Reclaiming the Canon for our Greater Good

When I re-joined Classic FM in 2018 and programmed for my first Edition of ‘Cowan’s Classics’ Roy Harris’s 18-minute Third Symphony, a rugged Yosemite Park of a piece, someone wrote in sniffily complaining that, as a general rule, if music is relatively little-known there’s usually a good reason why (not true as it happens). By contrast others celebrated my excursion away from the Station’s staple diet of Albinoni, Vivaldi and a certain lark soaring on high. The guys at the top expected Vaughan Williams’s verdant tone poem to beat all rivals in the annual 300-strong ‘Classic FM Hall of Fame’ but instead of the The Lark Ascending the top seat at the Hall’s table was taken by another slow, quiet, meditative musical essay suitable for the midnight hours, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I kid you not. But at least it proved that the figures weren’t rigged.

1812 is not ‘great’ Tchaikovsky but it does harbour qualities typical of the composer at his best, gentle folkish melodies, dramatic faster music reminiscent of the late symphonies and the Sleeping Beauty ballet, the latter also suggested by a lilting theme that advances a sense of false security before full orchestra, bells and cannons set up a deafening racket at the end of the piece. But, paradoxically, and in spite of Classic’s target bullseye, the mere mention of the Overture’s name to those hellbent on advancing a ‘wider appreciation of classical music’ will see you branded a Neanderthal. Times have changed drastically even since 2018. Issues such as class, gender, race, ethnicity more generally, diversity, religion, political beliefs and so forth have formed the dog that wags the tail, meaning that rather than programme ‘great’ music and forget about the composers’ origins, class status, political convictions and the rest of it you make sure that there’s a ‘quota’ of this or that category, musical quality being secondary to giving a particular section of the community a fair crack of the airtime whip. 

Part of me goes along with this, and part of me rebels, much as it does to a parallel trend focusing on lesser-known composers whose works are rarely performed but who have their very vocal supporters. 

My main beef here is regarding what’s widely known as ‘The Canon’, at the very least Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann (Robert), Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Bartók, Sibelius, Stravinsky and many more. Some have referred to the Canon as ‘ossified’ (ie having become rigid or fixed in attitude or position) but my worry is that the ‘too-well-known’ epithet will lead the unwary to divert their attentions away from these titanic figures to lesser masters, simply because fashionable enthusiasms can be seductive.

Don’t get me wrong. All good music deserves to be heard. But the losses incurred by deserting the Canon are monumental. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for, and support of, modern music, from Adams to Zimmermann via Steve Reich, from Bernstein to Berio. But turn to the feelings of terror engendered by the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (especially under Wilhelm Furtwängler), or the profundity of the Busch Quartet playing Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, music conceived in the isolation of total deafness. Or you might hear how the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg turns Bach’s St Matthew Passion into virtual music drama, or how Mitsuko Uchida brings a sense of indescribable beauty to the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K533, or Serge Koussevitsky draws on the tear-welling final climax of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony and you have instances of music and music-making that spell the most profound level of life-enhancement. Yes most of these are old recordings and I’m not for a moment suggesting that they and others like them should be our only access points to the Great Classics from the past.

The word I’m after is ‘balance’. There’s a grave danger, currently abroad, of shunting great concert music onto a distant siding. But the evidence contradicts this unfortunate trend. I’ve experienced countless instances when I’ve changed young lives by either taking them to concerts featuring the sort of music I’m talking about or played remarkable recordings of the same or similar repertoire. And as for wanting more working-class presenters on Radio 3, I despair. Does class really count for so much? Given the current thinking had cockney William Blake been around and approached Radio 3 for a job he may well have found for himself an extra source of income. Until the powers that be started to read ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, then he would probably have been – how should I put it? – ‘let go’!

6 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Canon for our Greater Good

  1. Like you Rob, I deplore musical snobbery – and that includes inverted snobbery. If the Greats such as Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn remain eternally popular it’s because they could write melody as well as innovative, musically complex pieces. It’s like art. What’s easier to fake – a Picasso or a Da Vinci? Should art galleries be consigning their Renaissance canvases to the basement in order to display solely abstract and Cubist paintings?
    My late mother told me how she’d listened to the afternoon concert on Radio 3, a Harrison Birtwistle piece. The explanation of its genesis fascinated her. After ten bars, she switched off! But at least she’d tried it. If there were no new compositions music would be dead and I defend every one that is performed even if the phrases, “first broadcast” and “first performance” generally fill me with dread. I will try them. I no more want to see a dissonant first performance driven off the platform in favour of The Lark Ascending than I want Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion abandoned in favour of Gavin Bryars. Too many of my friends and colleagues won’t listen to classical music as they perceive it as posh, which is a huge tragedy. Music is for everybody but I don’t want anyone deciding what I should or should not be listening to. And that includes radio presentation too. I want people who are informed (and preferably warm) on my radio, and whether they speak in estuary English or with the proverbial plum in their mouth matters not a jot.

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  2. Couldn’t agree more Philip. A big thumbs up to your mother (and to the describing presenter for that matter) … but we’ve all been in that position. It’s a bit like walking past a restaurant and smelling a gorgeous aroma only to be bitterly disappointed when we actually taste the cuisine! Presenters’ voices are hardly relevant as long as their words are, as you say, informed and warm. The music is thing. With best wishes. Rob.

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  3. Christopher King

    Sorry to be so late to the party. Rob has voiced what so many of us believe but dare not say in “chattering class” company. That is, that we appear to be obsessed with equality rather than quality. Whilst most fair-minded people would agree that female composers have been neglected, the current obsession with Florence Price and Ethel Smyth is misplaced. But this is, I hope, just a phase. Class always tells in the end. There are those who claim (usually for the latest pop phenomenon) that “this music will last forever”. But I’ve forgotten who they were talking about. As for presenters, I don’t care where they come from but please can they have depth of knowledge about the music they are presenting? A certain morning presenter on R3 keeps saying that they “haven’t heard this piece (or composer) before”. We’re all on a journey of discovery but what basic qualifications do these people have? Either come back Rob or – accept that training job!

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