The phrase “classical music” means a lot of different things. One of those things is “old.” When a work of art is referred to as “classical,” or “classic,” this tends to imply that it been around for the requisite number of years or generations to attain that status. There is also a certain level of familiarity implicit in the label. When we speak of “the classics,” we are generally referring to a set of works that have come to pervade our culture. In this sense, it is not just The Odyssey and Oedipus Rex that are “classics,” but also Star Wars and The Dark Side of the Moon.
So, when we speak of “classical music,” many of us tend to think immediately of a set of composers who are both old (and in most cases, deceased) and widely familiar. Beethoven and Mozart spring to mind immediately, followed perhaps by Bach, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and then maybe Haydn, Schubert, Wagner and a handful of others. The programming choices of modern symphony orchestras, focusing as they do on the works of these acclaimed masters, tend to back up this particular concept of what “classical music” means.
But, this isn’t the only thing that “classical music” can mean. Countless living composers are writing music that we call “classical” even today. And, for that matter, countless accomplished composers have lived and died, but their works failed to become renowned “classics,” while still being regarded as “classical.” Obviously, for all that the word “classical” would seem to imply “old” and “familiar,” there are other factors at play.
Still, a canon of well-known classical masterpieces has formed over the course of hundreds of years. Opening a music history textbook reveals a cavalcade of well-known composers, and a selection of supporting characters from the story of classical music. This canon informs the way that we think about classical music, and what music we hear when we go to the concert hall. The performance repertory is essentially a boiled-down version of the larger canon, which prioritizes the music of the best-known composers at its centre.
This music’s devotees cite its longevity and pervasive cultural influence as evidence that it has not lost its relevance over the course of many centuries, and that it is in fact timeless. It is music that has come unstuck in time: it does not belong in its own era any more or less than it belongs in ours. In a sense, performances of this music suspend time, allowing the audience to live in the past, the present, and the future simultaneously, because this music belongs to all three.
Meanwhile, today’s “classical” composers are writing music that ought to be considered relevant simply by virtue of its contemporariness. But, in general, the classical concert hall is too preoccupied with music that has ostensibly transcended time to deal with music that is deliberately timely, or even to rediscover music that has been forgotten.
That being said, there are many musical ensembles, organizations and festivals that aim to introduce audiences to new and unfamiliar classical music. But, the preservation of the timeless classics written by the canonical composers is still a major priority in the modern concert hall. “Old” and “familiar” are still very much the default settings for most symphony orchestras.
This project is an exploration of the notion of timeless music. It attempts to detail how this idea took shape in Western art music, and traces its consequences through to the present day. The radio documentary Stopping Time explores how the historicist classical repertory and the notion of timelessness affect people who are involved in the writing and performance of classical music today.
I have always listened primarily to music that predates my birth by many years, and I have always had a sense that this music speaks to me as strongly as it did to the audiences from when it was first made. This project is, above all, an attempt to scrutinize that vague sense and see if it holds up.