An inspiring defence of the teaching of Western classical music and musical literacy

In the wake of the huge response to the article on music notation and literacy by Charlotte C. Gill in The Guardian, and encountering a certain amount of qualified support for her position amongst some academics who are more broadly antipathetic towards a Western classical tradition or at least a central place for it in Western music curricula, I recently read the following inspiring passage from an essay by Estelle R. Jorgensen, ‘Western Classical Music and General Education’, Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 130-140, which I wanted to share here. Note that this is emphatically not a denigration of other traditions and practices, nor an assertion of superiority, but part of a wider argument for rejuvenating the teaching of something which is increasingly marginalised in various musical education, according to the author; she says ‘it seems now to have acquired (in some quarters at least) a negative connotation as a bastion of elitism and privilege. Instead, popular musics (with a nod to musics of other culture) have pride of place in much elementary and secondary music education and in many university and college offerings designed for students whose principal fields of study lie outside music.’


Why should Western classical music be advocated by music education policy makers? Among the possible reasons, the term “Western classical music” is a misnomer. It is really a multi-cultural and international tradition forged by musicians around the world who brought their various individual and cultural perspectives to a music that grew up in Europe but that from its infancy drew upon African and Near Eastern roots. Its widespread influence as one of the great musical traditions does not make it necessarily better than others but does make it worthy of study. A music that is known so widely, has captured the interest and participation of so many musicians and their audiences internationally, has such a rich repertory, and represents so many cultures strikes me as a human endeavor of inherent interest and worth.

Western classical music is also one of the ancient classical traditions in the world. Its long history can constitute a bridge to better understanding the particular contributions and detractions of Western civilization. This music constitutes a rich heritage of instruments, compositions, theories, and performers. It sometimes instances brilliant and deeply moving creations that manifest human genius at work. There is, as Jane Roland Martin puts it, a “stock” of cultural makings and doings that support, enrich, challenge, and defy social and cultural conventions. Musical artifacts include written compositions that are brought to life in performance, archaic instruments that are preserved, copied, restored, and otherwise kept for posterity, and musical rituals that are described, recorded, and recreated in a host of ways. As Neil Postman notes, knowing about the eighteenth century is particularly important at a time when mediated culture focuses on the present. Knowing the past traditions of a particular place enables one to connect with those who have gone before just as one relates to people in other places. Viewed this way, Western classical music is a precious heritage that links Westerners to their past just as it links them to other world cultures.

This music is an organic, living thing. Although informed and influenced by Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, it is also rooted in the musics of Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism, and in the secular musics of Middle Eastern and Northern African countries in which Islam took hold. Its mythos, influenced originally by Greek polytheism, later acquired a monotheistic Judeo-Christian perspective that is now being transformed as the tradition increasingly finds its home in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, affected again by polytheistic and other religious and mythical world views. It has also absorbed a host of other musics that have likewise become classical in their own right. For example, jazz is in the midst of becoming a classical tradition and many of its elements have been included in the Western classical mainstream. Likewise, rock, country, and gospel are acquiring classic properties such as notation, instrumentation, and self- reflexivity, and becoming incorporated into and interconnected with the Western classical tradition.

Musical notation is one of its singular achievements. Literacy provides a way of recording the nuances of performance, intellectualizing music, propagating it widely and disparately in time and space, and quickly learning new pieces of music. Becoming literate in this tradition is essential. Since the music is notated, one can read a score and hear how it should sound and quickly catch on to what is happening even if one is unacquainted with the particular piece. Remaining illiterate in this tradition leaves one deprived of knowledge essential to full participation in a society that regards itself as Western. This deprivation, whether intentional or not, is arguably racist and classist when it fails to ensure that all people irrespective of their background have the opportunity to be musically literate. Recognizing the multiplicity of musical cultures in today’s societies suggests expanding literacy beyond the Western classical tradition while also emphasizing aurality/orality- a point that Patricia Shehan Campbell is at pains to make. Notwithstanding the importance of musical orality, failing to develop musical literacy in at least one notated musical tradition makes it difficult to break out of a solely aural/oral tradition into a literate one, something that exponents of aural/oral or little musical traditions may wish to do, sooner or later. And leaving students limited is arguably mis-educative since it stunts and prevents their further development.

Interactive Workshop on Musical Denazification and the Cold War at LSE Conference, March 28, 2017

On March 28th, 2017, 11:40-13:10 I will be giving a workshop on ‘Music, Identity and Nationalism with Reference to the Third Reich and early Cold War Period’, at the ASEN Conference on Anthony D. Smith & The Future of Nationalism: Ethnicity, Religion and Culture’, taking place at the London School of Economics. The conference takes place over March 27-28, 2017, and my workshop will take place from 11:40-13:10 on the 28th, open to conference participants. Places are still available for the conference; full details, and a programme for the conference can be found at .

The purpose of this workshop is to engage with the issues of nationalism as affected German musicians and those working in the music world, through interactive roleplay relating to denazification procedures in each of the four zones of occupied Germany – American, British, French and Soviet.

Fragebogen zur Entnazifizierung (1946)

A series of four ‘legends’ have been created, each relating to a real individual; two composers, one pianist and composer, and one music journalist and writer. Each faced denazification in different zones. Participants are invited to take the role of one of these legends in a mock denazification hearing, which I will be directed in the role of Chief Interrogator. He will question the participant on the nature of their activities during the Third Reich, including questions relating to the aesthetics of their work, and they are offered the chance to reply and defend their record. Others are invited to take role in the ‘defence’ or ‘prosecution’ team, interspersing comments where appropriate relating to the case in question. These requires only study of the legends themselves (those who wish to join the prosecution will be provided with a little extra information unknown to the individual being interrogated).

If time permits, in the final half hour of the workshop I will direct a wider discussion cultural/political agendas relating to the Cold War in Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as relate to music and nationalism. Some questions to be considered include whether supposedly ‘internationalist’ aesthetic agendas might be viewed in terms of a type of ‘Western European pan-nationalism’ (which has also informed culture in the EEC/EU) or conversely these are less solidly geographically rooted. Another is how in the Eastern Bloc, musical traditions with historical connections to those found elsewhere in Europe and further afield were modified in accordance with the dominant role of the Soviet Union and Russian musical traditions, not least in light of the expulsion of ethnic Germans from most of Eastern Europe.

Introductory Bibliography

Biddiscombe, Perry. The Denazification of Germany: A History 1945-1950. Stroud: Tempus, 2007.

Chamberlin, Brewster S. Kultur auf Trümmern. Berliner Berichte der amerikanischen Information Control Section July – Dezember 1945. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1979.

Clemens, Gabriele, ed. Kulturpolitik im besetzten Deutschland 1945-1949. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1994

Clemens, Gabriele. Britische Kulturpolitik in Deutschland 1945-1949: Literatur, Film, Musik und Theater. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997.

Heister, Hanns-Werner and Klein, Hans-Günter, eds, Musik und Musikpolitik im faschistischen Deutschland. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1984.

Janik, Elizabeth. Recomposing German Music: Politics and Tradition in Cold War Berlin. Leiden, Brill & Biggleswade: Extenza Turpin, 2005.

John, Eckhard. Musik-Bolschewismus. Die Politisierung der Musik in Deutschland 1918-1938. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994.

Kater, Michael. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kater, Michael. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Linsenmann, Andreas. Musik als politischer Faktor: Konzepte, Intention und Praxis französischer Umerziehungs- und Kulturpolitik in Deutschland 1945-1949/50. Tübingen: Narr, 2010.

Monod, David. Settling Scores: German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953. Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Pike, David. The Politics of Culture in Soviet-Occupied Germany, 1945-1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Prieberg, Fred. Handbuch Deutsche Musiker 1933-1945. CD-ROM, 2004, revised version 2009.

Riehtmüller, Albrecht, ed. Deutsche Leitkultur Musik? : zur Musikgeschichte nach dem Holocaust. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2006).

Scherliess, Volker, ed. »Stunde Null«. Zur Musik um 1945. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2014.

Steinweis, Alan E. Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Thacker, Toby. Music after Hitler, 1945-1955. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Music into Words – Morley College, Sunday February 12th, from 1:15 pm


This coming Sunday, February 12th, will see a mini-conference, the second major event organised by Music into Words, whose declared aim is ‘to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.’

This event will take place at The Holst Room, Morley College, London SE1, from 1:15 to 5 pm on Sunday, February 12th, 2017, and I will be on the panel. Other participants are world-leading pianist Peter Donohoe, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times Neil Fisher, writer, musician and researcher Katy Hamilton, music researcher and journalist Leah Broad, conductor Tom Hammond, clarinettist, composer and creative producer Kate Romano, and writer Adrian Ainsworth. It will be hosted by Frances Wilson (whose blog Cross-Eyed Pianist is here – you can read my interview with Frances here) and founder and editor of, Simon Brackenborough. Tickets, which are selling fast, can be booked here. Fees are £10 + £0.75 booking fee through Early Bird, £5 + £0.58 booking fee for students.

The order of events will be as follows:

1.15pm – arrival/registration and welcome

1.30 – Panel 1:
Speakers: Katy Hamilton, Adrian Ainsworth & Tom Hammond
with Peter Donohoe and Neil Fisher

Followed by audience Q&A/discussion

3.00 – Tea break (the refectory Morley College will be open for refreshments)

3.30 – Panel 2:
Speakers: Ian Pace, Kate Romano, Leah Broad

Followed by audience Q&A/discussion

5pm – event ends.

My own contribution will concentrate on the thorny questions of the differences between journalistic and scholarly writing, and in particular the use of jargon (as distinct from technically precise or conceptually rich language), and its use for a play of power in order to mystify academic writing and render it artificially inaccessible. My short talk will be accompanied with hand-outs giving some examples of the phenomenon I describe, and of writing for which these categories are ambiguous. This is designed to encourage a wider discussion on the purpose of writing on music carried out in an academic context, drawing on my own parallel experiences as musicologist, professional musician, and blogger on music and other subjects. Some of my earlier writings on this blog relate to this subject, including my posts on scholarship and new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much some musicologists are vested in their subject, whether it is acceptable for scholarly writing on music to draw upon monolingual sources, and on deskilling and musical education.

I am very pleased to have been invited to take part in this mini-conference, and hope many will come to lend their input to what is sure to be a fascinating series of debates.



Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70 – Jan 19/20, Conference/Concerts at City University

Click here to book tickets for the conference and/or the concerts.

On Thursday January 19th and Friday January 20th, 2017, City, University of London is hosting a conference entitled Bright Futures, Dark Pasts: Michael Finnissy at 70.  This will feature a range of scholarly papers on a variety of aspects of Finnissy’s work – including his use of musical objets trouvés, engagement with folk music, sexuality, the influence of cinema, relationship to other contemporary composers, issues of marginality, and his work in performance. There will be three concerts, featuring his complete works for two pianos and piano duet, played by the composer, Ian Pace, and Ben Smith; a range of solo, chamber and ensemble works; and a complete performance (from 14:00-21:00 on Friday 20th) of his epic piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound by Ian Pace. The concerts include the world premieres of Finnissy’s Zortziko (2009) for piano duet and Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) for solo piano, the UK premiere of Duet (1971-2013) and London premieres of Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) for piano duet, Derde symfonische etude (2013) for two pianos,  his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) for two pianos, and Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) for two pianos. There will also be a rare chance to hear Finnissy’s Sardinian-inspired Anninnia (1981-2) for voice and piano, for the first time in several decades.

Keynote speakers will be Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester), Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University, author of Homintern) and Ian Pace (City, University of London). The composer will be present for the whole event, and will perform and be interviewed by Christopher Fox (Brunel University) on his work and the History in particular.

The composer and photographer Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, who studied with Finnissy between 2000 and 2004, has created a photographic work, continuum simulacrum (2016-17) inspired by The History of Photography in Sound and particularly Chapter 6 (Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets). The series will be shown on screens in the department and samples of a book version will be available.


Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).

The full programme can be viewed below. This conference also brings to a close Ian Pace’s eleven-concert series of the complete piano works of Finnissy.

A separate blog post will follow on The History of Photography in Sound.



Click here to book tickets for the conference and/or the concerts.


All events take place at the Department of Music, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB.  

Thursday January 19th, 2017

 09:00-09:30 Room AG09.
Registration and TEA/COFFEE.

09:30-10:00  Performance Space.
Introduction and tribute to Michael Finnissy by Ian Pace and Miguel Mera (Head of Department of Music, City, University of London).

10:00-12:00  Room AG09. Chair: Aaron Einbond.
Larry Goves (Royal Northern College of Music), ‘Michael Finnissy & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: the composer as anthropologist’.

Maarten Beirens (Amsterdam University), ‘Questioning the foreign and the familiar: Interpreting Michael Finnissy’s use of traditional and non-Western sources’

Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University), ‘The Medium is Now the Material: The “Folklore” of Chris Newman and Michael Finnissy’.

Followed by a roundtable discussion between the three speakers and composer and Finnissy student Claudia Molitor (City, University of London), chaired by Aaron Einbond.


12:00-13:00  Foyer, Performance Space.

13:1014:15 Performance Space.
Concert 1: Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (10). Michael Finnissy, Ian Pace and Ben Smith play Finnissy’s works for two pianos or four hands.

Michael Finnissy, Wild Flowers (1974) (IP/MF)
Michael Finnissy, Fem ukarakteristisek marsjer med tre tilføyde trioer (2008-9) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Derde symfonische etude (2013) (BS/IP) (London premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel 1920 (2008) (IP/BS)
Michael Finnissy, his voice/was then/here waiting (1996) (IP/MF) (UK premiere)
Michael Finnissy, Eighteenth-Century Novels: Fanny Hill (2006) (IP/MF) (London premiere)


Max Ernst, Deux jeunes se promènent à travers le ciel (1920)


14:30-15:30 Room AG09. Chair: Lauren Redhead (Canterbury Christ Church University).Keynote: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester): ‘Articulating, Dwelling, Travelling: Michael Finnissy and Marginality’.

15:30-16:00  Foyer, Performance Space.

16:00-17:00 Room AG09. Chair: Roddy Hawkins (University of Manchester).
Keynote: Ian Pace (City, University of London): ‘Michael Finnissy between Jean-Luc Godard and Dennis Potter: appropriation of techniques from cinema and TV’ 

17:00-18:00 Room AG09. Chair: Christopher Fox (Brunel University).
Roundtable on performing the music of Michael Finnissy. Participants: Neil Heyde (cellist), Ian Pace (pianist), Jonathan Powell (pianist), Christopher Redgate (oboist), Roger Redgate (conductor, violinist), Nancy Ruffer (flautist).


19:00              Performance Space.
Concert 2: City University Experimental Ensemble (CUEE), directed Tullis Rennie. Christopher Redgate, oboe/oboe d’amore; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Bernice Chitiul, voice; Alexander Benham, piano; Michael Finnissy, piano; Ian Pace, piano; Ben Smith; piano.

Michael Finnissy, Yso (2007) (CUEE)
Michael Finnissy, Stille Thränen (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith)
Michael Finnissy, Runnin’ Wild (1978) (Christopher Redgate)
Michael Finnissy, Anninnia (1981-82) (Bernice Chitiul, Ian Pace)
Michael Finnissy, Ulpirra (1982-83) (Nancy Ruffer)
Michael Finnissy, Pavasiya (1979) (Christopher Redgate)


‘Mini-Cabaret’: Michael Finnissy, piano
Chris Newman, AS YOU LIKE IT (1981)
Michael Finnissy, Kleine Fjeldmelodie (2016-17) (World première)
Andrew Toovey, Where are we in the world? (2014)
Laurence Crane, 20th CENTURY MUSIC (1999)
Matthew Lee Knowles, 6th Piece for Laurence Crane (2006)
Morgan Hayes, Flaking Yellow Stucco (1995-6)
Tom Wilson, UNTIL YOU KNOW (2017) (World première)
Howard Skempton, after-image 3 (1990)

Michael Finnissy, Zortziko (2009) (Ian Pace, Ben Smith) (World première)
Michael Finnissy, Duet (1971-2013) (Ben Smith, Ian Pace) (UK première)
Michael Finnissy, ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’, from Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88) (Alexander Benham)
Michael Finnissy, APRÈS-MIDI DADA (2006) (CUEE)



Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).

21:30  Location to be confirmed


Friday January 20th, 2017

10:00-11:00  Room AG21.
Christopher Fox in conversation with Michael Finnissy on The History of Photography in Sound.

11:00-11:30  Room AG21.

11:30-12:30  Room AG21. Chair: Alexander Lingas (City, University of London).
Keynote: Gregory Woods (Nottingham Trent University): ‘My “personal themes”?!’: Finnissy’s Seventeen Homosexual Poets and the Material World’.


14:00-21:00      Performance Space.
Concert 3:  Michael Finnissy: The Piano Music (11): The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2002). Ian Pace, piano

14:00                     Chapters 1, 2: Le démon de l’analogie; Le réveil de l’intraitable realité.

15:00                     INTERVAL

15:15                     Chapters 3, 4: North American Spirituals; My parents’ generation thought War meant something

16:15                     INTERVAL

16:35                     Chapters 5, 6, 7: Alkan-Paganini; Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets; Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch

17:50                     INTERVAL (wine served)

18:10                     Chapter 8: Kapitalistische Realisme (mit Sizilianische Männerakte und Bachsche Nachdichtungen)

19:20                     INTERVAL (wine served)

19:35                     Chapters 9, 10, 11: Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur; Unsere Afrikareise; Etched Bright with Sunlight.


What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs; they are therefore more liberal, less fanatical, but also more ‘false’ (less ‘authentic’) – something we translate, in ordinary consciousness, by the avowal of an impression of nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent), from which can rise, here and there, only the cry of anarchisms, marginalisms, and individualisms: let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation).

Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.

Such are the two ways of the Photography.  The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.

Ce qui caractérise les sociétés dites avancées, c’est que ces sociétés consomment aujourd’hui des images, et non plus, comme celles d’autrefois, des croyances; elles sont donc plus libérales, moins fanataiques, mais aussi plus «fausses» (moins «authentiques») – chose que nous traduisons, dans la conscience courante, par l’aveu d’une impression d’ennui nauséeux, comme si l’image, s’universalisant, produisait un monde sans differences (indifferent), d’où ne peut alors surgir ici et là que le cri des anarchismes, marginalismes et individualismes : abolissons les images, sauvons le Désir immédiat (sans mediation).

Folle ou sage? La Photographie peut être l’un ou l’autre : sage si son réalisme reste relative, tempére par des habitudes esthétiques ou empiriques (feuilleter une revue chez le coiffeur, le dentist); folle, si ce réalisme est absolu, et, si l’on peut dire, original, faisant revenir à la conscience amoureuse et effrayée la letter même du Temps : movement proprement révulsif, qui retourne le cours de la chose, et que l’appellerai pour finir l’extase photographique.

Telles sont les deux voies de la Photographie. A moi de choisir, de soumettre son spectacle au code civilise des illusions parfaits, ou d’affronter en elle le réveil de l’intraitable réalité.

Roland Barthes, Le chambre claire/Camera Lucida.



Eadweard Muybridge – A. Throwing a Disk, B: Ascending a Step, C: Walking from Animal Locomotion (1885-1887).




Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, from continuum simulacrum (2016-17).

Click here to book tickets for the conference and/or the concerts.


The Verdi that inspired Finnissy

This coming Thursday, December 1st, will see the ninth concert in my series of the complete piano works of Michael Finnissy, at Deptford Town Hall, Goldsmith’s College, beginning at 18:00 (with a 15-minute talk between myself and the composer, followed by the performance immediately afterwards). This cycle, which I have recorded in its earlier incarnation, and which was considerably expanded (to around twice the original duration, and four books referencing every Verdi opera) in 2004-2005, is one for which I hold a special affection, as Book 1 was the first music of Finnissy I ever learned.

As earlier with Finnissy’s Gershwin Arrangements, I thought some would find it informative to be able to listen to the Verdi originals before the concert, so I have made this blog containing all of the numbers/sections in question, in the same order as they appear in the Finnissy cycle.

I hope many people will be able to come along on Thursday, and bring others!

Book 1

No. 1: Aria: ‘Sciagatura!  a questo lido ricercai l’amante infido!’, Oberto (Act 2)


(From 2:00:50)

No. 2: Trio: ‘Bella speranza in vero’, Un Giorno di Regno (Act 1)


No. 3: Chorus: ‘Il maledetto non ha fratelli’, Nabucco (Part 2)


No. 4: Chorus:‘Fra tante sciagure…’, I Lombardi (Act 3)


(From 1:33:24)

No. 5: Septet with Chorus: ‘Vedi come il buon vegliardo…’, Ernani (Part 1)


No. 6:Choral Barcarolle: ‘Tace il vento, è queta l’onda’, I Due Foscari (Act 3)


(From 1:15:34)

No. 7: Aria: ‘So che per via di triboli’, Giovanna d’Arco (Act 1)


(from 4:35)

No. 8: Duet: ‘Il pianto…l’angoscia…di lean mi priva’, Alzira (Act 2)


(From 1:03:27)

No. 9: Aria: ‘Mentre gonfiarsi l’Anima’, Attila (Act 1)


Book 2

No. 10: Duetto: ‘Vanitosi! Che abietti e dormenti’, Attila (Prologo)


(From 22:35)

No. 11: Coro: ‘Patria oppressa! Il dolce nome…’, Macbeth (Act 4, 1847 version)


No. 12: Duetto: ‘Qual mare, qual terra….’, I masnadieri (Parte Terza)


No. 13: Récit et Duo: ‘Non, ce bruit, ce ne’est rien…’, Jérusalem (Act 1)


(From 3:38)

No. 14: Romanza: ‘Non so le tetre immagini’, Il Corsaro (Act 1)


No. 15: Inno di Vittoria: ‘Dall’Alpi a Caridi echeggi vittoria!’, La Battaglia di Legnano (Act 4)


(From 1:44:16)

No. 16: Scena e Quartetto: ‘Rea fucina d’empie frodi…’, Luisa Miller (Act 2)


(From 1:24:08)

No. 17: Duetto: ‘Opposto é il calle che in avvenire’, Stiffelio (Act 3)


(From 1:30:00)

No. 18: Scena e Coro: ‘Vendetta del pazzo! Contr’esso un rancore’, Rigoletto (Act 1)


(From 9:25)

Book 3

No. 19: Canzone: ‘La donna è mobile’, Rigoletto (Act 3)


No. 20: Duo: ‘Vivra! Contende il giubilo’, Il Trovatore (Act 4, scene 1)


(From 4:48)

No. 21: Duetto: ‘È nulla, sai?’, La Traviata (Act 3)


(From 2:20:40)

No. 22: Boléro: ‘Merci, jeunes amies, d’un souvenir si doux!’, Les vêpres siciliennes (Act 5, scene 2)


No. 23: Scena: ‘Tradimento!’, Simon Boccanegra (Finale dell’Atto Primo, 1857 version)


(if this link does not work, simply do a search for Verdi Boccanegra Tradimento on Spotify)

No. 24: Coro, Burrasca e Finale: ‘Allora che gl’anni’, Aroldo (Act 4); ‘Vi fu in Palestina’, Aroldo (Finale Act 1)




(From 1:56:54 for ‘Allora che gl’anni’, 40:32 for ‘Vi fu in Palestina’)

No. 25: Stretta: ‘Ogni cura si doni al diletto’, Un Ballo di Maschera (Act 1)


No. 26: Romanza: ‘Me pellegrina ed orfano’, La Forza del Destino (Act 1)


No. 27: Aria: (a) ‘Trionfai! Securi alfino’ (1847), (b) ‘La luce langue’ (1864-5), Macbeth (Act 2)



Book 4

No. 28: Chorus: ‘S’allontanarono! N’accozzeremo’, Macbeth (Act 1)



No. 29: (a) Duo: ‘Restez! Auprès de ma personne’ (Acte II, Tableau II); (b) Duo: ‘J’ai tout compris’ (Acte IV, Tableau I), Don Carlos (1866-7)





(From 1:05)


No. 30: Romanza: ‘O cieli azzuri…’, Aida (Act 3)


No. 31: String Quartet: (a) III. Prestissimo, (b) IV. Scherzo fuga



No. 32: Aria: ‘Cielo, pietoso, rendila’, Simon Boccanegra (Act 2)


No. 33: Aria: ‘Tu che la vanità conoscesti’, Don Carlo (Act 5)


No. 34: (a) Ballet No. 3: ‘Chanson Grecque’ (Cancone Greca)’; (b) Scena: ‘Una gran nube turba’, Otello (Act 3, Finale)


(From 1:47)


(From 1:31:30)

No. 35: ‘Brava! Quelle corna saranno la mio gioia!’, Falstaff (Act 3, Part 1)


(From 1:41:25)

No. 36: ‘Requiem Aeternam’, Missa da Requiem



On Canons (and teaching Le Sacre du Printemps)

I have been meaning for a while to post something detailed in my ‘Musicological Observations’ on the vexed subject of musical ‘canons’. A debate will take place tomorrow (Wednesday 23rd November, 2016) at City, University of London, on the subject, which I unfortunately have to miss, as I am away for a concert and conference in Lisbon. Having for a long period taught canonical (and also less canonical) music , and also lectured on the subject of canons in general, I naturally have plenty of thoughts and would have liked to contribute; I suggested most of the texts below (a list which is generally weighted in an anti-canonical direction, which is not my personal view). Nonetheless, the organiser of the debate, Christine Dysers, was very keen when I suggested I might blog something in advance of the debate, including some sceptical thoughts on the abstract. So here goes….

The abstract for this debate reads as follows:

“Dead White Men? Who Needs Musical Canons?”

What is the nature and purpose of musical canons? And what are the systems of authority that they sustain? Do they tend to act, as Jim Samson has suggested, ‘as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power’ (Samson 2001:7; from ‘Canon (iii)’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2nd edn). Volume 5:6-7. London: Macmillan).

In this debate, speakers will explore notions of canonicity, particularly in relation to Euro-American art music. They will examine the reasons for the emergence of (largely composedly) canons and ask whether they still serve a useful purpose in the 21st Century.

Among other issues, speakers will consider the relations of power that underpin processes of canon-formation and ask whose ‘voices’ become marginalised, excluded or even forgotten. This will include, but not be restricted to, consideration of gender dimensions of canon-formation and how processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, and ultimately ideas about the very ontology of ‘music’ itself. Such debates also raise questions about the role of canons in shaping categories of creative agency and hierarchies between ‘composer’, ‘performer’ and (often presented as rather passive) ‘listener’.

Suggested preparatory reading:

  1. Charles Altieri, ‘An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 37-60 – on literature, but one of the most notable essays which is more sympathetic to canons –
  1. Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds), Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992). In particular Bergeron, ‘Prologue: Disciplining Music’, pp. 1-9, and Randel, ‘The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox’, pp. 10-22.
  1. John Butt, ‘What is a ‘Musical Work’? Reflections on the origins of the ‘work concept’ in western art music’, in Concepts of Music and Copyright: How Music Perceives Itself and How Copyright Perceives Music, ed. Andreas Rahmatian (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), pp. 1-22.
  1. Joseph Kerman, ‘A Few Canonic Variations’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 107-125 – one of the first major essays on canon issues in a musical context, and still an extremely important text on the subject –
  2. Simon Zagorski-Thomas, ‘Dead White Composers’ – full text, link to recording, and a series of responses can be read here –


I find this abstract very deeply problematic in many ways. It is permeated throughout with a great many assumptions presented as if established facts, when they should actually be hypotheses for critical engagement, as if to try and bracket out any type of perspective which is at odds with those assumptions.

The first paragraph is almost a model of leading questions:

What is the nature and purpose of musical canons? And what are the systems of authority that they sustain? Do they tend to act, as Jim Samson has suggested, ‘as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power’ (Samson 2001:7; from ‘Canon (iii)’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2nd edn). Volume 5:6-7. London: Macmillan).  

Who has determined a priori that canons do indeed serve to sustain systems of authority? Whether indeed this is the case needs to be answered, and substantiated either way, rather than assumed. And, for that matter, how is a ‘canon’ defined (below I argue that fundamentally it is a necessary teaching tool)? Is it the set of composers who are regularly taught in particular institutions, or those who have sustained a regular listenership over a period of time, or those seen as epitomising particular strains of musical ‘progress’ through advanced and innovative compositional techniques, or indeed groups of musicians other than composers? Those questions may be said to fall within the issues of the ‘nature and purpose of musical canons’, but a less leading second question would be something along the lines of ‘Do canons serve to sustain other systems of authority, and if so, how?’

Samson is a subtle and nuanced thinker, who has written perceptively on (relatively) canonical composers such as Chopin and Liszt, and whose PhD dissertation, later published as a book, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality 1900-1920 (London: Dent, 1977) , focused on mostly canonical figures associated with the period of ‘transition’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I went back to the context of this quote (I do not have a hard copy of New Grove to hand, but see no reason to believe that the online version is different). Here is the actual quote:

The canon has been viewed increasingly as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power. In particular, challenges have issued from Marxist, feminist and post-colonial approaches to art, where it is argued that class, gender and race have been factors in the inclusion of some and the marginalization of others. 

Samson does not ‘suggest’ this view, he points out that certain types of thinkers in particular have thought this – a view is being attributed to him which he is attributing to others. In this sense, the abstract misrepresents Samson’s balanced entry on the subject. I would draw attention to his second paragraph, which offers a wider (and global) perspective, and provides a good starting point for discussion:

Music sociologists such as Walter Wiora have demonstrated that certain differentiations and hierarchies are common to the musical cultures of virtually all social communities; in short, such concepts as Ars Nova, Ars Subtilior and Ars Classica are by no means unique to western European traditions. Perhaps the most extreme formulation of an Ars Classica would be the small handful of pieces comprising the traditional solo shakuhachi repertory of Japan, where the canon stands as an image of timeless perfection in sharp contrast to the contemporary world. But even in performance- and genre-orientated musical cultures such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, or the sub- and counter-cultures of North American and British teenagers since the 1960s, there has been a tendency to privilege particular repertories as canonic. Embedded in this privilege is a sense of the ahistorical, and essentially disinterested, qualities of these repertories, as against their more temporal, functional and contingent qualities. A canon, in other words, tends to promote the autonomy character, rather than the commodity character, of musical works. For some critics, the very existence of canons – their independence from changing fashions – is enough to demonstrate that aesthetic value can only be understood in an essentialist way, something we perceive intuitively, but (since it transcends conceptual thought) are unable to explain or even describe.

To present a range of different views on the role of canons might be more in the spirit of a debate.

Moving to the next paragraph:

In this debate, speakers will explore notions of canonicity, particularly in relation to Euro-American art music. They will examine the reasons for the emergence of (largely composedly) canons and ask whether they still serve a useful purpose in the 21st Century. 

Phrases like ‘speakers will explore’ or ‘they will examine’ sound almost like diktats; more to the point, why single out Euro-American art music? Why not consider, say, the Great American Songbook, or some other repertoire of musical ‘standards’, which could be argued to serve an equally canonical purpose? Or how about looking at what I would argue is the canonical status of various popular musicians or bands – the Beatles, Madonna, and others – within popular music studies in higher education? Or at aspects of Asian musical traditions which some would argue are also canonical in the manner described in the Samson paragraph above?

Then the third paragraph:

Among other issues, speakers will consider the relations of power that underpin processes of canon-formation and ask whose ‘voices’ become marginalised, excluded or even forgotten. This will include, but not be restricted to, consideration of gender dimensions of canon-formation and how processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, and ultimately ideas about the very ontology of ‘music’ itself. Such debates also raise questions about the role of canons in shaping categories of creative agency and hierarchies between ‘composer’, ‘performer’ and (often presented as rather passive) ‘listener’.  

Once again we encounter many hypotheses presented as if established facts (and more diktats: ‘speakers will consider…’). Many of these loaded statements could be reframed as critical questions: for example, do canons indeed serve a function of marginalisation and exclusion?. I would ask whether, not how, processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, whether canon-formation is a gendered process, and whether they shape the very categories of creative agency and hierarchies mentioned above. As I have recently criticised in some blurb accompanying a lavishly funded research project, this reads like an attempt to skip the difficult questions and present conclusions without doing the research first.

So, on to some thoughts of my own on the basic debate. Proper responses to the texts in questions (and others) will have to wait for a later post. I started thinking in a more sustained fashion about issues of canons first in the context of reading widely about the teaching of literature, then during my time as a Research Fellow at Southampton University, where the ‘new musicology’ was strong (I started off very sceptical, but was determined to familiarise myself with this work properly, then for a period believed that these musicologists were raising some important questions, even if I did not agree with many of their answers; nowadays I wonder if that engagement was a bit of waste of time and energy). There I taught a module on ‘Classical Music and Society’, which looked at various explicitly social/political paradigms for engaging with Western classical music, going back as far as Plato, and including a fair amount of Adorno, requiring students to actually read some of the original writings rather than simply rely upon secondary literature, though a critical approach was strongly urged (whilst basically sympathetic to the broad outlook of Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School, I have many serious problems with this work, not least in terms of the reliance upon Freudian psychoanalysis). Some of the best essays which resulted were quite scathing about Adorno – though also some excellent ones were quite sympathetic.

Anyhow, in a lecture on Adorno’s views on modernism and mass culture, I contrasted the compositional technique and aesthetics on display in Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and in a range of works from Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘free atonal’ period. I did not expect many students to be familiar with Schoenberg, but was quite shocked when only a tiny number had at that stage heard Le Sacre. This made engagement with the issues Adorno raised all the harder.

I determined from that point that if I had the opportunity to teach a broad-based music history module, I wanted to ensure that the students taking it would at least have encountered this work – and numerous others. Not that I would demand any of them necessarily view it or other works positively (as Simon Zagorski-Thomas erroneously suggests is the primary purpose of musical education in Russell Group universities), but they had to have heard it properly in order to be able to develop any type of view.

Now Le Sacre remains a controversial work, about which I have many reservations, despite having played the two-piano/four-hand version a number of times with two duo partners, and listened to countless performances and recordings, and studied the work in some depth. But by so many criteria – in terms of lasting place in the repertoire and long-term popularity, influence on other composers, strong relationship to many other aesthetic and ideological currents, or revolutionising of musical language – Le Sacre is a vastly important work. Petrouchka runs it close (and possibly some later Stravinsky works as well). But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that, say, the contemporary works of Aleksander Glazunov or Nikolay Roslavets, or those of Max Reger, Albert Roussel, Pietro Mascagni after Cavalleria Rusticana, or Amy Beach, can be considered of equal significance by any measure (which is not to deny that their work can be of interest). But if comparing the work of Claude Debussy, Schoenberg, Aleksander Skryabin, Giacomo Puccini, Serge Rachmaninoff, and others, such an argument may be plausible. Or with respect to the work of leading jazz musicians – King Oliver, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin Armstrong, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton, James Reece Europe, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, and many others active a decade after the premiere of Le Sacre. That is simply to allow for a diverse range of tendencies, all perceived to be of palpable importance, not to dissolve any judgement of value or indeed exclude the possibility of canon.

In short I want to argue for a reasonably broad and inclusive canon, if the term is viewed as a teaching tool. Anyone who has taught music history knows that the time available for teaching is finite, and so making choices of what to include, and what not, is inevitable (as with any approach to wider history). Students entering higher education in music often have only very limited exposure to a wider range of music, and need both encouragement and some direction in this respect; the only way to avoid making choices and establishing hierarchies is to give up on doing this. The moment one decides, when teaching Western classical music, to spend more time on Ludwig van Beethoven than Carl Stamitz, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than Antonio Salieri, or Frédéric Chopin than Friedrich Kalkbrenner, one has established hierarchies of value.

When I got to teach my broad historical module – which covered the period 1848-2001 and I ran for six years – I attempted some breadth of approach (which made the module more than a little intense), incorporating various urban popular musics as much as classical traditions, including a substantial component on the histories of jazz, blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, and many diverse popular traditions from the 1960s onwards, as well as much wider consideration of the possible historical, social and political dimensions of music-making and musical life during the period in question, which necessitated incorporation of a fair amount of wider history as well, working under the assumption that many students would not be that familiar with such events as the revolutions of 1848, or the shifting allegiances and nationalistic rivalries between the major powers in the period leading up to World War One. But this was still a course in music history, not a wider history course in which music was just one of many possible cultural tangents (the first time I taught it, I realised it was in danger of going in this direction, and I modified it accordingly in subsequent years), and so I needed to include a fair amount of actual music, music which could be listened to, not just read about, so that entailed compositions or recorded performances (the latter is obviously not an option for those teaching earlier musical periods, a very straightforward explanation for why musical composition, for which texts survive, has tended to be quite central in such teaching). So this necessitated some choices relating to inclusion/exclusion – one priority was not to give disproportionate attention to Austro-German nineteenth century compositional traditions, and consider more seriously those traditions existing in particular in France, Italy and Russia; another was, as mentioned before, to give proper space to non-‘classical’ traditions. There were numerous other criteria I attempted in this context, not least of which was to present plenty of music for which a link with the wider context was relatively easy to comprehend – but with hindsight, I think this was a very dubious criterion, and which artificially loaded the attempts to ask students to look critically at the relationship between music and history/society, not take some assumed relationship as a given. There are a great many positions which have been adopted by musicologists and music historians, from a staunch defence of autonomous musical development to a thoroughly deterministic view; I have my own convictions in this respect, but the point is not to preach these, but try to help students to be able to shape their own in an intelligent and well-informed manner.

Someone in another department commented to me quite recently of his astonishment that he encountered students who had never heard Brahms’s Second Symphony (said with some special emphasis as is characteristic of those with a strong grounding in a tradition, and for whom not knowing this would be like a literary student never having read or seen Macbeth). I replied that if I encountered a few students who had already heard a work like that before it was presented in a class, I would feel lucky. But that situation is now to be expected, and in my view musical higher education can do a lot worse than try to introduce students to a lot of music which lecturers, audiences, and many musicians over an extended period have found remarkable. Not in order to dictate to those students that they must feel the same way, but to expose them to work which has been found by a significant community to be of historical and aesthetic significance, and invite them to form their own view – which may be heretical.

So it is on this basis that I believe ‘canons’ are valid, indeed essential, teaching tools for musical history – whether dealing with histories of composers, performers or even institutions – if students are to be given some help and guidance in terms of studying sounding music.  I refuse to accept the singular use of the term ‘the canon’, for this is not, and has never been, fixed when one considers different times and places. Mikhail Glinka and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov occupy a hallowed place within Russian musical life and history, so far as I can ascertain (not being a Russian speaker, so dependent upon secondary literature), but this view is only relatively rarely shared elsewhere. The canonical status of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt has never been unambiguous, whilst that of Puccini and Rachmaninoff, as compared to the composers of the Second Viennese School, continues to be the source of healthy and robust debate. The place of Italian opera within wider canons of music from the eighteenth century onwards varies; I would also note, though, that within operatic history, Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti are often canonised, but Giovanni Pacini and Saverio Mercadante are generally viewed as less central, to my mind an entirely natural decision. In terms of pre-Baroque or post-1945 repertoires, there is even less consensus. I for one find it very difficult to accept the particular choices of key works from the last few decades in the ninth edition of  A History of Western Music by Donald Grout and Claude Palisca, revised by J. Peter Burkholder (New York: Norton, 2014).

I offer the following hypotheses (some of which I have no time to substantiate here) for critical discussion:

Aesthetics are more than a footnote to political ideologies, and canons reflect aesthetics in ways which cannot be reduced to the exercise of power.

There is not a singular canon, but a shifting body of musical compositions which are canonised to differing extents depending upon time and place.

Sometimes the process of canonisation is simply a reflection of what may not be a hugely controversial view – that not all music is equally worthy of sustained attention.

Canonical processes exist in many different fields of music, not just Euro-American art music in the form of compositions. 

The most casual of listeners exhibit tastes and thus aesthetic priorities. These are not necessarily perceived as solely personal matters of no significance to anyone else, or else they would not be discussed with others. 

It is impossible to teach any type of historical approach to musical composition and performance without including some examples, excluding others. 

Many canonical decisions are made for expediency, and in order to provide a manageable but relatively broad picture of a time and/or place in musical history. 

The broad-based attacks on canons, almost always focused exclusively on Western art music composition, are often a proxy for an attack on the teaching of this repertoire at all.

A very different view can be found in an essay of Philip V. Bohlman:

To the extent that musicologists concerned largely with the traditions of Western art music were content with a singular canon- any singular canon that took a European-American concert tradition as a given – they were excluding musics, peoples, and cultures. They were, in effect, using the process of disciplining to cover up the racism, colonialism, and sexism that underlie many of the singular canons of the West. They bought into these “-isms” just as surely as they coopted an “-ology.” Canons formed from “Great Men” and “Great Music” forged virtually unassailable categories of self and Other, one to discipline and reduce to singularity, the other to bellitle and impugn. Canon was determined not so much by what it was as by what it was not. It was not the musics of women or people of color; it was not musics that belonged to other cultures and worldviews; it was not forms of expression that resisted authority or insisted that music could empower politics.

(Philip Bohlman, ‘Epilogue: Musics and Canons’, in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons, edited Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 198).


I can only characterise the above as a rant: musical canons are presented in language which might seem too extreme if describing Jimmy Savile or Slobodan Milosevic, and stops just short of indicting these in terms of complicity with widespread global dispossession and even genocide. But the paragraph is in no sense substantiated, and amounts to a series of rhetorical assertions. Furthermore, I would like to know more about how Bohlman thinks that music has indeed ’empowered politics’ in any significant number of cases, or why he thinks music is best rendered secondary to other uses, basically reiterating the rhetoric associated with Gebrauchsmusik in the 1920s and 1930s.

It is certainly true that Western classical music (and a fair amount of Western popular musics too) has at least until recently predominantly been made by white men, in part because the opportunities available to them did not exist to anything like the same extent for other groups. Complaints, for example, about lack of staging of operas by women composers make little sense without suggestions of works (other than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers and a small few others) which might feasibly be produced and would be acceptable in musical terms to a lot of existing opera audiences; relatively few women before recent decades were given the opportunities to write operas (which were rarely produced in isolation, but much more often in response to specific commissions). Only a shift to a greater amount of contemporary work in opera houses – which would create a new set of problems – opens up the possibility of a significantly increased representation of women composers. It is also hardly surprising that music produced in the Western world, at least in Europe, was only infrequently produced by ‘people of colour’ during times (basically, before the fall of many of the major European empires) when such people formed much smaller communities in European societies.

This is not to make light of the fact that opportunities for artistic participation have been strongly weighted in favour of certain groups in Western society over a long period (and, for that matter, in many non-Western societies as well). But the same was true of access to politics and government, the diplomatic service, banking, and very much else – the historical study of the figures who obtained and exercised power in these fields in Western societies before the twentieth century will be in large measure a history of white men. To arrive at a blanket decision on the workings of those fields on the basis of that information alone would be massively crude; the alternative is to spend time studying these histories before arriving at prognoses. To employ an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss vast bodies of creative work simply on account of the gender, class, ethnicity or other demographic factors relating to those who had the opportunities to produce, is myopic in the extreme, and smacks of a narrow politics of resentment. This is not a mistake that would have been made by Friedrich Engels, or the Hungarian Marxist intellectual György Lukács, both of whom wrote eloquently on the immense value of literary work by avowedly non-socialist thinkers such as Honore de Balzac, Sir Walter Scott, or Thomas Mann, in obviously political as well as aesthetic terms. The true believers in establishment values were those who – when nonetheless good writers who were prepared to allow their scenarios and characters to take on ‘lives of their own’- could, according to these thinkers, reveal more about the inner contradictions damaging these milieux, sometimes more so than some writers who identified with the left.

I would personally argue that the ubiquity of Anglo-American popular music (much of which interests me very much, and which as mentioned before I have taught extensively) is a far more hegemonic force in many societies than any sort of classical ‘canon’, which plays an increasingly marginal role in large numbers of people’s lives, especially in the face of cuts to and dumbing-down of musical education at many levels. As I argued (more than a little ironically!) in my response to Simon Zagorski-Thomas:

Personally, I can rarely go into a bar without being barraged by Japanese gagaku music, cannot go shopping without a constant stream of Stockhausen, Barraqué, mid-period Xenakis, or just sometimes examples of both French and Rumanian musique spectrale, piped over the loudspeakers, whilst when I jump into a taxi cab in most countries, I can be sure that there will be no escape from music of the Italian trecento. This is not to mention the cars going past blaring out the darkest Bach cantatas, or the endlessly predictable torrents of Weimar modernism which the builders will always put on the radio. 

In a world which has recently witnessed the vote for Brexit, the election of Trump, and the growth of the far right in European politics, not to mention horrifying revelations of the abuse of children in a great many fields of life, a degree of economic collapse since the 2007 crash which does not appear to be recovering (especially in various Mediterranean countries), a wholly unholy civil war in Syria between the equally brutal forces of the Assad government and ISIS, the approaching 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and subsequent dispossession and humiliation of the native population there, with no signs of change, ominous possibilities for catastrophic climate change, and so on, making such a big deal and assigning such loaded political associations to whether the teaching of music favours some types of music more than others seems a trivial, even narcissistic concern of musicians and musicologists. It may enable some to gain some political capital and concomitant advancement in the profession, but it is hard to see much more significance – indeed this may be a convenient substitute for any other political engagement, some of it directly related to academics’ professional lives, whether demonstrating against massive increases in student fees, or supporting and participating in industrial action in opposition to such things as the gender pay-gap. Perhaps energies could also be better spent elsewhere – such as playing a small but important role in trying to help some reasonable politicians get elected, rather than leaving the ground open to grotesque populist demagogues? This would be a much more laudable aim than fighting to ensure far fewer music students ever hear Le Sacre.

I wanted to end with some brilliant quotes from Charles Rosen, much better words than I could produce:

The essential paradox of a canon, however—and we need to emphasize this repeatedly—is that a tradition is often most successfully sustained by those who appear to be trying to attack or to destroy it. It was Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky who gave new life to the Western musical tradition while seeming to undermine its very foundations. As Proust wrote, “The great innovators are the only true classics and form a continuous series. The imitators of the classics, in their finest moments, only procure for us a pleasure of erudition and taste that has no great value.” Any canon of works or laws that forms the basis of a culture or a society is subject to continuous reinterpretation and to change, enlargements, and contractions, but to be effective it is evident that it must retain a sense of identity—it must, in fact, resist change and reinterpretation and yield to them reluctantly and with difficulty. A tradition’s sense of identity is dependent on the way it is transmitted, on what kind of access to it is made available to the members of the society concerned, and on whether the transmission makes the canon too rigid or too yielding.

(Charles Rosen, ‘Culture on the Market’ (2003), in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 17-18).


Access to what are considered the great works of painting and sculpture is adequately provided by museums. They stand as a formidable barrier to those who would like to get rid of a canon, or radically alter its character (generally replacing dead white males with candidates selected by ideology, politics, or sexual preference). As I have said, a canon properly resists change, although, in the end, it must change if it is to exert a living influence. However, an abrupt and radical alteration is generally impossible to achieve: the old values spring immediately back into place once the new ideology’s back is turned. Introducing new figures into the canon is therefore, with few exceptions, a slow process, the additions generally reaching public acceptance only after decades of professional interest.

The example of two poets, John Donne and Friedrich Hölderlin, often said to have been discovered at the end of the nineteenth century after years of neglect, can show that the pathos of neglect and rediscovery is largely a myth. The present fame of Donne is popularly supposed to be owing to the influence of T. S. Eliot, but he was greatly admired by Coleridge and influenced Browning; and editions of his poetry were available throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most influential academic critic of the time, George Saintsbury, wrote of Donne as “always possessing, in actual presence or near suggestion, a poetical quality that no English poet has ever surpassed.” The criticism of Eliot brought Donne to the attention of a larger public, but he had never lacked admirers. Hölderlin is said to have been rescued from complete obscurity at the same time as Donne by the interest of two great poets, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, but earlier Robert Schumann wrote music inspired by his work, and Brahms set his verses to music. The fame of both Donne and Hölderlin increased greatly at the opening of the twentieth century, but these additions to the canon were made possible by the earlier existence of a continuously sustained admiration.

The efficacy of a tradition, however, can be weakened by swamping it with a host of minor figures, and we have seen this happen in our time. The fashion for Baroque music has awakened the interest of recording companies and concert societies, and the novelty of an unknown figure has a brief commercial interest. A brilliant essay by Theodor Adorno mocked the way the taste for Baroque style reduced Bach to the status of Telemann, obliterated the difference between the extraordinary and the conventional. Concerts of music by Locatelli, Albinoni, or Graun are bearable only for those music lovers for whom period style is more important than quality.

(Ibid. pp. 20-21).

Spinning Research

Oxford University put out a page in May of this year, relating to a grandiose project entitled ‘Transforming 19th-Century Historically-Informed Performance’, which has been awarded a major grant (£1 million) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Whether the writing and quotations from investigators in this article does justice to the nature or scope of the project I cannot be sure, but the article certainly does reveal how empty and self-undermining can be various research projects which are publicly defined by their spin rather than apparent content.

I believe it is worth unpacking the description, which I will attempt to do here:

The research will help today’s professional performers and music college students understand more about 19th-century style, and will offer them new approaches to the preparation of music for performance, as well as expanding their expressive possibilities.

That much seems fine and worthy – researching an area of performance style in such a way as might be useful for professional and student performers. This in itself is far from new, though; there is a large body of work on this subject in several language by a wide range of scholars (examples would include Clive Brown, Will Crutchfield, Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Martha Elliott, Dana Gooley, Philip Gossett, Kenneth Hamilton, Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen, Johann Hüttner, George Kennaway, Daniel J. Koury, Colin Lawson, David Milsom, David Montgomery, Michael Musgrave, Robert Philip, Clemens Risi, Sarah Potter, Robin Stowell and to a lesser degree myself), not to mention a wider range of literature on performance conditions, programming, acoustics, audience habits, and much more.

So what is different about this project? We read:

The project’s Principal Investigator, Claire Holden, said: ‘Contemporary performances of C19th repertoire by specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles reflect little of what is known about historical style. Many aspects of C19th style are fundamentally at odds with the habits and expectations of modern day performers and audiences, conservatoire training and methods of performance preparation.

None of the above scholars, nor anyone else who has studied the subject, would I believe seriously dispute the second sentence above (but some might question the degree). But the first sentence suggests a wider attack on contemporary ‘specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles’ – which of these does Claire Holden mean? The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps (of which – see below – she has been a member for 16 years. Is this a principled but scathing critique of the very institution which has provided her with a salary for an extended period)? Or the Belgian orchestra Anima Eterna, directed by Jos van Immerseel? Or the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, as directed by John Eliot Gardiner? Or period instrument string quartets such as Quatuor Mosaïques or the Eroica Quartet? Or the mixed ensemble Hausmusik? All of these have presented a wide range of performances of nineteenth-century music using period instruments, all quite differently, but mostly in ways which constitute distinct breaks with other extant performing traditions for this music (in terms of tempo, timbre, approaches to vibrato, portamento, articulation, instrumental technique, and various else, as well as fundamental conception as manifested in the work), at least at the times of their pioneering work. However, in some cases other supposedly ‘mainstream’ performers and groups have changed their own styles, in a productive spirit of cross-fertilisation.

But in the absence of any names (and those above are amongst the most prominent), nor any specifics about which aspects of ‘historical style’ (on which these groups will by no means necessarily agree) reflect ‘little of what is known’, this appears to me like a convenient straw target, in order to be able to assert ‘everyone else before us was wrong, only we can be right’? Why should anyone believe that at this early stage in a project, Holden and her co-investigators are already so considerably more enlightened than all of the many others who have researched C19th performance style and/or attempted to respond to historical information about this style in their work?

Furthermore – and this makes me question the status of this project as ‘research’ – is Holden not pre-empting the results of the research, asserting a priori that ‘Many aspects of C19th style are fundamentally at odds with the habits and expectations of modern day performers and audiences’? Surely this is a hypothesis to be proved or disproved (or, likely, somewhere in between) by research – otherwise why bother doing the research at all?

The article goes on to say:

As a result, “period” ensembles are finding it more and more difficult to maintain a distinct identity in a marketplace where they are increasingly in direct competition with ‘modern’ orchestras – often playing the same repertoire with the same conductors and soloists in a similar style.

It is not difficult to observe how some ‘modern’ orchestras have adapted and moved away from some stylistic norm which had greater traction several decades ago, and adopted aspects of style which were bequeathed by period groups like some of those mentioned above. Many conductors associated with ‘period performance’ – including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington and others – have worked with long-established orchestras, whilst others – for example Charles Mackerras or Simon Rattle – have been eager to take on board some of the achievements of period performers, even when working with modern instruments. All of this has been observed and documented over several decades by most scholarly commentators on the subject, with some (such as Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell in their The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 153-154) noting the blurring of the clear line between ‘period’ and ‘mainstream’ performance that Laurence Dreyfus observed in his 1983 article ‘Early Music Defended Against its Devotees’, Musical Quarterly 49 (1983), pp. 297-322. This is hardly news, what matters is how this might form the basis for some new research questions.

The aim of this project is to engage performers and audiences in a re-invigoration of the ways in which C19th music is performed, by focusing on how this music is prepared for performance. We will use historical knowledge not for prescriptive ends but to open up a wide variety of radical performance and pre-performance practices.

I do not know of many scholars of C19th HIP who would claim that they are using historical knowledge for prescriptive ends, though the earlier text in this article suggests a negative view of what all others have done with such knowledge (or even a suggestion that they are unaware of it, which is ludicrous), which appears quite prescriptive to me.

But how do these scholars know in advance that the results will be ‘radical’? What if the data suggested that some of the historical practices were moderately conservative? Once again, if the conclusions are known in advance, why bother do the research?

In essence, the text above seems to be saying that this is a study of C19th rehearsal and practice techniques. This is a very worthy and important area of study, but would not have sounded so flashy when spun to research funding bodies like the AHRC.

Transforming C19th HIP will address these questions through scholarly research, empirical investigation, and practical enquiry and experimentation, combining historical performance and performance studies scholarship in a significant long-term research project.

Once again, this says little which could not have been said about the majority of previous scholarship on the subject.

The project has two partner organisations: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; and the Royal Academy of Music.

Professor Eric Clarke, Oxford University’s Heather Professor of Music and the project’s Co-Investigator, said: ‘The project is going to employ a very exciting combination of historical, practical and empirical methods, and will be thoroughly engaged with a world-leading HIP orchestra and its audience, and with the students and staff of a world-leading conservatoire.

Run that by me again? I had thought this project set itself up in opposition to ‘Contemporary performances of C19th repertoire by specialist ‘period instrument’ ensembles’ which ‘reflect little of what is known about historical style.’? But there is a ‘world-leading HIP orchestra’ involved – specifically the OAE? Are they an exception to this rule (which would suggest some problem with the rule, as they are one of the most prominent such ensembles), or might they be hauled over the coals as a result of the research? Holden, the Principal Investigator, has been a member of the OAE since 2000, as revealed by her biography – will she subject her own employer to the same level of critical scrutiny as she alleges is required for other (unnamed) ensembles? And we are meant to be impressed by the mention of ‘students and staff of a world-leading conservatoire’ (the RAM), when ‘conservatoire training’ was earlier cited as as leading reason for the problem?

We read in this text a rather shallow attempt to spin a project as being in striking opposition to the practices of established groups, but then it also needs the prestige of a major orchestra and conservatoire to lend it legitimacy. The irony of this is glaring.

As I said earlier, this description may not do justice to the project, and may simply be a misguided promotional piece about a project which is considerably better framed. In this form, I cannot understand why this would have received ‘a large Research Grant’, and wonder if the obtaining of such grants has become mostly a matter of spin and having the right people associated with a project?

The description of a research project as ‘radical’ has become so routine as to be manneristic. It appears as if above all everyone looking for grants must present their work as boundary-breaking, iconoclastic, and in drastic opposition to what has come before. Actually there is plenty of important research which has been done and will continue to be done which attempts a nuanced and balanced approach to the data available, and achieves real original contributions to knowledge without always having to pretend that no-one else before had ever contributed anything of significance. The attention-seeking, pseudo-radical rhetoric in this article borders on the infantile.

Addendum: Looking at another associated project with the same PI, I read the following:

Consequently, true 19th-century practices have never been fully explored or realised,and familiar, secure, yet inaccurate ‘modern’ techniques such as off-string bowings have been the default directive. Whilst recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies (e.g. by Gardiner, Hogwood and Norrington) are well respected and certainly offer interpretative insights, their acceptance as definitive examples of historical performance in this repertoire is misguided and dangerous. The string playing does not follow either technically or stylistically the conventions that were natural to performers of that time.

Here we are back to the sort of stentorian rhetoric about accuracy and authenticity that has been said to be a feature of the bad old days. To describe performances, or the reception thereof, as ‘misguided and dangerous’, not to mention further claims about ‘there have been no recorded or concert performances which have given any meaningful realisation of early 19th-century string playing’, or how ’19th-century performance practices continue to be grossly misrepresented’, all sounds very ‘prescriptive’ to me. Again, this seems a spin on ‘all the others have got it wrong, only my group can get it right’. With various issues which should be the subject of critical research questions (e.g. the prevalence of off-string bowings) presented as established truth.

A lot of critical methodological reflection on historical performance has concluded that various aspects of performance from eras before the advent of recording are difficult to discern with any certainty, and the results will inevitably be rather provisional and inexact. Yet when some performers wish to claim that existing species of historical performance have got it wrong, they speak in the language of absolute truth. Some humility here would not go amiss.