If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives.

Wait a second, The Classical Era? Haven’t we been talking about classical music this whole time? How can the word classical apply to an entire genre of music if the classical era only spanned about seventy-five years? My grandfather Mervin spanned about seventy-five years too, but we don’t call all grandfathers Mervin, do we? So what’s the deal here? What’s the difference between classical music and this period in history referred to as The Classical era? What exactly is a classic? And just how many questions can one introductory paragraph contain? Honestly, how many? Eleven? Perhaps, twelve? Or is thirteen the magic number?

Without getting into the pat, “Websters defines a classic as…” I’ll just tell you straight up: a classic is something that lasts a long time, something that endures change. A classic is something that’s had a lasting influence, something that’s left its mark.

Take the Ford Mustang convertible, for example. It’s a classic car. At least those made between 1965 and 1973.

Why?

Because it still evokes a certain image. Because the body style is unique, hard to duplicate—one-of-a-kind. That the Mustang has made more appearances in Hollywood films than any other car in history shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Nor should the fact that those in excellent condition fetch anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 on eBay. Classics are usually in demand.


Take classic rock, for instance. There are over five hundred radio stations in North America alone that only program music by certified “classic” rock and roll bands—musicians who made music that has endured changing trends and fashions, music that’s discovered anew by each generation of rebellious teenagers. Music by Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Doors, and, unfortunately, The Eagles.

I say unfortunately because I once had a gig at the Kennedy Center and was forced to endure “Hotel California” a staggering five times on five different radio stations in the car on the way down to D.C. In such cases we might define a “classic” song as one with a really, really long guitar solo. Or: a song that’s overplayed to the point where you want to take the wheel of your car and swerve straight into oncoming traffic.

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When we’re talking about classical music as a genre, like classic rock, we’re talking about the classics: symphonies, concertos, quartets, operas and songs that have endured decades, centuries, and in some cases, as we’ve seen with Gregorian chant, millennia.

When Bach was composing his Brandenburg Concertos, the term “classical music” hadn’t yet been invented. If you’d had the good fortune of approaching him at a party during Oktoberfest and after obligatory comments about the weather in Leipzig and how much hotter the women were in Berlin, asked: “So Johann, what do you do?” the answer wouldn’t have been, “I’m a classical composer. How ‘bout you?” Bach would have referred to himself as a simple church organist and the father of—get this—sixteen children. If you were lucky enough to get him talking about his compositions, he most likely would have described them as either tools for worship or tools for learning about music. Such was the thinking of his day.

But what about classical music that’s being written today? How do we know it will stand the test of time? How can we brand it classical without the luxury of hindsight?

For instance, when I was studying music at school, people would often approach me and my composition-major buddies at campus parties and, after obligatory comments about the weather in Leipzig and how much hotter the women were in Berlin (evidently there were a lot of German exchange students at the parties we attended), ask: “So, what kind of music do you guys write?” And we’d reply, “Whelp, in class we call it ‘concert music,’ but that sounds way too academic. Some of our more pretentious professors call it ‘serious music.’ But then what does that make Black Sabbath? Funny music? So maybe you could call it ‘classical music,’ because it follows in the tradition of the classic composers.”

Of course by this time the German was bored silly, wishing he’d never asked us, and probably busy making eyes of a flirtatious nature with a big-boned blonde across the room named Elke or Elsa. But our answer was pretty accurate. Classical music, as we’ll learn later, is still being written today, despite the fact that we don’t know whether or not it will stand the test of time. And the reason why we call it classical music, as opposed to pop music, or classic rock, is because it follows the lineage of that which came before it. Just like we call Jessica Simpson’s music teenybopper music because it follows Britney Spear’s lineage.

But this post is about the Classical era. Which shouldn’t be confused with classical music, even though the music written during the Classical era is some of the best classical music you’ll ever hear.

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[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 4 of this series and Part 2 of this post]

If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives.