Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It's Canonic!

Every other essay you read about the current state of classical music seems to take a swipe at the "Canon". This is defined as the ossified accretion of pieces of classical music by Dead White Guys that orchestras, ensembles and recitalists keep playing despite its elitist lack of diversity. It is as if these much-beloved pieces of classical music are no better than barnacles clinging to the concert hall stage--best if they were scraped off so we can spend more time listening to, well, what? Ah, more compositions by everyone who isn't a Dead White Guy.

I have a different view of the canon. As far as I can see it consists of pieces that have an aesthetic quality that appeals to the listener. There are actually quite a few different "canons" if by that we simply mean lists of pieces that people like to hear. The audience for the Canon by Pachelbel is rather different from the audience for the Hammerklavier Sonata by Beethoven which is different again from the audience for the lute songs of John Dowland and different again from the audience for the music of John Cage. But each of these works is part of a different canon. We might label them as Mainstream Classical, Serious Listener Classical, Early Music Classical and Avant-Garde Classical respectively.

What I'm wondering is if my readers would be interesting in doing an exploration with me of these different kinds of canons? I think they are always in a state of flux and it might be nice to check in and see what the content is at the moment. For example, from our perspective, what would be included in the canon of 20th Century Masterpieces? Is Paul Hindemith still on the list? Where would Henri Dutilleux fall these days? How about John Cage?

But while there is certainly a lot of debate about the 20th century, we might be able to find some controversy even in earlier times. Just how good is the music of Henrich Biber? C. P. E. Bach? This would be a great opportunity for my readers to make suggestions both about different eras and canons and to start some arguments for and against different composers. The reward for this is the potential discovery of some wonderful music we weren't aware of (and maybe some wonderful performers as well).

So leave me a comment! Perhaps we can all distract ourselves from the US election campaign and other horrifying world events!

To whet your appetite, here are some of the those lute songs by John Dowland. These are five songs recorded at Wigmore Hall, London in July 2013 by Iestyn Davies, countertenor and Thomas Dunford, lute:


Craig said...

I think this sounds like a worthwhile exercise.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig. And it helps me solve the problem of what to write about!

JBB said...

This is intriguing. I'm all for Dowland and for Beethoven and bet many others hold memberships in multiple audiences.

New-to-me composers in any sub-genre are always interesting, and discussion as to their various merits would be enjoyable. (I remember listening to a friend who had just discovered Chausson's symphony make a determined case for its inclusion in the canon above Beethoven's fifth.)

I would also welcome other worthy pieces by composers whose reputations are based on one piece (Pachelbel, Allegri, etc., although I suppose I could just go to the Naxos library and start searching).

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah yes, but it's that unique Music Salon editorial perspective that gives it the zing!

David said...

Bryan, thanks for the opportunity to give a plug to one of my favourite DWGs: Georg Philipp Telemann. My suggestion would be to approach a cross-section of his music with a mind clear of pre-conceived ideas of Telemann as second tier composer to listen to it in a "blind" audition. There is a lot to choose from. The sheer volume may be a strike against him. There seems to be a tendency to say, "well he wrote an awful lot, too bad about the quality". Vivaldi also seems to suffer from this syndrome. Maybe even Haydn does,although I know he is a favourite of yours.

It seems to me that the Canon bashers have a mis-guided mission that fails to recognize the monopoly of the Dead White Guys was simply the way of the world before the modern emancipation of composers all races and genders. It makes no sense to me to deprive ourselves of the best musical creations that can be truly appreciated and enjoyed regardless of the identity of the genius that created them. Are we to spurn the automobile because Daimler, Benz and Ford were white males? Do we not accept the benefits of insulin because of the identities of Banting and Best?

Society would be better served if less time was spent attempting to re-write history and blaming and shaming our forebears and more attention was paid to being a positive force in the world we inhabit today.

Sorry for the rant.

Healthy slatherings of Telemann will help.

David said...

Bryan, I meant to include a link to a lengthy article extolling the merits of GPT:

There are quite a few typos, but the information is interesting and comprehensive.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David. This is exactly the kind of advocacy I was hoping to evoke! I'm on it. But I have already started a post on the 20th century, so I might do that first.

sluggingavampire said...

If I may suggest George Lloyd, a fellow Briton whose symphonies deserve to be in the canon. They have the remarkably unusual quality of being enjoyable (for mid-late 20th century works). It took a long while for his stuff to get performed, owing to the BBC prejudice at the time against new tuneful music. I think his music can be quite wonderful, and that could be argued some of his works deserve to be in the canon. His Symphonic Mass, for example. I'm not sure in what canon they'd best fit -- most probably they belong to the mainstream canon, to use your categories, though that make it sound as if the works are less serious.

I would also suggest the 2007 work by Sofia Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens. The more famous violin concerto of hers, Offertorium, is part of the avant garde canon I would say, but I think In Tempus Praesens is the more worthy work. A masterpiece, in fact, an important one.

My only real problem with the canon is the fact that it can sound too important. In my limited experience people are intimidated by the thought of this great canon -- music, literary or otherwise -- and think the works are only there because they're really, really serious and challenging. When, as you say, it simply 'consists of pieces that have an aesthetic quality that appeals to the listener.'

Craig said...

Are we doing canonical composers or canonical works? The second is a lot more challenging than the first.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Slugging: Good suggestion. I will certainly have a listen to Mr. Lloyd. My categories were just meant to be slight suggestions, not exhaustive by any means. I should do a post on Varieties of Canonic Experience! Thanks also for the Gubaidulina suggestions.

@ Craig: Ah, the canon as I was considering it is a list of works, not composers. So you can include one-hit-wonders like the Pachelbel Canon. Canonical composers would be, as you say, easier. For me, this project is just coming into focus.