Canon lore for musicians

December 15, 1995

In attempts to define the literary canon, the oldest works usually cited are the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which are about 3,000 years old. This means that people got on fine without them for over 97 per cent of the time Homo sapiens sapiens has been on the scene.

In the case of the musical canon now under discussion (page 13), the figures are even more stark. Monteverdi, the earliest composer our experts cite, was born in 1567 - after the invention of printing, the discovery of America, the introduction of firearms and many other auguries of the modern era. In other words, well over 99 per cent of human history went past without anyone needing the music that modern observers regard as canonical.

This means that it is easy to agree with Jonathan Harvey of Stanford University, who is "filled with horror" by the very idea of the canon. However, it is worth thinking just why the separate but related worlds of music, literature and art all feel it necessary to cite canonical collections at the same point in history.

Perhaps part of the motivation is the stark fact that classical music, broadly defined, makes up just 8 per cent of recorded music sales around the world. Despite much hype about massive tenors, even the biggest classical sellers cannot compete with such world cultural assets as Madonna and Michael Jackson. In the same way, Shakespeare, Homer and Zola stay in print nicely, but cannot compete with best-selling novelists, much less television, in their reach.

The real claim of the canon-fanciers, put at its strongest, is that reading the books or knowing the music or the paintings will connect one fully with the culture and heritage that surrounds us. In the case of Harold Bloom's literary canon, it would also be a full-time job requiring private means, a drawback that does not apply to the musical canon. But if the canonisers are right, this means conceding that our cultural heritage is one that most white Europeans and North Americans do not share, let alone the vast bulk of the rest of the world's inhabitants.

As it applies to the tradition of European classical music, any attempt to compile a canon risks foundering on problems of fashion, such as the rise in the reputation of Mozart and J. S. Bach during the 20th century. Worse is the danger of the canon turning into a party game in which participant A cites the dearth of Iberian composers while B mourns its inexplicable lack of Scandinavians. It risks imitating Peter Ustinov's school exam in which the question "name one Russian composer" was set. He said Rimsky-Korsakov: wrong. The answer was Tchaikovsky.

But the literary canon at least has the merit that European literature is to some extent a single item. There are writers of pulp airport fiction who were influenced by Shakespeare. But the same simply does not apply to music. John Lennon could never have hummed a bar of The Marriage of Figaro, although some modern musicians like the late Frank Zappa certainly could.

Nobody minds people who love classical - or even popular - music saying: "This is good stuff: if you don't know it, and know a little about it, you will miss out." Putting the issue any more strongly than this is simply an attempt to impose culture by fiat instead of instilling it by education.

However, the canons we list this week make a splendid list of Christmas shopping suggestions and are rich in possibility for party games.

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