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Classical Notes

There's only good music and bad music

Posted at 2:46 PM on December 28, 2006 by Don Lee

Every now and again someone will argue that the term "classical music" needs to be replaced. Strictly speaking, it applies only to the late 18th century, the time of Haydn and Mozart, the "classical" era. Categorically speaking, it applies to everything from Gregorian chant to Lou Harrison's Concerto for Piano with Gamelan.

But practically speaking, we all know what we're talking about when we use the words "classical music."

Or do we?

Billboard magazine has shown once again that the general public's understanding of the term is different from one that a regular visitor to Orchestra Hall would use. On Billboard's just-published list of top classical albums of the year are Sting, Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman. It's hard to argue with the way Sting is categorized; his newest album features music by John Dowland, after all. As to Groban and Brightman, I suppose it's the soaring vocal lines over string (or string-like) accompaniment that qualify their recordings as classical.

I bring all of this up not because the distinction matters, but because I think it's interesting to talk about. If you say that Dowland's "Flow My Tears" is classical, can you say--on a purely musical basis--that Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu" is not?