The Value of the Canon

Reflecting on the value of the canon in Western music.

February 2021

The discussion of the musical canon has provided a glimpse into opinions and views of music which I have never been exposed to before, which has been beneficial in the sense of growing in knowledge and character, but it also brought many frustrations and struggles the more I learned.  The short answer to the question of whether I believe the canon is valuable is yes.  There is a reason that certain composers come to mind when we discuss “the greats”.  It helps us reflect upon who those composers are and who we would like to know more about.  I think there are two ways to look at the canon.  It can be viewed as an unfair representation of composers and musicians or it can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and appreciation for the classic composers as well as those who are not so well known. 

The canon forces us to reflect on the impact of music and musicians, but I think we have a tendency to overlook the many levels on which we are influenced.  Society can be affected, but what about the smaller groups that are impacted by a particular piece of music or composer?  What about the sentimentality that a certain song has for a certain family because it was sung throughout a journey through childhood?  Or the way that we are moved so deeply on an individual basis because something about that music is so personal and touches our very souls?  These are some questions that came up as I read and listened to the material in the course so far, and I think they have helped me to consider the value of the canon.

It has been my observation that when any subject is discussed in an academic setting, the focus is on how these things—music, art, history, science, math, business—impact society as a whole, or larger communities such as a state or county or even university.  But I see a tendency to almost shy away from talking about what all this means on a personal level.  I can listen to other people talk about their opinions on things as much as I want, but will that help me to discern what is most important to me?  Will it help me get to know myself, and then be better able to know how to serve those around me?  I think the canon is incredibly valuable if we are able to make it personal and not get caught up in the problems which society stirs up to divide people.

My favorite reading thus far is without a doubt the article on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, particularly the letter which was written about her by her brother Felix.  When I read this letter, I was so excited to finally find an example in this class of music being personal!  I could hardly believe what I read.  The frustration for many with Fanny’s story is undoubtably that she is not often listed on the canon, whereas her brother is, and that is a direct result of her being a woman.  As we discussed in class, her work was not necessarily put out to be published, since that was not her goal in life.  Her brother said it in a touching way when he said, “Fanny, as I know her, has neither desire nor vocation for authorship; in addition, she is too much a wife, as is right, brings up her Sebastian and takes care of her house, and thinks neither of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music, except when this first vocation is fulfilled.”  Fanny made music because she loved music, because it was something personal, and she was at peace with not having it be her main occupation.  While this seems to cause many women much angst, I find it truly inspiring that Fanny was a gifted musician who did not receive the accolades she may have deserved.  I have always loved the stories of unknown people, those who lived good lives and were not well known in the eyes of the world but who touched individual people and made such a beautiful difference in such a quiet way.  Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel strikes me as that same sort of character.  I had not even heard of her before taking this class, and yet what I take away from what I have learned is not that she was underappreciated because she was a woman, but rather that she embraced her role as a wife and mother while never losing her love for music.  This is what I dream of doing one day.  Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel may not be included on the canon that most people would come up with, but she has made my list, and not even because of her great music which is underappreciated.  She has made the canon in my mind because she chose not to follow a career with music, but simply maintain her music as she lived as a wife and mother.  This is not a political statement, as the canon seems to be turned into far too often.  It is a personal one, a reflection and appreciation for a story which has touched me deeply and which I consider to be very valuable in my own personal life.  Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel may not be on anyone else’s list in the canon, but that does not matter.  She has made an impression on my life, and even if that is all she has done, she has done something good.  This is a very concrete example of how I took the canon and personalized it, which is where I see the value in the canon.  However, there is also the other side of focusing too much on how the canon offends and leaves out groups of people, which can backfire and really get in the way of our own personal development.

Two readings in particular brought about reflection on how academic settings once again often bring out more division than unity.  The discussion about whether or not Beethoven was black seems to only take away from what music is all about: bringing people together.  There is a push to spend so much time on why we are leaving people out of the canon and not wanting to offend anyone that there is complete loss of understanding that music was not meant as a political statement.  This is not to say that everything in music history has always been perfectly fair.  Life is very often unfair, and I think it is important to not ignore that but be able to accept it and move on.  The push is that we should not care about skin color, but when we do not seem to be able to talk about a European composer without being concerned with race, I cannot help but wonder if we are not getting too carried away with division instead of focusing on unity.  In the Broyles reading on Beethoven being black, there was a syllogism shared which I think is a fair summary of the whole discussion going too far. 

“Beethoven was indeed black.  We can derive this through this simple formula.  1. Only oppressed people make great music.  2. Beethoven had no other means of being oppressed.  3. Beethoven made great music.  :.Beethoven was black.” 

I think this shows multiple flaws in this debate.  Declaring that only oppressed people make music is simply not true, unless you are coming from the argument that everyone is oppressed at some point in their lives.  Ironically, that statement seems discriminatory.  I do not believe that there is a conspiracy behind hiding the truth about Beethoven’s race.  Personally, I never think about a musician’s race unless it is brought up in a discussion such as this, and I would argue that most people would not consider it unless society forces it upon them.  It should not be an issue what color his skin was, but society will make it a problem, and the canon is a perfect way to keep this discussion alive and dividing people instead of uniting them.  In this way, the canon hinders our ability to connect with each other and appreciate the music and composers on a personal level.  If there is a lack in ability to make it personal, the canon should be avoided if potential injustices which may or may not be able to be proven are not let go by those who discuss it.  

Similarly, the discussion on Wagner’s music being banned because his family had connections with Hitler as well as his own personal disapproval towards Jews is getting away from the point that his music is something beautiful.  This is not to disregard a person’s faults, but is it not also important that we not only forgive a person’s mistakes but also acknowledge and give credit for a person’s good deeds?  Would we not feel discouraged and treated unfairly if our good works were always pushed aside because of our mistakes?  It becomes a very human experience when we look at it on a personal level and try to put ourselves in the situation, which I would argue music helps us to do.  What Wagner said about Jews in the reading by Brown was wrong.  I do not think any reasonable person would deny that.  Something that bothered me the most was his disgust about the music in the synagogue, when he said it was of “the greatest corruption” and did not have “any development or movement of inner life.”  Music is always a spiritual experience for me, and I often reflect upon how opinions on church music tend to divide members of the same congregation or parish, not to mention putting up a stubborn wall between people of different faiths.  In my own life, I see so much division and judgement among Catholics within the argument that traditional Latin or more contemporary hymns are superior to the other.  To dislike a certain style of music is one thing, and everyone has that right.  But claiming that one is greater than the other is a completely different argument, and who is to say what type of music is “better” than others?  Wagner, like all of us, had his preferences with church music.  The music in the synagogues did not move him spiritually, which is perfectly valid.  I do not turn to Gregorian chant when I am trying to find spiritual nourishment.  His mistake was in his declaration that because he did not like the Jewish music on a personal level, it was automatically unacceptable.  Most people would agree that this is not an ideal approach.  And yet there seems to be little consideration for the fact that because some people associate Wagner’s music with discrimination that hurts them on a personal level, it is necessary to ban his music.  If Wagner were disregarded as an influential composer for this reason, it would be the same as him claiming Jewish music should be outlawed because he does not appreciate it.  Is this not the kind of approach we are trying to avoid?  These discussions with Wagner and Beethoven are prime examples of what can happen when the canon is viewed primarily as a source of cases of discrimination and inequality rather than a tool with which to better understand the personal influences music and composers have had on ourselves and those around us.

There is tremendous importance in learning and discussing opinions and viewpoints which contradict or vary slightly from our own.  That is how we get to know the world beyond our comfort zones, which is necessary for thriving in the world.  But I would argue that we forget about really understanding and being able to articulate what touches us as individuals, and we even push it aside too much so that we are unable to step back and remember that music (or any other subject) is something personal.  So far, our class discussions about Wagner and Beethoven have made me question the value of the canon.  On the other hand, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s story has overcome those doubts with the personal inspiration she has given me.  Everything worthwhile must be personal.  I believe that the canon is very valuable because it shows what is personal, whether that is one person or a larger community.  I do not think that the canon itself is at fault for the problems which arise from discussing composers who have made the list, but rather the people who limit themselves to thinking only of how the canon reflects society rather than also considering how it reflects their own personal lives.

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