"Composed Music": Speaker Craig Havighurst Proposes Name-change to Revitalise Classical Music

By Steve Nagel on Feb 17, 2016 09:55 AM EST
Sheet Music Circa 1880: A page of annotaed score from Richard Wagner's opera 'Nibelungenlied' (The Ring of the Nibelungen) showing the scene of Siegfried's death.
(Photo : Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Most of us C-lites have probably been exposed to the stereotype: classical music is boring, wearisome, aged, not hip. Although this stereotype is a skin-deep assessment, the bad rap long endured by the classical community is at last simmering down, in part owed to a generation of positive internet marketing. Nevertheless, some members of the community are arguing that a lasting revitalisation of classical music requires a more aggressive marketing strategy --- In this case, a name change. Could the term "composed music" perhaps win over more hearts and minds? Music journalist/speaker Craig Havighurst seems to think so.

Although it's probably wise to disassociate oneself with those who'd completely dismiss an entire genre on such shallow grounds, the negative public image absorbed by classical music in the last few decades (as itemized by a pessimistic Slate article) has arguably reduced a would-be plethora of flocking fans down to cozy, but prideful trickle. In an impassioned new article by Craig Havighurst, the music journalist argues that the term "classical" is not only a victim of negative press, but also of hopeless unspecificity.

Clearly not alone in his beliefs, Craig Havighurst looks to some esteemed members of the community who also eschewed the term. He quotes Leonard Bernstein, who defined "classical" as a word used “to describe music that isn’t jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any other word that seems to describe it better.” He also cited musicologist Alex Ross, who complained, “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing, but the name. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour-de-force of anti-hype.”

From there, Havighurst proposed an entirely new term for the genre: the ever-vague "composed music". As but a humble suggestion, the term is unlikely to catch on anytime soon... nor will it overhaul record store labels or inspire a mass restrategizing of media libraries. Instead, Havighurst uses the term to represent a kind of ideology; he paints a rosy future where the "baggage of history, class and race" would be swept away, and that "the music would no longer come across as an oldies format but as a vibrant art form."

As a thought experiment, this proposition raises some questions. On one hand, it's about time that even the most conservative of classical enthusiasts come to address the term's dated nature. After all, the word itself exemplifies "age" and antiquity. With each passing year, marked by an influx of evolving musical forms, it becomes increasingly arbitrary to file a Milton Babbitt piece in the same folder as the bulk ancient Greek literature. (This is something which many-a-classical enthusiast already goes out of their way to stress, often going so far as to develop names for styles and movements which may, in the end, be unique to the composer himself.) Still, some refining of the term is clearly in order.

Ironically though, in an effort to quell the divide and conquer nature of the term "classical music", Craig Havighurst's new term may not offer a better outcome. After all, since "composed music" presents an obvious indictment against popular music as being, somehow, "non-composed", the gap between the perceived elitism of the classical community may not help matters.

Tell us your thoughts on the term and offer up your own suggestions in the comment section!

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TagsClassical Music, Composer, Internet, Marketing, Craig Havighurst

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