Classical music is different

The other day I got an email from Spotify which very neatly illustrated the problems that classical music present to streaming platforms or personal media servers:

Last I knew, Chopin has been dead for at least 170 years. Very clever of him to be releasing fresh tracks while decomposing.

In Classical music we tend to focus more on “Works” not Tracks.

A Work is created by a composer. It may consist of one or more tracks. A work may stand on its own, or be part of a collection.

A work is different from an Album – albums are not really a thing in classical music. Back in the days when CDs were king, one CD could contain more than one work, if they were short. Usually works for such compilation CDs were selected with some theme in common, such as same performer, same composer or similar.

Conversely, one long work could also span several CDs, such as the Verdi Requiem, for example.

Non-classical is easy. For example, there is only one “No Jacket Required” album and it’s by Phil Collins. Very easy to categorise and search. Conversely for any one particular classical Work there are usually multiple recordings available, and for the more popular works like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s 5th symphony, there are hundreds of different recordings.

Each work is of a particular type: Symphony, choral symphony, opera, concerto, to name a few.

Each different recording of a work has different performers. Typically the credits will include the conductor, the orchestra (if it’s an orchestral work), the soloist (if it’s a concerto) and the vocalist(s) if it’s operatic or choral, and all the performers if it’s chamber music or a solo piece (like the Bach cello suites). Also the venue in which it was recorded.

On top of that each work has a genre – naive music libraries tend to lump them all into “classical” but as with all types of music, there are many sub and sub-sub genres.

Most classical music – especially symphonies and concertos – contain individual movements (aka tracks) which have the same name as tracks in other works, because the naming convention tends to be the italian name for the tempo of the track. (“Presto”, “Allegro Assai” etc) – so the individual track name is meaningless without knowing which work it belongs to, and moreover which performance of which work.

From all this it should be clear that putting together a well organised classical music library is a somewhat more complex undertaking than simply putting a bunch of folders together, ripping a bunch of CDs and putting each CD into its own folder, and hoping for the best!

These concerns are all equally valid for streaming services like Spotify and Tidal and others. Clearly in the example above, someone has released a new recording of a Chopin work, and the “album artist” tag is set to “Frederic Chopin” – hence the email.

Clever Chopin, dead for 170 years, buried in Paris and his heart buried in Poland, yet still churning out the hits!

With non-classical music it’s way easier. Enter “Phil Collins” into the search, and you get a list of all Phil Collins’ albums (sorted by year if you’re lucky!)

Classical? Not so much.

Questions I might want to ask my classical music library:

Show me all the Beethoven symphonies in my library (I’m querying Works by composer and Work Type) – I expect to see a list of works that meet the criteria, with information about each work that makes it unique (eg year of recording, conductor/orchestra, venue, etc). Clicking on each work should then explode it into its individual tracks/movements (and these need to be in the right order too, shuffle is not a thing for classical!)

Or I could perhaps have been taken with a particular singer’s voice. Carolyn Sampson did a magical recording of the Bach secular cantatas and perhaps I might want to see what else she’s done. This is a search by performer and once again I want a list of works, this time where she’s credited as the singer.

You can think up any type of query based on work, composer, work type, genre, performer, collection etc, and you should be able to find it easily. The key here is that the defining classification in all these cases is the work, not the album. Yet the metadata tags for music files don’t even contain a “work” field!

Perhaps this gives a clue as to why classical music tends to confound streaming services and bedevil people who curate their own media collection. My media server software (Plex) doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance against this complexity. It’s firmly rooted in the “one artist per album… list the albums per artist” philosophy. It doesn’t even support displaying or searching by Composer, and has no clue what a “work” is.

Where to from here? Perhaps Roon might be worth a second look… I had a trial, but was discouraged by the cost.

What do other classical music fans do, who want to manage their library electronically, I wonder?

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