The 4 Es of Classical Music

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overgrownvennA blog post from last week at On An Overgrown Path conceptualises classical music as a venn diagram with four elements: enlightenment, entertainment, education and engagement. The illustration plots a variety of figures from classical music at different places in this diagram, giving a neatly concise idea of their primary contributions to the genre.

Interestingly, Andre Previn is the only face to appear in the intersection of all four circles, which presents him as a more rounded musician than Beethoven. (Arguably, from this analytical perspective, he is – but you can just imagine the amused and self-deprecating murmur he would emit if accused of this.)

Now, I like this diagram very much. I like Venn diagrams anyway, and I like spatial plotting in multiple dimensions as an analytical tool, so I was set to enjoy this before we even got to the content. Oh, and alliteration. That’s always a bonus.

The four axes of analysis are perceptively chosen. The notion of ‘classical’ music is something we all bandy about as if we know what we mean, but it’s hard to pin it down without either excluding examples we’d want to include, or including stuff we’d want to leave out.

Think of the other ways classical music gets labelled, for instance:

  • Serious music: this captures the education/enlightenment end of things, but misdescribes most Mozart minuets, which live largely in the entertainment quarter. It also forgets that there is a lot of serious (enlightening, engaging) music in non-classical genres.
  • Art Music: actually, this has the same problems as ‘serious’ music, with the added problem that it would really like to exclude engagement, and pretend that whilst Art matters deeply, it transcends messy things like real-life issues.

We’ve given up trying to label by musical content long since, of course. Though the definition a friend of a friend came out with when I said I was off to study music at university does better than many efforts, however much I disdained it at the time. ‘Do you mean classical music?’ she said, ‘Like, violins and stuff?’

Now, what I’m trying to figure out is how complete this four-fold description is. Does all classical music appear on it somewhere? (First hunch: probably yes) Conversely, how precise is it? Does it exclude things we wouldn’t call ‘classical’? (First hunch: definitely not) So, it gives us ways to think about music we have already decided is classical, but it is of limited help in deciding if something is classical or not.

(Not that I think we have that much difficulty with that, except in the skirmishes over what gets included in classical versus crossover charts. And, whilst that is of significant economic import to the people involved, it doesn’t disturb most people’s practical understanding of musical genre.)

The other thing I’m trying to figure out is about the overlaps. If you notice, this diagram only allows two-way overlaps between adjacent categories. Diagonal overlaps always have to include at least one of the others. You can’t have something that is enlightening and entertaining without it also including an element of education or engagement. This could either be a flaw in the model, or a perceptive point about classical music, and I’m not sure which.

The practical use this diagram offers, though, is for framing performances (and/or recordings, composition projects, funding applications,etc). All of these dimensions are reasons to care about music which are potentially valid for any particular instance. But depending on the event – the combination of musical content and venue and likely audience – one might find that some combinations make a clearer artistic agenda than others. LGBT ensembles have a tradition of plugging strongly into the engagement and entertainment strands, for instance, while performances of the Bach passions in Holy Week position themselves squarely in the enlightenment quarter.

Or if one wishes to confound expectations, then a counter-intuitive framing could give a way to galvanise attention. Of course I’m struggling to think of an example now…Renaissance polyphony as political activism seems a shade non-standard, perhaps…

The main point the diagram was intended to make, though, is that challenge is a good thing, not a bad thing, and if classical music promoters shy away from making demands on listeners, they dilute rather than strengthen their offering. And this in turn reminds me of another of my favourite Venn diagrams, this one a slightly simpler, but very compatible analysis of happiness:

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