What Is a Classic?

'Song of the Earth' performed by The Scottish Ballet as part of Dance at the Music Center.

L.A. Opening Nights makes recommendations on what we expect to be world-class performances of classic (or potentially-classic) works. But what does that mean? Here are five simple rules:

1)  Timelessness. A classic rises above its particular moment to say something basic about humanity, life, and the universe itself.

2)  Transcending Culture. A classic is not bound to a single culture. It will have meaning to any person from anywhere on earth—so long as that person does the sometimes difficult work of understanding the classic’s form and its inner life.

3)  New Insights With Multiple Hearings. A true classic can be heard or read or seen again and again, and each time it will reveal something new about the self, the human condition, or the nature of the cosmos.

4) Rewards Study. A true classic can be studied and explored—both by performer and audience—in a way that most works and performances cannot. In that study, more is revealed, not less.

5) Beauty. A true classic is concerned with beauty, if by beauty we mean an inner harmony, a sense of wholeness, and of perfection. A tragedy may be beautiful. A dischord may be beautiful. A scrawl on a canvas may be beautiful—because if it is a classic, it has that sense of “rightness.”

About “Classical Music”

Why, when we talk about “classical music” do we refer only to certain idioms, derived from certain long traditions, usually dating back hundreds of years?

Are there not jazz classics and rock classics and folk classics and reggae classics and rap classics and film score classics and New Age classics? The answer is, of course, yes—and a hundred or so years hence, we will better know which they might be. (Benny Goodman? It’s starting to look like…no. The Beatles? Still in the running.) For the moment, however, those of us who love “classical music” find in that idiom a species of timelessness, a category of beauty, and a transcendence of day-to-day human culture that we find nowhere else. When a great violinist plays Bach, he still touches something in us that no one else seems able to touch. Maybe someday. But not yet.

If you figure out a better explanation, let me know. Meanwhile, enjoy your season.

Yours truly,

Marc Porter Zasada


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