Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Myth of the Canon's Invisible Hand (Guest post by Anne C. Shreffler)

From Linda: Hello, everyone! This year has been remarkable for (among other things) public debates about women's experiences in our society, from the Women's March to the #metoo campaign. Just as the previous two posts on this blog have featured a multitude of voices, this post comes from someone else: Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler. Many thanks to Dr. Shreffler for contributing to our continued discussion of the classical music canon.

The name of Beethoven engraved over the proscenium at Symphony Hall in Boston.
Beethoven, the disembodied name of a
musical deity, in Boston's Symphony Hall
“But isn’t musical quality more important than gender?”

Anyone who has ever proposed a greater inclusion of women composers and composers of color—into a curriculum, a concert program, or an archive—is familiar with this kind of response. One of the most persistent myths in music history is that the classical music canon came about as the result of a rational, inevitable process that ensured the preservation of only the "best" works, those that "stood the test of time." An influential proponent of this view was the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, who maintained in 1977 that the musical canon was not made but "found." According to Dahlhaus, we can't shape or change the canon, since it was created long ago by the invisible hand of tradition.

How exactly is this selection process supposed to have worked? One imagines a fictional court of justice in the heavenly spheres, presided over by—whom? (God? St. Cecilia? Herbert von Karajan?), that conducts annual reviews of ALL the compositions by ALL the people, and hands down impartial judgment on their "musical quality." The verdict: Sibelius, yes; his contemporaries Amy Beach and Will Marion Cook, no.

In the wake of recent conversations about the egregious underrepresentation of women and people of color in the classical repertory, we are confronted yet again (for example in this blog: here, here, and here) with the deep-seated belief in the “invisible hand” selecting for musical quality. The minuscule numbers of women composers programmed by major symphony orchestras last year (as reported by Ricky O’Bannon and Sarah E. Baer) are depressing, and at the same time—like the recent revelations about sexual misconduct by conductors and teachers—they are totally unsurprising to anyone familiar with the classical music world.

Why, if "everyone" already knew, are we only now having this larger conversation about representation, responsibility, and repertoire? Why are we still fighting this battle, after so many skirmishes, and 24 years after the publication of Marcia Citron’s groundbreaking book, Gender and the Musical Canon?

Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else. German philosophical idealism, which flourished in the 19th century simultaneously with the rise of the (mostly Germanic) musical canon, valorized Geist, mental and spiritual modes of experience and thought over embodied ones. The masculine was firmly associated with the realm of ideas and transcendence, while the feminine represented bodily limitations and drives.

Music's incorporeality and semantic imprecision have lent themselves to an aesthetic of absoluteness or purity, and to the fiction of an automatically self-regulating canon. In this sense the names of the famous composers who populate our concert program (and peer over the audience in Harvard’s Paine Hall) were originally to be understood not as men, or even as actual humans, but as prophets and high priests of music, unencumbered by distasteful residues from the real world and therefore beyond physical characteristics like gender.

Bronze statue of Beethoven by Thomas Crawford, standing in lobby of the original main entrance to Jordan Hall on Huntington Avenue
Bronze statue of Beethoven at the New
England Conservatory of Music, looming
larger than he did in his mortal life.
The problem is that only male attributes, and males themselves, are allowed to be beyond gender. In this sense, "Beethoven"—the name engraved over the proscenium at Symphony Hall in Boston, the 7-foot tall statue in the hallway of New England Conservatory—does not have gender, but Louise Farrenc does.

Feminists are often accused of "reducing" everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.

A fascinating 2015 article in Science has showed that women are underrepresented in domains that are believed to require talent or brilliance as opposed to hard work. These include philosophy, math, music composition, and, one might add, orchestra conducting. When quality and achievement are hard to measure, and governed by subjective notions of genius, then men will always win out.

It turns out that the invisible hand of the classical music canon works much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of capitalism: as a conscious perpetuation of the interests of powerful people (mostly men), with the whole process disguised as natural and inevitable. When the mask of a gender-neutral objectivity is removed, we are suddenly confronted with the pink and wrinkled reality of classical music.

This is a liberating moment, and it could be transformative for a field for which "conservative" is far too mild a word. Let's recognize the compositional achievements of women and people of color, expand the repertory, diversify our ensembles, and hire more women conductors. While we're at it, let's rethink why we want to listen to music in the first place. We need to reimagine our musical institutions as places of discovery and wonder, rather than ritual celebrations of an ossified repertory, and reshape them as places centered in our communities rather than in the abstract realm of Art.

Since the imaginary court of musical justice does not exist, it’s up to us to create a more diverse and equitable canon.

Thanks to J. Andrés Ballesteros, Shaw Pong Lui, Linda Shaver-Gleason, Henry Shreffler, and Barbara White.

Anne Shreffler is a musicologist who writes about the musical canon, the political and ideological associations of music, and the European and American avant-garde after 1945. She teaches at Harvard University.


  1. With greatest respect, and not wanting to stir a controversy, I would like to complicate a thought that Dr. Shreffler expresses in this post:

    “German philosophical idealism, which flourished in the 19th century simultaneously with the rise of the (mostly Germanic) musical canon, valorized Geist, mental and spiritual modes of experience and thought over embodied ones. The masculine was firmly associated with the realm of ideas and transcendence, while the feminine represented bodily limitations and drives.”

    Within the German idealist tradition of “absolute music,” Joseph Joachim certainly takes pride of place. It was he, more than anyone, who established instrumental music, and particularly chamber music, as a quasi-religious art, with the Joachim Quartet concerts in the Berlin Singverein. In his youth, Joachim was an outstanding, but fairly run-of-the-mill virtuoso. His transformation to the well-known “Priest of Art” took place at mid-century, in his late teens, with his introduction to the Salonnière and noted “Friend of Goethe and Beethoven,” Bettina von Arnim (who, together with E. T. A. Hoffmann, was a prime mover in the establishment of the Beethoven myth, the foundation of the canon, exemplified by the statue pictured in this post). Joachim lived with Bettina for two summers, and was obsessively infatuated with her daughter Gisela. I have just written an article, (“For we are all born to the ideal”) chronicling their eight-year relationship, which was one of a very powerful mentor with a very vulnerable mentee.

    Shortly after meeting Bettina, Joachim came under the influence of another idealist, the “Priestess of Art,” Clara Schumann, with whom he was to perform for many years. The effect of these two powerful women on the young and impressionable Joachim was transformative. Their influence was to valorize Geist, and simultaneously to “use” the young Joachim (I employ that word advisedly) as an agent to establish a (mostly Germanic) musical canon, grounded in Beethoven, and including Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann (much as Bettina used sculptors and others to promote her idealized image of Goethe). Before meeting Bettina, Joachim was an associate and partner of Liszt in Weimar; he was a virtuoso who often performed works by, for example, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. After meeting Bettina, his solo repertoire shrank to a handful of “transcendent” works, including the Beethoven concerto and the Bach Chaconne, which he continued to perform, more-or-less ad nauseam, for the rest of his career.

    I think to say that in 19th-century Germany “The masculine was firmly associated with the realm of ideas and transcendence, while the feminine represented bodily limitations and drives” is to stand the whole notion of the Romantic salon, and consequently the influence of women, on its head. A large part of the reason that women were constrained to the home and the salon is precisely that, within that culture, they were looked upon by men as spiritual and intellectual guides — the keepers of the flame — and were therefore to be kept sacrosanct, away from the world of occasional concerns. Bettina emerged from the Goethe-worshipping, neo-Platonic "Geselligkeit" of Rahel Varnhagen’s celebrated salon. Another of Rahel’s protégés was Alexander von Humboldt, the founder of the Berlin University and a principal architect of the idealist German idea of "Bildung," from which our notion of a liberal education, also divorced from the world of occasional concerns, derives.

    Such women enjoyed something of a privileged position. Bettina could speak with impunity, and even in a time of harsh censorship could publish a book, “Dies Buch gehört dem König,” lecturing the King of Prussia on his responsibilities. Who was an adolescent Joachim to stand up to such a powerful woman? In my opinion, Joachim listened to her, and to Clara Schumann, much to his detriment. Imagine if he had stayed where he was, in the middle way between Liszt and Brahms?
    Robert Eshbach

    1. Thank you for your criticism. I think it's very apt to the discussion of Shreffler's piece above and helps put her argument into a more sound perspective.

      Gender is complicated, especially in our current society with its heightened attention to normative standards. I second your thoughts and think a macro perspective of gender, race, etc. in the musical cannon allows for a greater investigation. I find that the problem lies not so much in sociological factors as ones pertaining to institutional power, and standardized "rules" that allow for a sort of heirarchic pass through the gambit towards class security. However, I become more abstract than is necessary.

      Programming should be based on interesting compositions, regardless of a composer's identity, of any variety. I am not a proponent of iconoclasm, which aims to tear down statues and busts of venerated composers, among other figures whose ideology socially offends us. The problem lies in programming practices that are aimed at ticket sales, power-interests with boards, corporate structures that have infringed on any freedom in creative license. Small organizations are where real innovation in the realm of "canonic tradition" are actually occurring. These groups are highlighting composer's of interest based on their identities, not to mention the merit of their works, not-withstanding. Again, all programming should be based on the aesthetic merits of a composition, not putting a composers identity first. It is much more difficult to change the programming habits of large institutions which have become so jaded within their brand that expansion becomes difficult, if not impossible.

    2. The final paragraph of your comment is exactly the statement that Anne is addressing: "It should be based on merit, not identity!" The issue is that there is no "neutral" or "objective" way to determine what you call "aesthetic merit." Our aesthetics have already been shaped by historical biases.

      It would be lovely if male and female (an non-binary, and so on) composers started on a level playing field so that equal opportunity would be a matter of maintaining the status quo, but that's not the reality we inherited. It takes some work to expose audiences to music with other "identities" so they can become as familiar with their aesthetics as they are with the ones we've been hearing for hundreds of years.

    3. Anonymous brings up an important point in mentioning programming practices that are aimed at ticket sales, etc. It is no mere coincidence that the canon came into existence at the same time as the music ‘business.’ Nineteenth-century concert-givers were well aware of the drawing-power of ‘genius,’ and of the ‘big name,’ and exploited it fully. Liszt told of a moment of revelation for him, that occurred while giving a series of concerts: “Without alerting the audience, we substituted a trio by Pixis for the programmed work by Beethoven. The bravos were more numerous and vigorous than ever, but then when the Beethoven trio was performed in place of Pixis’s piece, the audience found it cold, mediocre, and even boring to the point that many people became incensed, declaring that it was most impertinent of Pixis to present his composition to the audience who had come to admire the great composer’s masterpieces. By telling you this story I do not mean to imply that it would have been wrong for them to applaud Pixis’s trio, but even he could only manage a smile of pity when he heard the bravos of an audience capable of confusing two such completely different compositions and styles, because it is certain that people who can make such a crass error are totally unqualified to appreciate the true beauties of his own works.”

      The existence and makeup of the ‘canon’ is an exceedingly complex and messy matter, it seems to me — comparable in every way to the mechanisms of political power. It is not always the ‘deserving’ whose voices are heard — or appreciated — and the voice of the people is not always the voice of God. For me, the most interesting music in any style has always been a niche market. The way to ensure its survival is through education, and the sharing of enthusiasms. If you love something, promote it!

    4. At the risk of making myself tiresome (it may be too late!) I’d like to add one more thing, and then I’m out…

      I suppose one should make a distinction between repertory and canon. That is, Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2 in D Minor is a central work in the repertory of any violinist of a certain level of attainment, and is applauded wherever it is heard; it will never be ‘canonic.’ We are not talking here about Justin Bieber’s “Baby Baby.” To become a part of a reified canon, a work must be more than a beautiful and well-made piece; it must be viewed as somehow ‘important,’ and for that it must pass through something akin to peer review, not by audiences, but by the gatekeeping profession. Just as a scholarly paper may be perfectly well-written and interesting (a ‘repertory’ paper), it is the discussion that it raises, and the further work that it inspires, that determines whether it is considered ‘important.’ For anyone who, like me, has ever thought “I could drip paint on canvas just as well as Jackson Pollock,” this may be a painful, but significant realization. A work’s importance is only partially inherent.

      In the nineteenth century, people like E. T. A. Hoffmann and Bettina von Arnim made the case for Beethoven’s importance, at a time when the public was gaga for Paganini and Rossini. They made it on the basis of Geist: “mental and spiritual modes of experience and thought over embodied ones.” Schumann, who was considered by Liszt to be “too Leipzigerisch” — i.e. too academic — and was not generally liked by the public, was not a ‘Schu-in’ for the canon. Clara Schumann, as Dr. Shaver-Gleason has pointed out on this blog, devoted much of her later life to making the case for her husband’s works, through performances, editing, and other forms of advocacy. Joachim performed Schumann’s works, knowing that they would ‘fail’ in concert. Even Liszt advocated for the works of the man who heartily resented him. The case for Schumann was made on the basis of ‘poetry’ — ‘Geist’ — the only possible case to be made in a milieu of professionally written, but banal, commercial music.

      There are many fine, and even inspired, works that are not canonic. I would mention in one breath the works of Amy Cheney Beach and my Grandfather’s teacher George Whitefield Chadwick. Performers and presenters may wish to take the risk of making those works more frequently-played repertory items. Scholars and tastemakers may wish to argue for their greater importance in the canon — and a case can surely be made. These are not the same things. But neither happens simply because the works exist and are ‘worthy.’ Both require advocacy and persuasion. If you can make the case that the ‘Gaelic’ Symphony is ‘important,’ do so. It is certainly beautiful. But remember, it took Joseph Joachim his whole long career to make the case for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which was not even a repertory item when he began. And not even Joachim dared to tackle the Grosse Fuge.

    5. More fantastic points, Robert! (Are you sure you don't want to write a guest post? Something on Joachim, perhaps?) Based on what you wrote, I'm wondering--who can we consider to be the tastemakers in classical music today? I don't know that any individual critic wields that power right now.

      Gustavo Dudamel might qualify, as he's been championing Marquez's Danzón No.2 to the point that I've heard it on KUSC and I've played it with the UCSB orchestra, but I don't know whether it's "made it" in the US beyond SoCal. Also, can we think of any soloists who are representing non-standard repertoire as persistently as Joachim did?

  2. Many thanks for this very interesting and pertinent article and comment. To Robert: I would love to read your article about Joachim and Bettina von Arnim - where may I find it, please?

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  5. Dear Jessica, thank you. The article isn't quite finished yet, but if you send me an email, I will send you a draft upon completion...

    "If you are suffused with a higher impression of a person’s nature, do not doubt that it is the true one; for all are born to the ideal, and wherever you suspect it in a person, you can make it manifest, for he surely has the capacity for it.

    He who denies the ideal in himself cannot understand it in others, even if it were fully expressed. He who perceives the ideal in others causes it to flourish in them, even if the other does not suspect it in himself."

    — Bettina von Arnim, an epigraph from "Die Günderrode" later quoted in Brahms’s commonplace book, "Des jungen Kreislers Schatzkästlein."

  6. I want to throw in the fact that the "Western canon" was largely established by Germans with German repertory, because 1) they were central to the revival of old works (Bach and others) 2) they were central in the development of musicology as a discipline 3) they chose certain composers for complete-works editions in the late 19th century 4) Many important publishers were German.

    I vaguely want to add something here about who established orchestras in the US and conducted in the opera houses, but I hesitate.