Classical Music, East and West

Western classical music is today disseminated and practiced worldwide. Colonialism transplanted it to Latin America, Africa, China, etc. In many instances transplantation was undertaken with native consent, like in the case of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmut who in 1828 called Giuseppe Donizetti (the older brother of the more famous opera composer Gaetano) to teach Western notation, organize orchestras and brass bands. However, up until 1885, when John Ellis wrote in his appendix to the English translation of Helmholtz' book On the Sensations of Tone that “Harmony was a European discovery of a few centuries back, and it has not penetrated beyond Europe and its colonies” that was still largely true. Knowledge of Western music was very scant at the time. But immediately afterwards Western music gained ground by leaps and bounds not – to be sure – because it is a “universal language” appealing to everyone in the same manner and degree, but because of its association with Western culture, wealth, power and modernity. It is relevant to observe in this connection that, confronted with Western classical music, many cultures discovered, in the course of the XX century, their own "classical music": almost always court-music of older days, once only accessible to the educated elite and, for this reason considered highbrow. 


In India we can speak today of classical Indian music, both in the Hindustani and the Carnatic traditions. In the latter actually the further idea has come about that Syama Sastri (1762-1827), Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1836) constitute the trinity of Carnatic music, in a way, like the European three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In Iran, the classical music system of Persian culture, called Radif, was re-created in the decades around 1900 in a form which is compatible and, in a way, even competitive with Western classical music. The Radif was transcribed in staff notation from oral sources (in a way not dissimilar from what Elias Lönnrot did for the Finnish narratives of the Kalevala), and made available in a publication containing all that students need to memorize, and later use as a basis for extempore performances. At the time Westernization in Iran was beginning to exert a major influence, the compiling of the Radif allowed Persian music to flourish and enjoy a second lease of life. That entailed the adoption of many Western ideas about music, like that of the concert format. The Radif is considered a complete entity. No additions to it are thinkable, although novelties can be introduced in extemporizing on traditional materials and so tradition lives on. One can think of it as something like the repertoire of the viennese classics, which is was it is, but can be refreshed by new manners of performance. 


If Japan has a highbrow, form of music felt to be in some way “classical”, that is the Gagaku, a word standing for both the repertoire and the ensamble performing it (originally a court ensemble). Interestingly, however, the Japanese word for classical” (kurashikku) is only applied to Western music and not to Gagaku or to any other native repertoire. Gagaku can in a way be compared to the Western XIX century quartet repertoire, that is, the most highbrow repertoire in its culture. Just like lovers of classical music in the West are not necessarily keen on quartet concerts, Gagaku is, even in Japan, not for everyone, even among people of good general education. Although its repertoire is substantially complete, additions to it are conceivable and possible, and new pieces for the ensemble have been written, among others, by Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).

In China the idea of “classic” rests on the two traditional concepts: gudian e jingdian, where gu stands for “ancient”, dian for “canon”, and jing for “plot”. Jing also indicates sacred texts (the Bible translates as Shengjing, “Sacred Writings”). However a Chinese “classic” is authoritative precisely because of the anonymous force of tradition supporting it, and not in relation to an author: quite different, therefore, from how the term “classic” is intended in the West.


All of this worldwide landscape of “classics” can be regard as part of a general, progressive extension of the term, from when it merely stood for the ancient Greek and Roman literature, to the time it was made to comprehend the more prestigious texts of national literatures (Voltaire used to speak of Molière, Racine and La Fontaine as of “our classical authors”). Later still the term "classic" was applied to a number of diverse domains: we speak today of the classics of German or Italian literature, but also of the classics of cinema, or even to indicate popular products in their original make up, like the Coca-Cola classic.


Especially intriguing is the case of Western scholars applying the term to alien cultures that are most remote from our own, like when when archeologists speak of a classical age of Maya civilization, almost as if the Maya might have gone through a classic stage of their culture without even realizing it!