Classical musicians had it so easy. They couldn’t possibly have comprehended the uphill battle that the vast majority of musicians face today. They didn’t have to worry about labels diluting their content and directing their creativity, they didn’t have to be concerned about years of performing and recording music just to break even, and they probably didn’t have to deal with the tragic modern dichotomy between artistic creativity and commercial appeal. I don’t suppose anyone ever told Shostakovich his fifth wasn’t radio friendly enough – he must have had it so easy. All the composers of the Classical era had to do was be born geniuses, bang out a couple of symphonies and die young. Must’ve been nice. Of course, there were plenty of upstarts who wanted to buck the trend (Liszt was 75 when he bit the dust, what a nerve), but most knew the score (no pun intended).
But, unlike its innovators, there’s a case to be made that the spirit of the Classical era is still very much alive and well. For some reason, a few brave souls nowadays feel inclined to bring the oeuvres of classical music into other musical endeavours. Because how hard could it be, right? Quite hard, as it turns out. For one thing, it often relies on a loose understanding of what ‘classical music’ is. ‘Symphonic’ rock is usually the worst culprit. Rather than demonstrating qualities fitting of actual symphonies, symphonic rock bands are usually content to throw a few layers of strings and choral vocals over very non-classical music and regard it as high-minded. Sometimes it’s not any kind of ignorance which fails the style, but rather a vast over-ambition. Check out the video of Dave Mustaine playing with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra for an example of a metal musician trying, and failing dreadfully, to reach the heights required for a symphonic lead.
Its pioneers had the right idea. Like everything else in existence, symphonic rock was invented by King Crimson, and I’d argue they perfected it too. Through a rich understanding of classical harmony, and a considerable application of this knowledge to their output, they created as close a relationship between classical and rock music as has ever been reached. Their magnum opus Red is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to true classical-rock fusion. For those who can’t bear the idea of the grandiosity which would normally stem from such a mixture, baroque pop might be a better alternative. A lot of baroque pop stemmed from artistic reactance to the more dance and rock oriented direction in which pop music was going. From The Beatles and The Beach Boys right up to Vampire Weekend, baroque pop artists have sought to combine the catchiness of pop music with the emotional weight of the Baroque era, and emphasise the exuberance of both.
It pains me to admit it, but classical crossover is probably one of the least successful fusion genres around. It’s an admirable notion, and it’s inevitable that styles which are traditionally as different as classical and popular music should invite attempts at amalgamation. But they’re different for a reason. To master both genres would require a skill set so broad that you’d need to be just as much of a genius as the early innovators of the Classical era. Successful artists don’t necessarily need to have immense experience in both backgrounds, but ultimately, most attempts at crossover consist of rock musicians striving to understand and excel in a classical mindset. There are certainly some wonderful crossovers, many of which can offer a good introduction into classical music, but I’d say there’s a long way to go before rock music catches up.
Recommended Listening The Beatles – She’s Leaving Home Sigur Rós – Starálfur Vampire Weekend – M79 Led Zeppelin – Kashmir Florence + The Machine – Spectrum Susanne Sundfør – Memorial Yes – Awaken