When was the classical era in music?
Simple question. “Complex” answer.
Many musicologists would quickly tell you 1750-1820. Others will tell you slightly different times. Yet you could also make the argument that classical music is still going on today because classical music is not just defined by the era but also by the traditions of Western music. Hence Philip Glass is a classical musician, though he was born in 1937.
And yet I have a different answer. It’s more unconventional, more unexpected, and perhaps even more insightful than any of the normal answers. So what is my answer?
Classical music happened during the Revolutionary War.
How is that insightful?
So what does the Revolutionary War have to do with classical music? Well, nothing. But that’s the point.
I first learned this answer from my high school band direction, Steven Allen Fox, and it surprised me. You see, we all spend so much time learning about history in school, but why don’t we connect that with what we know about music?
We don’t connect the idea of classical music and the American Revolution. So let’s shock you even more: both Mozart and Beethoven wrote for the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin. In fact, Benjamin Franklin could have very well heard works of Mozart or Beethoven during his times in France (citation need for last fact).
Not only that, but parallels of not connecting ideas can be found everywhere. Not simply in music. So why is this? Domain dependence.
Domain dependence is a term I first learned in Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, and it is essentially the fact that we humans have a tendency to associate ideas with specific domains. We have a hard time making connections between multiple domains.
Or to quote Taleb himself:
Humans somehow fail to recognize situations outside the contexts in which they usually learn about them.
This is the reason why we have a hard time realizing simple things, like how public speaking is really just a conversation. In both, you want to get your ideas across by speaking. And yet we think that we have to do so many things differently (like speaking slower and enunciating more).
This is why a businessman might hire a butler to carry his luggage and then go to the gym. Why pay to have someone else do the exercise and then proceed to go exercise when you could have just done the simpler work yourself?
This is the same reason why many people don’t apply derivatives from their high school (or college) calculus class to personal finance. Just imagine what could happen if you stopped thinking about spending less than you earn and instead focused on increasing your income with your leftover money. And then what would happen if you tried to accelerate the process over time?
This is the same reason why the same doctor might tell you to exercise more and then proceed to give you medication to lower your blood pressure (excersise would help fix that).
The interesting thing about the question “When was classical music” and my answer was that the answer was not in another domain! Both the classical era and the Revolutionary War are apart of history!
And yet it can still be surprising.
So domain dependence is quite pervasive. And yet overcoming it can be quite insightful, helpful, and even interesting. So with that said, I’ll leave you with one last tidbit.
Beethoven is widely considered one of the best composers that have ever lived, but ended up having a quite strange ending to his life. He died in 1827, but he lost most of his hearing by the time he was 31 in 1801. He was completely deaf in 1816. And later in his life he was known for being practically insane.
The cause? No one knows for sure, but there are some theories.
The most common theory is that this resulted from syphilis, but here is one of the other leading theories.
Remember the glass armonica that Benjamin Franklin invented? Well, it turns out that in order to make sure the performer knew which glasses were which, some of them were lined to make them visually stand out. Lined with mercury, that is.
So yes, Benjamin Franklin may have inadvertently given Beethoven mercury poisoning.