The Musical Cannon
As Augustine once suggested “Music is the art of measuring well”. “The canon is a list of composers or works that are assigned value and greatness by consensus” 1 However, the canon will always call Into question the nature of its exclusions and which composers make It In and which composers do not. The Canon, promotes proper decorum, and ensures proper conduct”2 Authors such as Adorn and Herkimer, members of the Frankfurt School during the twentieth century, recognized that music and the canon does not tend on Its own, but In fact It was socially situated with people of dominant countries, class and society such as Germany.
They believed that the audience were passive and never called into question why and how these particular composers deserved their place in the canon.Author Joseph German, a leading figure from the American musicologists urged a change from positivistic to critical thinking and searched for the meaning of music. New trends, constant critical thinking and questioning of the meaning of music, have caused this re-view of the dominance of he canon which brings us to look at its advantages and disadvantages. To understand the canon thoroughly we first must look at why It had become so popular and given such significance In the late eighteenth century. One of Its mall sources for its development is the rise of the bourgeois class in society.They can be described as culturally the man or woman who is a member of the wealthiest social class of a given society, and their materialistic values. They began to identify themselves artistically and institutionalized a musical life.
This new musical prestige was separate to their sacred and courtly life. Music’s sudden popularity gave rise to the public concert in England, France and central Europe and commissioned work. The advantages of this growth of the canon and repertoires were the fast spread of stunning classical music and a gratitude for great work amongst many.It gave work and a new role to audiences, performers, composers and critics. However, It was only available to those who could afford it and these repertories of the composers from this tight knit canon reinforced the status quo. Lydia Gorge summarizes the arguments for and against the canon during its development In the ate eighteenth century and rend nineteenth century, “The former have tended to defend canonic works as rightly belonging to the canon, or as having stood the test of time, by their virtue of representing the noble values of the true, the good and the beautiful.They have seen their task as defending unprejudiced Judgment and value.
Detractors, contrarily, have criticized the canon for Its elitism, or for Its claimed purity, nonpolitical and aestheticism. “3 The spread of these canons and repertoire was reinforced by the publishing houses and printing Journals like Bipartite & Heartless collected editions in the late nineteenth century which brought upon strong national identities. In Germany It became associated with a dominant national culture (the Brahms symphony obscures the Burch symphony).The mall disadvantage of the canon was that it ostracizes and suppressed further the lower 1 OFF suit the specific area of music. The first being the ‘listener’s canon’, these were considered as ‘standard’ works usually to reappear commonly during the numerous concert programmer and frequently purchased recordings. The ‘performer’s canon’ Nerve the works considered essential in any performers repertoire on any instrument. It would have been quite displeasing and shocking to not perform one of these.
Examples of these ‘performers canon’ were the Beethoven sonatas, or Debussy Preludes’ for a pianist.The third of the groups was the ‘canons of music history and musicologist’s canons. This set of composers and works were looked upon and admired as central to the study and understanding of western art music. The further development of the canon in the nineteenth century with the publishing of complete editions defined these composers as prestigious. Some composers and their works that were primary in the canon included Palestinians Pope Marcella Mass (1 567), Handel’s Messiah (1742) and Royal Fireworks Music (1749), Bach’s B Minor Mass (1735) along with his Cantatas.Beethoven’s music became momentous and widely acknowledged soon after. Nevertheless the canon remained to exclude the ‘less important’ composers and music such as any women composers and composers in peripheral countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Sweden.
Author and feminist Lillian S. Robinson, considers the disadvantage of the canon, is its bias and sexist tauter. “A gentleman, is inescapably-that is, by definition- a member of a privileged class and of the male sex. From this perspective, it is probably quite accurate to think of the canon as an entirely gentlemanly artifact. 4 There is a definite distinction between canon and repertory. German defines them in two ways, “A canon is an idea; repertory is a programmer of action”5 and that “repertories are determined by composers; canons by critics”6. Music’s evanescence distinguished between canon and repertoire by its greatness and assigned value by consensus.
Before the nineteenth century repertoire only consisted of music of the present generations and one or two proceeding generations. The canon began to grow and develop.The critics who wrote them became more open minded and this was a positive move in the right direction for more modern and less well established composers. After the sass when new music entered the repertory, old music did not always drop out, for example Beethoven and Rossini were added to, not replaced. The repertory now gained a new dimension, a historical value, music assumed a history. Secular and Sacred repertories revised their canons and extended the Lutheran and Anglican radiations back 200 years.There were many exceptions who maintained their importance in the canon as far as 100 years after they were written (E.
G. Jean Baptists Lully) Music had now, in the nineteenth century gained a deeper and more meaningful role in society. The canon and the literary tradition was also quite interesting as author and literary man E. T. A Hoffman began the conciliation of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and classified them as the three great Romantic composers in 1810, even though Haydn and Mozart would generally be classified as classical composers.Hoffman created this trinity of great composers and based it upon the literary works of the Greek tragedies, Beethoven now assumed as great a significance as Shakespeare, showing that music and the writing down of scores developed a new importance, and could now been seen as texts open for criticism, “Disreputableness” found their way into most people’s home, bourgeois status or lower/middle class making it more widely available and less elitist. Developing on further into the twentieth century with the creation of records has changed musical life in the most comprehensive way, through sound.
An advantage of this is that people of all institutions and educational standards can appreciate it. The disadvantage is however the most vulnerable category of music, which is modern twentieth century music, is seldom played in public. “The philosophy of modern music is a pioneer effort in a unique direction”7 Therefore it is out of the norm and does not fit the status quo amongst the canon, showing that the canon is still influential and has a strong hold amongst society even in the twenty first century. The re-view of the canon from many critics has caused some people to look more closely at its disadvantages.Edward Rottenest from “The New York Times” described the canon in a very negative way with an anaconda like hold of the nineteenth century music in today’s repertory not making any room for modernism. Virgil Thompson “the appreciation racket” in “The State of Music” (1939) stems from the very anti romantic reaction after tragic events and loss following WWW and stopped listening to the highly emotional and sensuous music by Wagner and Beethoven. The advantages of these attacks however have led to a positive turnaround of events.
The canon has now re-grouped to include composers such as Oberlin, Mussorgsky,Verdi, Rachmaninoff and Mailer. There is now an interest in pre Bach music such as Byrd and Gabrielle. To conclude my essay, looking at the canon today, it is unfortunate after these attacks that there was a very harrowing realization that the repertoire was no longer growing by the addition of new or at least modernist music because of the empiricists that had created this definite way of ordering and compiling the ‘greatest’ composers. There is certainly a need for post modernists to included composers who have been normalized because they are alternative.We must ask ourselves are musical works composed by less famous composers not worth listening to? Despite the attacks and challenges faced by the canon it is not at all ready to lie down and die in the interest of a changing and evolving cultural society. Critics such as Harold Bloom and George Steiner believe “the continuing value of the canon to our culture lies in its celebration of those qualities which refuse to yield to contingent explanation, its celebration of truly great works of art”8 which greatness I cannot and would not disagree with.