De Falla, Chopin, Beethoven Brahms, Bach, Mozart... bien qu'ils appartiennent à des époques musicales différentes, on dit d'eux qu'ils sont des compositeurs de musique classique.
De Falla, Chopin, Beethoven Brahms, Bach, Mozart... bien qu'ils appartiennent à des époques musicales différentes, on dit d'eux qu'ils sont des compositeurs de musique classique.  © Getty

Why music is said to be "classical"?

Savant music, serious music, Great music... In our day-to-day language, we hear the most often "classical music". Why? Three clues: literature, Beethoven, and marketing.

Neither Bach, nor Haydn, nor any other composer introduced themselves as "classical" musicians!  It seems obvious and yet, the expression has spread so well that we intend to forget how it won its place in our language little by little and what it shows of our perception of our repertoire.

Classical is not classicism

There is the classical music in its strict, musicological term, and there is the classical music in its bigger sense. For a musicologist, the word "classical" refers to the precise period of the history of music: the one of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. 

Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1802) et Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) sont les deux principaux représentants du classicisme viennois.
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1802) et Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) sont les deux principaux représentants du classicisme viennois.  © Getty

However, when we use the expression "classical music" in our day-to-day conversations, we could as easily be talking about a cantata of Bach or about an opera of Donizetti. In short, we are talking about the heritage of the "savant" music.

An imaginary museum

The "classical music" is a concept, a concept that the British musicologist Nicholas Cook describes as an imaginary music museum, in which the greatest pieces and the best composers of our Western history are resting and to whom we refer with one and only element of language.

Yet so many pieces of that "imaginary museum" have been composed for precise events (Masses, royal ceremonies...) with no anticipation of the posterity they would have. Therefore, how was the idea of a music heritage born?

According to Nicholas Cook, we owe it to the famous Ludwig van Beethoven. For he was the one who composed for the generations to come and who realized his pieces would survive him and travel through the centuries.

"Ça leur plaira plus tard", répondait Ludwig van Beethoven à ceux qui critiquaient sa musique.
"Ça leur plaira plus tard", répondait Ludwig van Beethoven à ceux qui critiquaient sa musique.  © Getty

High culture

To talk about "classical music" is as we said to talk about our music heritage, but not only. The "classical" is also a socio-cultural habit, a social indicator. To go to the theatre, the opera or take classes at a conservatoire is often seen as elitist.

A bourgeois label the venues, musicians and specialized medias still have difficulties to get rid off. Probably because it wasn't born yesterday...

In the 19th century, music knew a first phase of generalization. Due, among many other reasons, to the opening of big public venues (theaters, opera houses...), it would see its audience grow larger. But it would especially become the favorite activity of a growing class: the bourgeoisie. 

Gravure de Gustave Doré représentant le public de l'opéra de Covent Garden (Londres), au début des années 1870.
Gravure de Gustave Doré représentant le public de l'opéra de Covent Garden (Londres), au début des années 1870. © Getty

The right word

Until recently - about fifty years - the vocabulary was still a proof of that hierarchy of the genres: we used to talk about "Greant music" or "savant" music", two expressions that seem completely out of date today.

Why did the word "classical" stay in use? Maybe because it was precisely a way to break with this elitism. For the music industry that had been growing since the second half of the 20th century, but also for the medias, it was too cleaving to offer to listen to or to buy "savante" music. 

Even more so because it often those same labels, distributors, radios and televisions that are in charge of the promotion of other music genres. The idea therefore is not to introduce them as less savant or less important. But, the frontier between classical music, traditional music, contemporary music or music for movies is often pretty thin. 

Classical vs Popular

The adjective "classical", when added to any form of artistic expression (music, painting, architecture, literature...), refers to one idea: the non-contemporaneity.

For, at the end, it is what classical music is: timeless pieces, in opposition to those who stay associated to a precise period (for example, the chant of the troubadours, but also the rock from the 60's). And those pieces are passed on by writing, with partitions, and demand to be carefully listened to (we don't have many occasions to sing or dance at a "classical" concert).

From literature to music

It was for literature we originally used to term "classical". When it appeared for the first time in the dictionary of the Académie Française in 1694, it exclusively and solely referred to "an ancient author strongly appreciated and who is an authority in the subject he deals with".

If only the great thinkers of the Antiquity, like Aristotle or Plato, are initially considered as "classical", the word spread over the centuries to all the great authors studied at school and regarded as exemplary: Baudelaire, Camus, Hugo, Maupassant, Céline, Duras… Just as the word was a way to qualify those literary men and women, it would also be used later to talk about the Pantheon of great composers.

Sous l'Empire romain, un « classicus » était un citoyen de premier rang, de première classe.
Sous l'Empire romain, un « classicus » était un citoyen de premier rang, de première classe.  © Getty
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