THE OLD, THE NEW,
AND THE CONTEMPORARY
Classical music is generally considered old music. This is important both for those who value it highly and for those who consider it largely irrelevant today. A common argument for the first position is that this music has stood the test of time and been judged as “great music” by successive generations. It survives, so runs this argument, because it has a universal and timeless quality that transcends the fluctuations of cultural fashion. The opposing position argues that classical music is the product of an earlier century and speaks primarily to and about that time. It has little or no relevance to a modern age to which it cannot speak.
Neither position is adequately argued, but the age of classical music remains significant. For many, classical music is rather like the traditional oil paintings that hang in large public galleries. Both the gallery and the concert hall often seem similar in atmosphere to the museum. All three can be reminiscent of the church in that they command a certain aura of the sacred long after the things they contain have ceased to be part of people's daily lives. The respect that they retain arises from a mixture of awe at the archaic and monumental and a culturally learned reverence for certain objects and practices. But even the well-disposed can find this atmosphere rather stifling, and sometimes we leave these buildings with a sense of release, like swimmers coming up for air. The longevity of classical music is certainly a factor in the rather grudging general respect it still commands, but like the artifacts in a museum, it can appear very distant from the realities of daily life. On the other hand, this distance is undoubtedly part of the appeal for those who use classical music as an outward sign of their own “classical” taste. With its origins in an essentially aristocratic society, classical music continues to serve, all too often, as an indicator of social class or status.