Baroque and roll

December 15, 1995

What is in the musical canon - and what should be? John Davies asks music academics to nominate their noteworthy top ten.

"Is there, or should there be, a canon of great works or great composers that any serious student of music should be familiar with? And could you nominate a list of ten such works or composers - preferably, though not necessarily, in order of significance?"

To ask such questions is to imply that the idea of a canon is disputed in music just as it is in literature or art. And it is. Not just in academic circles, either: a Guardian music critic recently took it upon himself to draw up a canon, while last month Radio 3's late-night discussion programme, Coda, spent over two hours on the subject. (Indeed, when people argue about what should or should not be played on Radio 3 or at the Proms are they not appealing to some kind of canon?) In the Coda discussion social historian Cyril Ehrlich was "not sure there is a canon - what I am sure is there was one"; while composer Diana Burrell thought musical tradition, though "awe-inspiring", nevertheless "weighed down upon you". So little new music was played in concerts now, "simply because we play so much old". Anthropologist (and former rock musician) Georgina Born, of Goldsmiths media and communications department, believed canons were inevitable "because they're part of the way the collective formation of taste in a society comes to be expressed I They condition our listening, and so our expectations, and so composition."

A similar variety of replies followed when we put the (admittedly rather crude and journalistic) questions at the head of this article to a number of music academics and others. Though many were happy to talk about the - or a - canon, few were willing to draw up a list of ten works/composers. (Inevitably, comparisons were made with Desert Island Discs, not that we were looking for "favourite" music in any sense.) Of those who offered a list, none wanted to put the composers or works in order of preference; they are mostly in chronological order.

Several respondents worry about current musical education: one can no longer be sure, it seems, that today's music students would know such "central" works as Beethoven's late quartets or Wagner's Tristan. Robert Saxton of the Guildhall School of Music recalls a potential undergraduate being asked if she knew any Schoenberg "and she said 'yes, I know Les Miserables' - which is a fair answer, I have to admit, but not the one we were expecting from someone proposing to study composition."

Peter Dickinson, himself a composer, thinks that the emphasis on composition in the school curriculum has "eroded" a knowledge of the canon. "As everybody knows, you can't be much of a composer unless you know some music that's been written."

There is also a recognition that the notion of a musical canon may only be relevant in certain kinds of societies. Ones where an oral tradition prevails - rather than ones that depend on written notation or recording - have a different approach. "Other cultures don't have the cult of the composer," says Keith Howard, chairman of the music department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he specialises in Korean music. "The canon is more alive than ever in Korea, but it's a matter of preserving genres in a folk tradition."

Meanwhile, other western genres such as rock music are creating their own canons. Dai Griffiths, of Oxford Brookes University and the Critical Musicology group - who declines to list a musical canon himself - observes that it is ironic that pop music, which began as "a way of undermining certain ideas of a fixed canon", is forever generating lists. And when two such different publications as New Musical Express and Mojo both come up with a critics' Top 20 albums headed by Revolver and Pet Sounds, a canon is clearly established, he believes.

Jonathan Harvey

Composer; professor of composition, Stanford University "The idea of a canon fills me with horror, I'm afraid. There are no absolutes in artistic matters, no objective truths: at any time an extraordinary person of original vision may arise who exactly reverses the values that many people took to be immutable. All that matters is subjectivity - honest, clear and passionate."

Nicholas Kenyon

Controller of Radio 3 "My view is that canons aren't fixed in any way - they tend to vary with the tastes of the time. In the past 30 years, one's seen an expansion of the repertory in both directions - both forwards and backwards, thanks to the early music movement I What was before a very central line through the history of music is now not the only thing that people worry about. Thirty years ago, too, the Second Viennese School was thought of as the line; now it's realised that there are far more lines developing. There's not simply one.

"The idea of a canon can be suffocating; the idea of a repertory is less so. You could say that Classic FM is creating a canon - they're trying to say that the music they play, the most popular works, constitute a kind of canon. With Radio 3, the idea has always been to expand the musical repertory, and therefore give people the chance to expand the canon."

Kevin Volans

South African composer now living in Dublin "There is a sort of mainstream musical argument that's been going on for some time in western music. Although one couldn't rank individual composers in the mainstream it would be possible to distinguish between the more and less important - to argue, for instance, that Beethoven is better than Cherubini.

"But it's crazy for me to talk about the past because there's so much of it." Instead he offers a personal canon of just nine 20th-century composers: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, Berg, Webern, Stockhausen, Xenakis ("the greatest living European composer"), John Cage, Morton Feldman.

David Osmond-Smith

Professor of music, University of Sussex To have a canon is "very helpful for general cultural life". The canon's "historical solidarity with our parents and grandparents", he says, "provides us with roots that are psychologically important".

His ten "towering peaks" in western music are works he feels music students "should have investigated": Bach: B minor Mass; Haydn: String Quartets, from op 20 onwards; Mozart: C major quintet and Cosi Fan Tutte; Beethoven: first Rasomovsky quartet and B flat quartet op 130; Schubert: String Quintet; Brahms: Fourth Symphony; Verdi: Rigoletto; Wagner: Gotterdammerung; Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Schoenberg: Erwartung.

Simon Frith

Rock critic and director of the John Logie Baird Centre at the University of Strathclyde A different kind of list - of "obviously canonical artists" in rock music. Not, he emphasises, a critic's canon, but a canon of performers with whom "it would be very odd for someone who systematically wanted to be a rock musician not to be familiar". Again in no particular order - and excluding genres such as reggae and country music - they are as follows: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Beach Boys, Motown ("defined generically"), Fairport Convention ("in its various guises"), Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon.

Sophie Fuller

Lecturer in music, Reading University; author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers "There definitely are several canons. The recorded canon is different from the canon of works performed in the concert hall, and that is different from the canon of works studied at university.

"If you take a composer like Tchaikovsky, he has been canonical in terms of the concert hall, but he has certainly not until the last 20 years been canonical in the musicology field. In the 1960s anyone who had suggested writing a PhD on Tchaikovsky would have been laughed at.

"But the fact that there are these canons is quite damaging. It narrows down what we have access to, and that is a shame. A lot of wonderful music is just buried and doesn't get a chance because we spend so much time listening to Mahler.

"A lot of the work I do is to try to make more available the music I'm interested in. But (in compiling The Pandora Guide) I was aware of a terrible burden of responsibility - that the women who aren't in it are going to fall out of that particular canon. You have to make decisions, Always being aware that you're probably playing exactly the same game that everyone has to play."

John Casken

Composer; professor of music, Manchester University "Having to select only ten works is a little like asking for only ten works from the history of art, which includes paintings, buildings, sculpture and design. It would be easier to single out ten composers; here, my list would be as follows: Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Berg, Bart"k, Messiaen. "That excludes pre-Baroque and living composers, and I'd stretch it to 12 to include Josquin and Ligeti. In an ideal course, these 12 would serve as the springboards for a study of other works and aspects of the related period and not stand alone.

"If it's to be ten works, I offer the following as crucial focal points: Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame; Monteverdi: Orfeo; J. S. Bach: 48 Preludes and Fugues (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier); Mozart: Don Giovanni; Beethoven: "Eroica" Symphony; Wagner: Tristan und Isolde; Debussy: Prelude a l'Apr s-midi d'un Faune; Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Webern: Concerto, op 24; Messiaen: Turangalla-symphonie."

Richard Steinitz

Professor of music, Huddersfield University; artistic director, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival "I believe there is a canon, but it is huge. It would be silly to come up with a list of just ten composers - I would want to go back into the medieval period as well as into the 20th century.

"Today there is a general lack of familiarity with our heritage. We're so fashion-driven there is a woeful ignorance about the core of our culture, and music is part of that.

"People don't learn mathematical tables by rote any more, and it's rather like that in music, too: there is an emphasis on the discussion of issues at the expense of the learning of information and ideas."

Janet Ritterman

Director, Royal College of Music "There have been points at which it was clear what the canon was. But given what we now know about cultural pluralism, those certainties have undoubtedly broken down. Social change, changes in the pattern of concert life, changes in the media, commercial interests and the activities of the recording industry, comparisons between work in other art forms and contemporary or popular work in music; more general social trends, the breakdown in rural and urban patterns of living, changes in the roles of women in society and in music - all these things in different ways call into question what that notion of a 'canon' might beI "The sense of there being a canon which is a list of great names is probably less secure than it was. It's not that these names would be undervalued; it's the smallness of the pantheon that's being questioned. There was a time for instance not so long ago when Mahler wasn't part of the pantheon, and looked as though he might never be. Berlioz might have been in the same category, and maybe for some people is still out.

"There was a stage when those whose works are integral to the canon were looked at in a very decontextualised way. One of the fundamental changes has been an interest in the art work in context. It's probably easier to see the particularity of Brahms now one knows more of his contemporaries."

Scott Stroman

Head of jazz and studio music, Guildhall School of Music; conductor, Western Sinfonia and Opus 20 string ensemble; musical director, London Jazz Orchestra "There should be, and is, a canon, although it is more to do with influential works rather than with great works." He offers two lists - one of classical works, the other of jazz performances on record.

(Classical) Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea; Bach: The Art of Fugue; Haydn: the London Symphonies; Beethoven: the late quartets; Wagner: Tristan und Isolde; Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps; Schoenberg: String Quartet no 2; Charles Ives: Three Places in New England; Webern: Variations for orchestra; Boulez: Le Marteau Sans Matre.

(Jazz) Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: West End Blues; Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy; any recording by the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie quintet; Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul; Miles Davis: Kind of Blue; John Coltrane: Giant Steps; Miles Davis and Gil Evans: Miles Ahead; Herbie Hancock's VSOP: VSOP; Weather Report: 8.30 (concert recording); Charles Mingus: Ah-Um.

Peter Dickinson

Pianist, composer; professor of music, Goldsmiths College, University of London "Studies in ethnomusicology, pop music and jazz create alternative canons outside western music I It's a very confusing time. The best way to deal with it is to describe the situation we're living in. The days are gone when you could pick up a history of western music and know it was going to be all about serious concert music and opera and nothing to with world culture and popular music.

"The danger is that you find people with a very patchy knowledge of music; the nature of graduate study - and of the research assessment exercise - drives people to be experts in too small an area. That's the weakness of graduate dissertations - they don't see the bigger picture. But students have so little time for exploring.

"I'd defend the idea of a canon, but what you put into it now is going to vary from person to person. Defend the idea of conserving what we've actually got, and making sure that people know their heritage."

Nicola LeFanu

Composer, professor of music, York University "To me, 'canon' means a set of rules handed on from one generation to another; it means convention, it means conformity. For as long as there are people who need to be told what to think, who need their listening guided by the 100 best CDs etc, there will be a canon. I dislike the concept heartily. It tells us about ourselves, our prejudices, but it does not tell us very much about the richness of our musical heritage.

"Let me give a snapshot of a recent few days for me. Sunday was spent listening to Nono, Monday morning teaching and coaching Mozart's Figaro, Monday afternoon on Gillian Whitehead's Manutaki. All three nourish my imagination as a composer and thus provide the springboard for my teaching. I don't want to be limited by an established canon, nor do I want my own tastes canonised. I hope my students will be fired to explore and adventure in music throughout their lives."

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