Monday, June 20, 2016

You can’t change the canon…or can you?

Earlier this month, the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras met in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, the future of live classical music. Music critic Anne Midgette covered the conference for The Washington Post with an article about how musicians are tackling existential questions, reconsidering orchestras’ missions and even the purpose of concerts in the 21st century. One quote from the conference caught a lot of attention, particularly on Twitter:
I re-tweeted Simon Brackenborough’s response, thinking defiantly, “Hells yeah! We can change the canon!” As a Good Musical Citizen and Friend to Composers, that’s the reaction that feels correct. Despite the religious connotations of the term “canon,” it wasn’t ordained by God. Humans made the canon, and humans can change the canon—in fact, it’s been in a constant state of change since its inception. So, in the literal sense, Laing’s statement is false.

But I don’t think Laing meant his words literally, so I’m not going to pillory him. He’s a musician; I suspect he said it with resignation, maybe even some frustration. Yes, you can change the canon, but inertia has made it difficult to do so. The concept of the canon developed about 200 years ago, and while individual works have gained and lost canonic status, the idea of THE CANON remains a significant influence on concert and radio programming.

For this post, I’m going to explain a bit about how the musical canon developed and why it is the way it is. There is a lot of scholarship about the canon, particularly after the 1980s, when musicology started questioning it. From an academic standpoint, the topic gets philosophical pretty quickly, dealing with heady concepts like “What is a musical ‘work’?” (Is it the sounds we hear, or is it an ideal form that can never be fully realized?).  I’m not going to get into the abstract aspects of this topic, but at the end I’ll list a few readings that you can follow up with.

First of all, what is the canon? Generally, when musicians mention “the canon,” they mean a core set of pieces that are especially famous and most people recognize as classical music. This includes works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, pieces like that. Cynically, it’s the overplayed warhorses that audiences will pay to listen to. More cynically, it’s the pieces people will mention when they want to prove (or pretend) they know something about classical music.

There isn’t an official list of works that are in the canon. It’s something that we can describe but not prescribe; there are lists of works that are performed most often by orchestras, or people’s opinions of works that “everyone should know,” but there’s no regulatory body deciding which pieces are admitted to the canon. In a way, that makes it tougher to change the canon. If it came down to the decisions of a few people, they could just say, “Stop playing that, and start playing this.” Instead, a piece has to make an impact on a significant portion of the vague, undefined “public” in order to gain notice.

How did this happen? Again, I’m simplifying a lot of history here, but in general, prior to the 19th century, most live performances of music were in service of aristocrats and catered to their personal tastes. Those with their own courts hired personal composers to give them what they wanted, and even if the performances were open to a “public,” they were still influenced by the patron who paid for it. After the French Revolution, however, European society changed. The aristocrats lost influence, and the “public” gained greater power. Whether a piece was “good” or not was no longer determined by a particular individual, but by mutually-agreed upon standards that emerged in the 19th century.

This century is when there started to be a clear division between “high” and “low” music. It became crucial to people’s social standing to demonstrate that they had good taste by liking the right kind of music, and in order to do so, they had to educate themselves about it. So, the 1800s saw a boom in music criticism, journalism, history books, textbooks, and lectures, all reinforcing the idea that certain pieces were better and more important than others.

This period also coincides with a few other trends that determined what those pieces would be. As I mentioned in my post on the “rediscovery” of Bach, prior to the 19th century, the music that was performed in public was mostly new. Old music was studied and practiced, but if people were going to attend a concert, they expected to hear something they hadn’t heard before. That had been the trend for centuries—in the 15th century, music theorist Johannes Tinctoris said that the only music worth listening to was that which had been written in the last 40 years. (Imagine a classical music concert with only works written after 1976!) Music was constantly advancing, and people wanted to see what was next.

But around 1800, history became fashionable. People became interested in the music of the past, and they wanted to hear it. Beethoven was among the first composers whose music never left the concert hall—earlier composers were popular during their lifetimes, fell out of fashion, then were revived, but Beethoven lived at the right time so that he never experienced a posthumous dark period. Since this trend emerged just as the ideas of “high” and “low” music coalesced, many old compositions got categorized as “high” art, and people could show off their taste and education by liking historical works.

There are other factors at play, too. You may notice that many of the canonical composers (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner) are German or Austrian. Another trend in the nineteenth century was a rise in nationalism, particularly in German-speaking lands. Germany was trying to unify politically, and one way to do that was to promote a common German culture. This meant that Austro-German composers were presented as attaining the highest achievements in art.

Now, if the idea of a rise in German nationalism makes you nervous, there’s a good reason. Yes, this is the same cultural movement that lead to world wars in the twentieth century. That also plays a factor in why the classical music canon is the way it is. Many Austro-German intellectuals fled Europe because of the wars, some of them finding jobs in American universities. There, they passed on the culture in which they’d been raised, the one that promoted German composers as the epitome of high art music. We inherited this tradition—and that’s why so many canonic composers are dead German men.

Not all works in the canon are German or written before 1850, of course. Other pieces have found their way in over time. But again, in order to do so, they’ve had to overcome a lot of cultural inertia. We still consider classical music an indicator of status, and there are certain works we’re expected to know if we can call ourselves classical music fans. Sometimes it takes a particular event to make a newer work relevant—for example, American composer Samuel Barber wrote his Adagio for Strings (taken from his string quartet) in 1936. It was heavily promoted through performances on the radio, and received a lot of exposure when it was broadcast in response to the death of FDR. It became linked in the popular imagination with mourning, and now it’s part of the canon. But it took a lot of effort to get there.

I’m not using this blog post to pass judgment on whether pieces in the canon deserve to be there, I’m just explaining how they got there. I love a lot of the standard repertoire. Yet I recognize that the canon is exclusionary by design, and there are many great pieces that get ignored because they weren’t swept up in the right cultural currents. Many musicians and scholars are working to expose these overlooked works, and as Midgette’s article shows, administrators are considering ways to reach outside the canon to reflect the greater diversity of the musical world. Laing’s comment reminds us that there are no easy solutions to making live classical music relevant to 21st century audiences. Exploding the canon may be a good strategy, but it won’t solve everything.

Many thanks to my friends who suggested resources for this post!

“Desperately seeking relevance, orchestras grapple with existential questions” by Anne Midgette in The Washington Post

Additional Readings:

For more material on the musical canon written for a general audience, check out these posts by Sara Haefeli for The Avid Listener:

If you want some academic reading and have access to JSTOR, here are two essays to check out:

Finally, if you want more in-depth reading, look into these books:

  • Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992)
  • William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste (2008)
  • Bryan Proksch, Reviving Haydn: New Appreciations in the Twentieth Century (2015)


  1. Excellent insight as always, Linda. One other way the canon remains entrenched is through pedagogy at all levels -- and here too it's a complicated matter, because even when textbook authors feature works and/or composers designed to expand / shift the canon in new editions of their texts (or in new texts designed specifically to provide alternatives to established canon repertory) there can be pushback from instructors who have learned particular narratives or works and expect to convey those to their students.

    Regardless this is a crucial contribution to public discussion of this topic, so thanks again!

  2. Well done! One interesting fact I always like to emphasize in this context is that when the "classical" canon arose in the 19th ct., it specifically excluded a lot of music that was "popular" at the time, but that we now unproblematically lump in with it. For instance, Chopin's piano music and other salon favorites; Italian opera; bravura concertos; and avant-garde "new" music by guys like Berlioz and (gasp) Wagner.

    1. PS - this is Bob Fink. Can't manage the interface yet...

  3. Thanks for the "shout out" here! Talk of the canon always makes me question what it is that we should be teaching in music history classes. I think the vast majority of professors would say that we are teaching style recognition, chronology, and repertoire. But is that really the best outcome we can hope for? How about teaching inquiry and critical analysis? I've decided to upend my survey classes and instead of teaching "The Canon" by way of "The Anthology" I've decided to teach questions central to all kinds of music making. These questions include, What is notation? How do you make money with music? How does power and patronage shape music making? How is music distributed and consumed? What is a genius, and what does it mean when we talk about composers and geniuses? These questions can be used as lenses into any musical practice and hopefully they can help flatten the inequalities between the bogus categories of High Art/Low Art, Western/Non-Western, etc. Thoughts?