romance novels a month). But much of this gets resurrected because it's old.
    David

  7. #7

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    I can offer you two quotes (both of uncertain origin):

    "Taking about music is like dancing about architecture."

    "All the arts aspire to the condition of music."

    Plus I can offer you my definition of a great piece of music, for what it is worth:

    "A great piece of music is one that has given the deepest enjoyment to the maximum number of people over the maximum period of time."

    Imprecise, as any verbal pronouncement about music must always be.

    Terry Dwyer

  8. #8

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Thank you all for the replies so far. If I can share your comments with the school and the headmaster, can I have your say so like Frank?
    ~Rod

  9. #9

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    "we discover that the classical community pursues truth, goodness, and beauty in order to cultivate wisdom and virtue."

    the above section is the part I take issue with.

    it is simply a rehashing of the typical 18th century idealization of classical greek art/architecture/culture.

    art has absolutely no need to pursue goodness, truth, beauty, nor cultivate wisdom, nor virtue.

    I can say without hesitation that music cannot express ANY sort of abstract concept.
    It is impossible for it to do so.

    Without knowing what the composer set out to express, it is entirely plausible to interpret completely wrongly the intent behind a work of music.

    I can give you a standard example: Dmitri Schostakowitch, Symphony no.5 "A Soviet artist's response to just criticism".

    How many people describe the finale of that work as "triumphant"? How many conductors actually perform it as such?
    And yet this is completely counter to the composer's actual intention.
    The music alone is incapable of expressing the meanings the composer inserted into the work.
    Even simply listening to the work, knowing the composer's intent, the actual effect cannot be really comprehended unless one is actually SEEING the orchestra perform (there is a visual element implicit in the composer's intent).

    Another example: Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings / 2nd movement of String Quartet opus 11.

    How many people refer to this work as "sad"? And yet, this was never the composer's intention either. It is a work of pure counterpoint, austere in its approach, devoid of excessive "mechanisms". It glories in the actual technical details of contrapuntal writing.

    Now, regarding classical art being "goodness, and beauty", I offer a few examples of works that are FAR from obvious expressions of "truth and beauty".

    Elliot Goldenthal's "Vietnam Oratorio: Fire, Water, Paper", describes the horrors of war. There is nothing uplifting about it, there is very little "beautiful" about it. It is a harsh and painful work.

    Igor Strawinski's ballet "Le Sacre du printemps"... there's not much in that work that calls forth immediate responses of "beauty", or "harmony", or "virtue". The work is a description of pagan sacrificial ritual.

    No one would argue that Sacre is not a masterpiece. And I'd certainly add that the Goldenthal work is a contemporary masterpiece.


    The problem with applying these "classical" ideals of perfection, is that they are artifices. The world is not like that. The 18th century philosophers and writers who were trying to apply those ideas were trying to enforce their own vision of what was right and good. It never worked. Why should we now, 200 years later, attempt to apply these same disproven ideas?

    "Morality", "truth", "wisdom", "the betterment of society"... it's all stuff that just can't be expressed through art without being contrived.

    Art is the expression of an artist.

    Art is the artist's vision of the world around him.

    Great art is the artist's vision of the world around him, rendered in a manner that is unique to that artist. (by the way, this is the starting off point for discussions on "historicism" in art).

  10. #10

    Re: Will Your Music be a Classic?

    Isn't it great, Rodney, this lively discussion your post engendered? I think it's really nice to see the Forum buzzing like this - thanks for the inspiration.

    In light of the new posts from you and the others, here's what I have to say today:

    --It's theoretically interesting to try and compare the attributes of literature and music. But they are such very different things that a well considered comparison would be very complex and difficult, much more so than is suggested in your opening post. It really could be even more difficult than comparing apples and oranges - it may be more like comparing air with rocks, birds with water. In other words, potentially of little import since the two art forms are so different from each other.

    --But to go ahead and attempt the comparison, and maybe reach some conclusions about what "greatness" and "classic" actually mean, everyone on this thread seems to be agreeing that you would need some more universally accepted parameters for describing great literature. What you've outlined in your initial post is describing "G rated" literature for a very restrictive curriculum. It's a faulty analysis, and as such, isn't a valid starting point for the proposed attempt to make comparisons between the two art forms.

    By the way, I agree with others have said about the nebulousness of the term "classic." It really could be argued that it's another way of saying "popular" - "well promoted" - And I think we've all noted that there are works from various disciplines designated as "classic" by the academic experts in those fields, but can be things the general public either isn't very aware of, or don't care about.

    And contemplating the question "What is art?" is really at the core of all theoretical questions as the one you originally posted.

    Yes, you can feel free to quote anything I've said. I think that if you had a larger pool of respondents, you would keep encountering the same kind of objections we've been passing on.

    Randy

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