What We Mean by Classical

Well, maybe not “we”, but “I”.

First, take a look at how Classical music, as we use the term, got started. In the last decade of the 16th century, a handful of aesthetes gathered together in the home of a wealthy Florentine aristocrat to discuss the future of music. They all wanted a style of music that could support serious poetic drama. Their big models were, surprisingly enough, the masters of drama from ancient Greece—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Florentines’ happiest dreams saw themselves writing music that could communicate the same powerful emotion that the ancient Greeks did. So these men experimented around with putting complex poetry to music, but the whole philosophical approach to music that they were familiar with—polyphony—just wasn’t working. Having a tenor and a soprano and a bass and an alto sing a cryptic sonnet all at different times on top of each other on different notes is just a little confusing. As one of the Florentines, Girolamo Mei, put it, “When several voices simultaneously sang different melodies and words, in different rhythms and registers, some low and some high, some rising and others descending, some in slow notes and others in fast, the resulting chaos of contradictory impressions could never deliver the emotional message of the text.”

The Florentines decided to scrap a centuries-old approach to music and start anew. Their brilliant idea was having just one melody—whence came their name, the Monodists—and accompaniment underneath that melody. This revolutionized the face of music. Suddenly, the emphasis was on making that melody sound more interesting, which they did by putting juicy harmonies underneath it. And that’s something that Classical composers wouldn’t stop doing until the 1970s. Now, why is understanding Monody important now?

It’s important now because it’s important now. The emphasis on harmony in music goes unobserved the same way air goes unobserved—we’re in it so much that we aren’t aware of it anymore. Second, this ubiquitous approach to music has been entirely dictated, from the first, by secularists whose purpose was to create a vocabulary of music entirely divorced from religious connotation. It was fine art, not, as Mortimer Adler points out, in the sense that it was “refined”, but in that it was its own end. It was music for music’s sake.

But perhaps this wasn’t always the case. Didn’t composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven write sacred works? Well, in a way, yes, and in a very important way, no. Classical composers who wrote pieces with sacred texts—Masses, Requiems, Psalms, and the like—were still writing with compositional techniques they had from secularists. It’s a case of lyrics and music not quite lining up. Both are admittedly glorious, but both are organic outgrowths of opposed traditions. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, when writing sacred music, are speaking one language with their music and another language with their texts. They’re like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World—they can speak French, in Russian, except that I’d say their French ends up a little garbled.

In any case, despite the sincerity of many of these men, the mask gets thrown off entirely during the Romantic period of Classical music. This is where Classical music moves from potentially dangerous to actually dangerous. Again, it’s still glorious music. It sounds fantastic. It’s complex. Wagner’s music is symmetrical. It’s chiastic. It’s proportional. But, above all, it’s a blatant revolt against God. Entirely apart from the story of Wagner’s personal life, which screenplay writers wouldn’t even have to jack up to get an R rating, he tried to make his harmony so juicy that it fit the illicit love scenes he loved portraying. He found a way to release music from the bounds of a specific “key”; instead, his harmonies would wander endlessly, never, ever, ever resolving. It was perfect for Tristan and Isoulde, for every story that had exciting, tense, wistful, sweet, adulterous romance.

Where does this finally take us? I mentioned before that Monody shifted the emphasis onto making harmonies more interesting. For Classical composers since the early 17th century, it was like running the 100-meter dash. They were racing to try to make their harmony juicier, more complex, more interesting. Wagner’s innovation was an feat of inhuman proportion, breaking all known records. But shortly after that, one of the heirs to his great tradition manages to run this 100-meter dash toward ultimate harmonic complexity in zero seconds. His name was Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg wrote what he called “pantonal” music, which is just a scary word for including all possible harmony at once. If you think about it, it’s only the logical thing to do, if you’re moving toward greater and greater harmonic interest. Of course, just like a pluralist trying to add together contradictory truths and coming up with nothing, Schoenberg put all tonalities together and came up with atonality. The biggest temptation is to scoff at his music and think that it’s only fringe Classical music. Surely it’s not really what we’re talking about when we say Classical music. But that’s a deadly mistake. A rudimentary education in Classical music sees atonality as its pinnacle, as indeed did almost all music composition departments after Schoenberg. This is not a two-year-old-banging-on-the-keys music, although it sounds really similar. It’s incredibly complex and a logical conclusion of where things were headed.

It’s also worth noting that Schoenberg was a sort of a nihilist and existentialist at the same time. That would have bothered most people, but he was a musician, so he was really bad at philosophy. Again, this shouldn’t make you scoff at his music; it should make you really want to understand it. He’s a brilliant musician. His knowledge of music could eclipse almost any man’s alive today. If anyone is good at communicating nihilist philosophy through music, it is not the head-banging junkie recording Satan-worship songs. It’s Schoenberg, who knew too much about Mozart and Haydn for his own good. That should make you wary of him, but it should make you eager to make the acquaintance of his music.


  1. Aki Sue · February 22, 2012

    So, how would you go about finding music – not texts or lyrics – but music, which you would categorize as sacred? If humanism produces classical, what does Christianity produce?

  2. John Richard Ahern · March 3, 2012


  3. Ella · March 7, 2014

    Speaking of Schoenberg, have you seen Vi Hart’s explanation of atonal music? (Twelve Tones) I went from despising such music to having a certain grudging appreciation for it — though I still like best the points, e.g. in her Mary Had a Little Lamb, at which suddenly the complex dissonance clarifies into some kind of harmony that I understand. In a certain way, it’s far more exciting than not having the dissonance in the first place. I find it much harder to appreciate, though, without the geometrical pictures.

Think aloud.

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