What is canonical about classical music?

In a recent column entitled “Questioning the Canon,” Simon Woods, President and CEO, League of American Orchestras, argued that, in their effort for “greater inclusion,” orchestras should abandon the notion of a “classical music canon” and embrace the idea of “repertoire” which comprises “any music that an orchestra can play.”  The point of this argument is not to redefine the canon, since that would still allow for normative and monumental music making, but to denounce it altogether.  The best way to be inclusive is to exclude nothing.

I have been analyzing in English and Greek the operations of musical and literary canons for almost half a century, so I am very sympathetic to projects of de-canonization.  However, I fear that such analyses achieve very little when they focus on creators and works rather than institutions and practices.  In his column, Woods advocates specifically for adding works by Black and women composers to those by Mozart and Mahler but says nothing about the orchestra as supreme canonical institution or the audience’s canonical techniques of listening.

If the dominant means of producing and receiving classical music are not challenged, they may generate a broader corpus of works and gallery of composers but their cultural authority to classicize and canonize will remain powerful.  I found more promise in another point of the column that I wish had been developed: “This impetus for change is challenging us to look differently at ‘heritage’ and at the traditions and rituals that surround it.”

18 May 2022

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