My contribution to the debate on ‘Authoritarian Populism and Impure Futures: The Legacy of Stuart Hall’

On Tuesday 23 June 2020, as part of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences Online Festival of Research, a public debate was hosted entitled ‘Authoritarian Populism and Impure Futures: The Legacy of Stuart Hall’, co-convened by Professor Chris Rojek, of the Department of Sociology (author of Stuart Hall (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003)), and myself. It was chaired by Professor Sylvia Walby, also from Sociology. Chris and I both featured as panellists, alongside Dr Jessica Evans, of the Open University; Dr Ajmal Hussain of the University of Manchester and Professor Jim McGuigan, Professor of Cultural Studies at Loughborough University. Unfortunately Professor McGuigan had some microphone problems so was unable to speak, but was there in spirit. My own contribution, below, was quite deeply informed by some of the work of McGuigan.

A short report on the debate can be found here , and we hope to place the video of the debate online soon – I will post a link when it is up. This is a slightly longer version of the text I delivered, with minor edits. It was adapted in part from sections of a paper I gave in 2018 on ‘The Populist Turn in Musicological Scholarship and the Retreat from Social Democratic Cultural Production, in which I placed the thought of Hall and others in the context of the debates on artistic autonomy in the Weimar Republic, the attack on forms of European protectionism and subsidy espoused by Woodrow Wilson in his ‘fourteen points’ formulated in January 1918, many of them authored by Walter Lippmann, known for his work on the manipulation of public opinion (which he did not view pejoratively), and from whom the term ‘manufacturing consent’ originates, as well as the relentless lionisation of commerce and market-driven musical production by many figures associated with contemporary musicology.

Populism is a vivid phenomenon in contemporary politics, witnessed in such figures as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and others. It is not necessarily an especially new phenomenon, but it has certainly been theorised more extensively in its own right than previously. Stuart Hall was undoubtedly an early contributor to this branch of political analysis, anticipated in some of the collectively authored volume Policing the Crisis (1978). In this volume, he and others considered such matters as the creation of ‘moral panics’, or the ability of a figure like Enoch Powell to appeal to some base racial nationalism amongst working-class people, as witnessed through the dockers who marched in support of Powell following his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Hall himself arrived at the term ‘authoritarian populism’ slightly afterwards, according to him through reading the final section of Nicos Poulantzas’s book on State, Power, Socialism, about the growth of state control and decline of democratic institutions and civil liberties. Poulantzas viewed this as a type of ‘authoritarian statism’, an explanation which Hall nonetheless found unsatisfactory, because it took insufficient account of the extent to which advanced capitalist democracies appealed to popular consent for their policies, and achieved some legitimation in the process. As a result, he substituted the term ‘authoritarian populism’, an idea which was developed further in the important work of Margaret Canovan.

However, I wish to argue is that as Hall’s own thought developed in certain directions, he was unable to resist a populism of his own, which I believe undermined some of his earlier positions. I also want to say here how pleased I am to meet – at least in the online sense – Jim McGuigan, whose work on Cultural Populism (London: Routledge, 1992) has had a significant influence on my own thought on populism in musical and musicological thought.

In early post-war Britain, the influence of thinkers associated with ‘Western Marxism’, including the Frankfurt School, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, György Lukács, Siegfried Kracauer, Galvano della Volpe, or indeed for a long time Antonio Gramsci, was relatively minimal on the left, by which I mean those to the left of the Labour Party. As such, there was less engagement on such a left’s part with issues of culture and consciousness, a more accepting view of forms of collectivism ‘from above’ combined with somewhat idealised views of the proletariat, and as such a strong tendency towards Stalinism. At the same time, the same era saw the height of various progressive developments resulting from benevolent attitudes from above, which originated in the late nineteenth century. These included the growth of the welfare state, of state education with the Fisher Act of 1918 and then the Butler Act of 1944, the foundation of the Arts Council in 1940, and its flowering in the post-war era, especially during the 1960s, a degree of increased openness to European modernist culture after 1945, not least in architecture, where a series of architects inspired by the likes of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were charged with rebuilding bombed cities after 1945. Equally important was the role of the BBC as a sponsor and promoter of culture markedly distancing itself from commercial television and advertising.

The same era saw a new confrontation with commercial culture from the United States, which stimulated the growth of contemporary cultural studies. Richard Hoggart, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy (London: Pelican, 1958), contrasted new trends in American popular music with older forms of working class song. Whilst recognising the potential for nostalgic idealisation of the latter, he still saw in the former a high degree of standardisation, sentimentality, and appeal to a restricted and familiar range of emotions. Like Adorno and others before him, Hoggart identified the changes in music resulting from the relatively anonymous nature of mass production and the division of labour. The work of Raymond Williams, who in some ways bridged the worlds of Hoggart and of Hall, was of a related nature. Williams was highly critical of the bourgeois culture he encountered as a working-class boy from Wales, and the implied denigration of forms of working-class culture. But at least in his work from the 1950s, he did not necessarily see American commercial culture as the route to liberation. While neither Hoggart nor Williams adhered to an Arnoldian view of culture as a civilising force for the masses, by any means, neither were they starry-eyed about the top-down culture of American capitalism, though Williams’ position in this respect arguably shifted over the years.

When Stuart Hall took over as director of the Birmingham School of Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1969, founded 5 years earlier by Hoggart, there was a gradual but marked shift away from the outlook of Hoggart and in some ways Williams. Significant in this respect is one of Hall’s most lasting intellectual legacies, the model of ‘encoding/decoding’ as set out in his 1973 essay. Looking at television culture, he proposed that certain messages were ‘encoded’ in the work by its producers, but that audiences ‘decoded’ others. This was not however in Hall’s view a passive process, whereby the messages decoded were simply what the producers wished, and much depended upon the background of the consumers and their own priorities and ideologies. Hall framed this in terms of production, circulation, use and reproduction. In the emphasis placed upon the agency of the recipient and their ability to ‘decode’ such work. This stood in stark opposition to the model of culture which had grown in the preceding decades from the Frankfurt School, which tended to stress the successful use of mass communications as a weapon of manipulation, as in Theodor Adorno’s writings on horoscopes or charismatic preachers encountered during his time in the United States. Equally it was at odds with the model of the ‘consciousness industry’ or ‘mind industry’ developed by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger in the 1960s, somewhat distinct from Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘culture industry’. Enzensberger felt the latter placed too much emphasis on culture, in line with the priorities and interests of its protagonists. He argued instead that the previous century had witnessed a process whereby the ruling classes instilled a certain mode of consciousness amongst other citizens in a society through the mass media, education and other means. This was made possible by increased leisure time and mass production of consumer goods, all of which created sites for ruling class interests to manipulate others. Unlike Adorno, Enzensberger saw little possibility for critical resistance, as intellectuals were part of this whole process. Where this leaves Enzensberger’s own work is rather a difficult question.

The work of Hall and others on cultural studies have been labelled ‘cultural Marxism’, both by old-fashioned conservatives but also in the major study of the Birmingham School, Dennis Dworkin’s Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997) is already mistitled, in my opinion, taking its cue from the volume edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), which came out of an 1983 conference. Whilst various contributors to this were serious about their engagement with Marx, the volume contains an interview with Hall (linked to his article ‘The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism among the Theorists’) which makes clear how far he was moving away from Marxism, and especially its focus on economic factors. Hall had certainly written at length on some of Marx’s original writings, but rightly set himself against a reductive view of the relationship between base and superstructure adhered to by vulgar Marxists and Stalinists.

But a wider shift of direction on Hall’s part was signified most clearly in a 1981 essay, ‘Notes on Deconstructing “The Popular”’ (in People’s History and Socialist History, edited Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), also reproduced in Cultural Resistance Reader, edited Stuart Duncombe (London: Verso, 2002)), from which point I identify the move towards a populism of his own. Considering the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, Hall had little time for the idea of a ‘separate, autonomous, “authentic” layer of working class culture’ as he felt most things like that ‘are saturated by popular imperialism’. To Hall, this could not be ‘authentic’, but must be ‘the culture of a dominated class which, despite its complex interior formations and differentiations, stood in a very particular relation to a major restructuring of capital; which itself stood in a peculiar relation to the rest of the world; a people bound by the most complex ties to a changing set of material relations and conditions; who managed somehow to construct “a culture” which remained untouched by the most powerful dominant ideology – popular imperialism?’

So far, I think Hall’s point is valid, but he went on to argue against those socialists who were sceptical of ways in which working people consumed commercial culture , and the concomitant view of ‘false consciousness’:

Take the most common-sense meaning [of the word ‘popular’]: the things which are said to be ‘popular’ because masses of people listen to them, buy them, read them, consume them, and seem to enjoy them to the full. This is the ’market’ or commercial definition of the term: the one which brings socialists out in spots. It is quite rightly associated with the manipulation and debasement of the culture of the people. In one sense, it is the direct opposite of the way I have been using the word earlier. I have, though, two reservations about entirely dispensing with this meaning, unsatisfactory as it is.

First, if it is true that, in the twentieth century, vast numbers of people do consume and even indeed enjoy the cultural products of our modern cultural industry, then it follows that very substantial numbers of working people must be included within the audiences for such products. Now, if the forms and relationships, on which participation in this sort of commercially provided ’culture’ depend, are purely manipulative and debased, then the people who consume and enjoy them must either be themselves debased by these activities or else living in a permanent state of ’false consciousness’. They must be ’cultural dopes’ who can’t tell that what they are being fed is an up-dated form of the opium of the people. That judgment may make us feel right, decent and self-satisfied about our denunciations of the agents of mass manipulation and deception – the capitalist cultural industries: but I don’t know that it is a view which can survive for long as an adequate account of cultural relationships; and even less as a socialist perspective on the culture and nature of the working class. Ultimately, the notion of the people as a purely passive, outline force is a deeply unsocialist perspective.

Hall went on to acknowledge that commercial popular culture could be manipulative, but was more concerned about any claims made for the autonomy of alternative forms of popular culture. I believe his seemingly moderate point is anything but that, and itself ‘unsocialist’ in ways which bring it close to postmodernist thinking.

Hall’s appropriation of two Marxist thinkers is fundamental in this respect. One is Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of egemonia or hegemony, involving the role which intellectuals play in disseminating dominant ideologies throughout society, on the basis of the prestige and confidence they hold through their position:

What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural “levels” : the one that can be called “civil society”, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private”, and that of “political society” or “the State”. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and ”juridical” government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise:

  1. The “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group ; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.
  2. The apparatus of state coercive power which “legally” enforces discipline on those groups who do not “consent” either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis.

(Antonio Gramsci, ‘The Intellectuals’, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1981)).

Hegemony is a vital concept and intimately linked with those of either the ‘culture industry’ or of ‘manufacturing consent’. Gramsci uses the term sometimes in this respect, others simply to refer to explicit power from above, as with the power of one regionality (for example, Florence) to dominate others, and force them to conform to certain cultural norms – this was how a form of Tuscan speech became standard Italian. Elsewhere in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci also uses the term to refer to the domination of ruling class ideas of laissez-faire liberalism, an argument which resembles the later views of Enzensberger.

But the term has come to be used by some in cultural studies to refer to any set of aesthetic or intellectual values which are at odds with something construed as popular taste. In this sense, teaching a foreign language to young people who might not have expressed any particular desire to learn it, or teaching something about various forms of West African music to white Western teenagers, or even encouraging some to eat a more balanced diet than might be obtained from fast food outlets – or for that matter attempting to challenge young people on ideas which may be prevalent amongst their peer group, whether those might be forms of white supremacy, or misogynistic views of white early-teenage girls as one step away from prostitutes – all constitute some form of hegemony. In short, this view opposes education.

My reference to fast food outlets is not arbitrary, as I have in mind Marie Gillespie’s book Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), an ethnographic study of a South Asian diaspora community in Southall, London, in which she talks about parents having a ‘hierarchy of values attached to different foods’, when they encourage them to eat dal, saag, subji (a vegetable curry) or roti, as opposed to food from McDonald’s, KFC, Coca-Cola and so on, and comes close to endorsing the view of some teenagers that such products might entail some form of emancipation and global youth culture, a view embodied in the classic Coca-Cola advert featuring the song ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’.

Hall’s view, as I relate it to education, is also bolstered by the writings of another of Hall’s ideological heroes, Louis Althusser, who in his 1970 essay ‘Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’Etat’ (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses) (published in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated Andy Blunden (London: New Left Books, 1971)) wrote that:

…the school (but also other State institutions like the Church, or other apparatuses like the Army) teaches ‘know-how’, but in forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the mastery of its ‘practice’. All the agents of production, exploitation and repression, not to speak of the ‘professionals of ideology’ (Marx), must in one way or another be ‘steeped’ in this ideology in order to perform their tasks ‘conscientiously’ – the tasks of the exploited (the proletarians), of the exploiters (the capitalists), of the exploiters’ auxiliaries (the managers), or of the high priests of the ruling ideology (its ‘functionaries’), etc.’ The possibility that schools and teachers might at least be trying to do something else more positive in their work is entirely ruled out.

Gramsci, however, in 1919 (in ‘[Communism and Art]’ in Selections from Cultural Writings, edited David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, translated William Boelhower 9London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1985)) praised the attempts of Soviet communists to increase schools, theatres and opera houses, to make galleries accessible to all, and so on, which he said showed that ‘once in power, the proletariat tends to establish the reign of beauty and grace, to elevate the dignity and freedom of those who create beauty’, comparing the work of Anatoly Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky to the bureaucrats in Italy. In a few short essays from 1930 (‘Concept of “National-Popular”‘, and ‘Italian National Culture’, ibid.), in response to a fascist journal which was perturbed by the fact that newspapers in Rome and Naples were serialising novels of Alexandre Dumas and Paul Fontenay, which were very popular, Gramsci wrote of how the Italian people ‘undergo the moral and intellectual hegemony of foreign intellectuals, that they feel more closely related to foreign intellectuals than to ‘domestic’ ones, that there is no national intellectual and moral bloc, either hierarchical or, still less, egalitarian’ and that ‘Every people has its own literature, but this can come to it from another people, in other words the people in question can be subordinated to the intellectual and moral hegemony of other peoples.’ So hegemony here can be a voluntary and arguably not undesirable thing, as a counterpart to nationalism. Of course, these latter essays must be read in terms of the context of Italian fascism and the kitsch culture it bequeathed.

Lenin had argued that some sections of the working classes could be convinced that imperialism was in their interests and become its advocates, whilst many Marxist thinkers, not least amongst the Frankfurt School, had considered the phenomenon of false consciousness. This general trend of thought continued to inform the work of the Glasgow Media Group, founded in 1974. This would come to form a powerful alternative to the orthodoxies at Birmingham, with its director Greg Philo one of the most cogent critics of Stuart Hall. Through relentless collecting of evidence (published in their series of books entitled Bad News), Philo and his colleagues produced rigorous and compelling studies of how various forms of flagrant misinformation are disseminated and absorbed by media viewers through clear bias, lack of explanation and background, and various else. A similar outlook can be found in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988). The Glasgow group, Herman and Chomsky were in no sense presenting those viewers who have been manipulated as somehow mere fodder beyond redemption, but they recognised that it took a level of education and critical consciousness to resist such manipulation. This is one reason why conservatives have always disliked education towards such an end, and especially dislike the non-functionalised approach to learning associated with the humanities.

As Philo and David Miller point out (in their ‘Cultural Compliance: Media/cultural studies and social science’, in Market Killing: What the Free Market does and what Social Scientists can do about it, edited Greg Philo and David Miller (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001)), by the 1980s most of the analysis of the hegemonic power of the media had gone from Hall’s work, and he moved closer and closer to a celebratory view of popular culture or at least of how it is appropriated by its consumers. This was even more pronounced in the work of some of those who continued in his wake, especially in two books published in 1989, around the peak of the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush senior era, and the year which later saw the fall of communism in Eastern Europe: John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fiske interprets various approaches to consumption (which he describes as ‘a tactical raid upon the system’), such as sporting of particular garments, make-up or hairstyles, as guerrilla actions which subvert dominant values, writing that ‘At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural. Detached from the strategies of capitalism, its work for the bosses completed, it becomes a resource for the culture of everyday life’. Ross, one of the contributors to the 1983 volume on Marxism and culture, is utterly scathing about any type of defence of high culture, seeing in this an affront to the values of democracy, and a hegemonic attempt by a dominant class to protect their privilege.

Both Fiske and Ross, wittingly or not, advocate quite vehemently the values of the free market, using the language of hegemony to attack any attempts to modify it. This type of phenomenon has been analysed by some of the most penetrating critics of cultural studies. Todd Gitlin (in ‘The Anti-Political Populism of Cultural Studies’, Dissent, Spring 1997) writes of how cultural studies simply inverted old hierarchies, so that popular taste became an automatic yardstick of quality, writing that ‘One purports to stand four-square for the people against capitalism, and comes to echo the logic of capitalism.’ Thomas Frank (in One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2000)) also writes scathingly about of how cultural studies flaunted the logic of the market, seen as expressing ‘the will of the people’ so that ‘virtually any criticism of business could be described as an act of despicable contempt for the common man’ and the language of class warfare could be deployed in support of corporate objectives, for which cultural studies was a cheerleader, ‘with stories of aesthetic hierarchies rudely overturned; with subversive shoppers dauntlessly using up the mall’s air conditioning; with heroic fans building their workers’ paradise right there in the Star Trek corpus’. Other relevant texts in this context include Chris Rojek and Bryan Turner, ‘Decorative sociology: towards a critique of the cultural turn’, The Sociological Review 48/4 (November 2000), pp. 629-48; Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture became Consumer Culture (Chichester: Capstone, 2006); Fran Tonkiss, ‘Kulturstudien und der “economic turn”’ (2007), in Karin Harrasser, Sylvia Riedmann and Alan Scott (eds.), Die Politik der Cultural Studies – Cultural Studies der Politik (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2007), pp. 214-226; and Catherine Liu, American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011).

What can rarely be found explored in any remotely benevolent or even benign fashion in this type of cultural studies is the public sector. To a genuine social democrat, the public sector – and also the realms of the welfare state, regulation of capital and industry through democratically accountable bodies – acts as a corrective to the unfettered reign of capital, and offers realms of life, activity and indeed culture which maintain some degree of autonomy from the commodity principle. Marxists are often sceptical, and often draw attention to the difficulty of sustaining the public sector at times of economic slump, not to mention the role of global financial organisations in limiting the scope of individual governments to maintain the regulated and mixed economy. But that position comes not from an antipathy towards the public sector, but rather a belief that capitalism, in the sense of a society founded upon private property, needs to be hauled up by its roots in a wholesale structural revolution, rather than simply modified and reformed. A genuine Marxist revolutionary – and I am not arguing from that perspective – would want to end the private sector altogether. With this would be destroyed the cultural industries as we know them, for sure, hardly the position of many in the field of cultural studies. This is the primary reason why I cannot accept that the school of cultural studies bequeathed by Hall can be considered Marxist. On the contrary, through the relentless valorisation of commercial culture over that produced in other contexts in more-or-less social democratic societies (often expressed through kneejerk antipathy towards anything associated with ‘the state’), it should be clear where the cultural studies crowd’s sympathies lie, and how easily they revert to quite standard consumerist rhetoric.

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 hallowed places 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 belittle 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).