Have you ever met someone who desired to explain classical music? Did they want to explain their favorite composers, what they like to listen to, and which concerts they are planning to attend? Or, have you ever felt pressured to know classical music and its history just to show that you know "something"?
The perception of classical music as an elevated, almost elite form of art has transcended over generations. But why is this the case? Why is classical music often seen as superior to other musical genres? Why people who listen to pop music are not considered to be someone who are culturally cultivated while the ones who are classical music fan are? To answer these questions, we must apprehend the music history first, understanding what historical context cultivated classical music as “elite music.” Let's explore why classical music is often regarded as transcendent, sometimes even sacred, and why it is such a noble music.
1. Because It Starts from Sacred Music
To discuss why classical music is described as untouchable music that cannot be compared to pop music, we need to go back to its origin. Classical music and the church share a profound historical and spiritual connection, with classical compositions serving as a cornerstone of Christian liturgy and devotion for centuries. During the medieval era, individuals who could compose music were seen as messengers of God. For instance, believe it or not, during this era, Gregorian chants were believed to have been revealed to Pope Gregory by God, who then composed this music. This idea of music being composed by God was important as it justified church music. While composers in the medieval era were in silence as seen as humble conduits of God's voice, crafting music for religious purposes; composers in the Renaissance and Baroque eras were often employed by the church to create music for religious use. They were supposed to write music for religious purposes as well. The church has been a patron of classical music, particularly through the organ, which has played a central role in worship.
Likewise, classical music has been categorized under the name of 'sacred music,' which leads people to believe it possesses a spirituality that other genres, such as popular music, do not have.
2. Because It was Spread throughout the Aristocracy
Why do you think there is a tradition of people getting dressed well, such as in tuxedos and evening dresses? Why are there many movie scenes featuring noble people listening to classical music, associating their luxurious music with composers like Beethoven and Chopin? This is largely because classical music in Europe was enjoyed by aristocrats after the end of church music. After church music ended, composers began to write music independently. But how did they make money? With no more hiring from the church, composers could make money through the patronage system. Aristocrats sponsored composers they liked, allowing them to write music without financial struggles. The relationship between classical music and aristocratic patronage is a historical tapestry woven with financial support, commissions, and creative collaboration. For centuries, aristocrats served as crucial benefactors, offering composers and musicians the means to dedicate themselves fully to their craft. Renowned composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach benefited from the generosity of noble patrons, creating timeless works that continue to enchant audiences today. Aristocrats went to salons for social meetings, inviting composers they sponsored to “show off” their musical knowledge. The more talented they sponsored, the more “noble” people they could become. The relationship between patrons and composers was not like that of masters and servants. However, composers did value their patrons, sometimes dedicating music to them. For example, Beethoven dedicated many of his works to his patrons. Archduke Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold, could be the best example. One of the most well-known pieces by Beethoven, "Piano Trio in B-flat major," Op. 97, was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph.
3. Because it is European Music
Last but not least, classical music is superior simply because it is European music! In other words, Eurocentrism has led us to believe that classical music is superior. Europe's centuries-long domination of the world has reinforced the tendency to view their products as the best. With classical music boasting a rich and deep history spanning centuries, music critics have developed sophisticated and intricate ways of analyzing it. For example, Schenkerian analysis, a tool for revealing the fundamental elements of music in a structural way, has been widely adopted by many music scholars. However, it is only applicable to European music since it was constructed for that purpose, and music outside this realm was considered to lack the 'fundamentals of music.' For instance, jazz music, known for its fabulous rhythmic elements, lacks the 'important harmony' that is key in Schenkerian analysis, leading it to be overlooked by scholars. In other words, Eurocentric analysis and history establish a hierarchy between European music and other genres, such as jazz, pop, and non-Western music. Fortunately, this perspective of creating hierarchical structures within musical genres is criticized by many musicologists, musicians, and music scholars who aim to avoid reproducing it. (If you are interested in the debate whether music theories were reproducing white supermacists, click here to read more.)
In conclusion, classical music has long held a place of prestige in the world of music. This elevated status is not the result of a single factor, but rather a complex interplay of historical, cultural, and social influences. Classical music's deep connection with sacred origins, its patronage by aristocrats, and its European heritage have all contributed to its reputation as an elite art form. However, it is essential to acknowledge that other musical genres, such as jazz, African music, and Asian music, have their own rich histories. It's important to understand that many musical genres, apart from European music, possess traditions and histories that should not be overlooked by those who might perceive classical music as the only one representation of "real" music. I’m not trying to degrade the value of classical music. However, I would like to say that each genre brings its unique value and beauty to the world, not only classical music does. Whether it's classical, jazz, pop, or any other genre, music has the power to connect us, transcend boundaries, and touch our souls.
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