The Musical Canon Lives On
In today’s modern world, everyone knows about the great composers of classical music: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc. They have been memorialized for all eternity in what is now known as the musical canon. Because of the construction of this musical canon, the concert hall has since been transformed into a “musical museum”. This concept of the canon has created a lasting effect on composers of the generations to come, such as Johannes Brahms, Aaron Copland and John Cage, whose works can be seen as three different responses to the idea of this musical canon.
The musical canon is the idea of a “list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality (Michaels)”. The canon began to emerge mid- to the late nineteenth century when there was a predominance of virtuosic composer-performers producing at the time. Until approximately the mid-nineteenth century, the musical compositions that were being produced were mostly by virtuosi like Spohr that were creating excellent but intellectually easy music for the mass markets ( Burkholder 117). The audience at this time was adverse to these types of works because they didn’t provide any intellectual challenges and therefore found the music to be disengaging. This then prompted other more “serious” musicians to turn back to the works of the past great composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, both for inspiration and their performances which was the beginning the idea of “masters” and a “masterpiece” (Burkholder 117). This was a change from the original purpose of music because as Burkholder states, “the concert...took on the atmosphere of a lecture, requiring background study and concentration on the part of the audience(117)” while in the generations before it was used for entertainment or “spectacle” purposes. Music was now beginning to be written to be challenging and one notable pioneer of this movement was Ludwig van Beethoven.
More than any other composer, Beethoven is known to have set the example for all other composers to come. His music was known to be challenging and did not serve the purpose of music for entertainment. From the years 1842 to 1850, Beethoven’s works encompasses roughly 60% of the music that was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic (Frisch 177). His works and the works of many others were a part of the concert hall becoming a musical museum, a term which refers to the idea that only the works of dead composers are performed, which in turn stemmed from the musical canon. The introduction of this canon began to change the way that new, young composers were composing. Music was now being written in the hopes of being memorialized. Composers began studying the “masters”, as their sound was what was deemed to be of the highest quality, in order to imitate them while also attempting to sound unique enough to stand out. One composer that was not immune to the effects of the canon was composer Johannes Brahms.