Good morning! The below is the first part of a two-part series on the classical music canon. Part 2 will follow next Wednesday.
Our current cultural psychosis is marked by two mirror image tendencies. The first is the tendency to catastrophize tiny, or even nonexistent, infractions against political orthodoxy and defenestrate their perpetrators, the results of which we know as “cancel culture” or “callout culture.” The second is the tendency for actual nonsense, even when uttered by very important people, to go completely unremarked upon, as long as it upholds the orthodoxies of our age.
A prime example of the latter came in this Spring’s issue of the League of American Orchestras’ Symphony Magazine, in a brief think piece by Simon Woods. Woods is current president of the League of American Orchestras and former CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a resume that makes him the most powerful administrator (and therefore the most powerful person) in American orchestral music.
Like most Western cultural institutions, the orchestra world has been pelted with politicized demands from all directions over the last two years. On no topic has this assault been more relentless than the repertoire that orchestras play. Accusations like that made by the BBC’s Music Magazine in late 2020—that the classical music canon “is a false construct that has only served to build a wall around a certain number of white, male composers”—have become commonplace.
Until this Spring, the League had mostly avoided engaging with such extreme claims, even while professing faith in diversity, equity, and inclusion and continuing to advocate for further diversification of the repertoire. But Woods’ article heralds a disturbing change of direction. This new direction seems to be to redefine the musical knowledge, tastes, and instincts of the vast majority of orchestra musicians and audiences as obstacles to social progress. It is to deprogram us of that knowledge and those tastes and instincts and replace them with . . . nothing. In a word, the League’s new approach to the canon is surrender.
“Questioning” the Canon
Woods’ article bears the seemingly inoffensive, if somewhat redundant, title “Questioning the Canon.” (Redundant since all canons, or at least those that seek to remain relevant, periodically question their own assumptions and evolve over time.)
But once we begin reading, we realize that Woods is advocating more than questioning the contents of classical music’s canon. Rather, he wants us to question the usefulness of the canon as a concept. And after a few paragraphs, it becomes clear that by “question,” he doesn’t mean what you and I mean when we use the word, that is, to critically evaluate. Instead, he means what social justice-oriented academics mean when they use it: to problematize, debunk, or dismantle.
If Woods’ article can be said to have a thesis, it is this:
It is time to abandon the word ‘canon’ and the reductive thinking that flows from it, which slows down the evolution of our art, favors one set of voices to the exclusion of others, and closes off the possibilities of speaking to today’s audiences through today’s voices.
There are a number of confusions inherent in just this sentence, and even more appear when we try to square it with the rest of the article. Most of these confusions arise from Woods’ failure to substantively define what the classical music canon actually is—a rather fundamental flaw in an article arguing that it ought to be abolished. Woods quotes the relevant definition of “canon” in Webster’s Dictionary (“a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works”). But how works are “accepted” or “sanctioned” in classical music, Woods professes not to know.
In order to evaluate his argument, though, we must try. While I don’t claim to be the last word on the subject, here is my best shot at defining the classical music canon, and I daresay that it’s pretty close to the mark:
The canon of Western classical music represents the vote of musicians and music lovers over time on which 500-or-so works constitute the greatest of our art. These works are performed regularly and constitute (in non-socially-psychotic times) about 75% of orchestra programming. Major orchestras will perform most individual canonic works at least once every decade. The canon is not a hard-and-fast list and it varies some by geography and culture, but its contours are fairly universally agreed-upon.
The canon evolves over time through a complex of feedback loops—the free market of concert ticket sales and CD or Spotify streaming revenues, the studios of conservatory teachers, the lounges of orchestra musicians, the boardrooms of administrators, the column inches of music critics.
The voices of the present, however, must be reconciled with those of the past—particularly with those of the composers who established their own hierarchies of significance through their choices of influences. (That is to say that even if the culture someday decides it doesn’t much enjoy Beethoven’s 9th, the fact that Brahms respected the piece enough to model his 1st Symphony on it will remain a powerful argument in its favor).
These feedback loops and constant dialogue of past and present combine to create a process of reevaluation and revitalization that respects the great works of the past while replacing them with the new as music lovers see fit.
Intelligent readers can disagree over how the criteria of “greatness” are defined and which of these feedback loops predominates over the others, but the basic framework is fairly unassailable. The canon does exist. Its contents are determined through informal democratic channels rather than by central edict. And the works that populate it are not chosen arbitrarily or due to the race or gender of their composers; they are unified by the fact that they make their own case for greatness, one that the average informed listener can understand and appreciate.
For intelligent readers who have, to borrow a woke idiom, “done the work” of defining the canon, the contradictions in Woods’ arguments become painfully clear.
One is that even as Woods informs us that the “canon” is just a word, and therefore easy to slough off if we wish; it is nevertheless powerful enough to “favor one set of voices” and “exclude” others, and even to slow down the evolution of music itself. A second is that while Woods accuses canonic thinking of stifling non-white, non-male voices, he elsewhere in the article congratulates orchestras for programming those voices in droves (which they are, in fact, doing). But perhaps the most amazing contradiction comes at the close of the article when he tells us not to worry, that the works of his favorite composers—namely Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms—will persist even in a post-canonic age due to their inherent “power” and “legitimacy.” That is to say, they will outlast the canon because they are canon-worthy. This is sophistic nonsense at its best.
One of the strangest things about reading Woods’ article is that these contradictions are so easy to spot. And judging from what I’ve heard on the conducting circuit, their author is a smart person. So, what is it that makes a smart person say such dumb things?
One possibility may lie in the recent book Woke Racism by preeminent Columbia linguist John McWhorter, who argues that the current wave of antiracism (of which Woods’ arguments are certainly an artifact) is best understood as a religion. The tenets of antiracism, like those of traditional religions, frequently contain contradictions that seem irreconcilable (or irreconcilable on this earth, at least). When we read self-contradictory screeds arguing, for instance, that people should be as “multicultural” as possible but that to embrace other cultures too much is “cultural appropriation,” McWhorter helps us to understand that the writer is not trying to engage in rational political argument; rather, he is testifying to the flock, just as a congregant testifies in church.
I am inclined to give Woods’ intelligence the benefit of the doubt. I believe that his article is, indeed, something closer to religious testimony than rational argument. I also expect that many of his coreligionist readers in orchestra offices around the country will receive it in that same spirit. But I still feel the need to write this response based on my nagging fear that there are other non-initiates out there who, considering the august source and his sweeping claims, might be liable to take these arguments seriously. This article is for them.
The Canon is not a Shadowy Inhuman Force
We start with the first key contradiction in Woods’ understanding of the canon. The source of confusion here is that Woods labels the canon a mere “word” that can be “abandoned,” even while ascribing to it a significant amount of power. The explanation for this is not that Woods is secretly a scholar of Derrida, but that by “word” he means something more akin to “historical force.” In this understanding, “abandoning” the canon becomes an act of liberation.
Here are a few short illustrative passages.
Towards the beginning of the article, he writes:
The history of American orchestras derives directly from a particular slice of (entirely male) European history. . . . [American Orchestras were] built by European immigrants: George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Serge Koussevitzky, and the hundreds of Russians, Italians, and others who made up their great ensembles. So it’s hardly surprising that these orchestras rooted themselves in programming from the Old World.
But in the process of building those extraordinary artistic institutions, Woods informs us, “too much was lost along the way.” He cites as an example the music of black composers headed by (surprise!) Florence Price, writing: “It wasn’t just the pernicious role of racism that led to their sidelining; it was also their defiance of European modernism that excluded them from the club of what classical music was supposed to be in mid-20th century America.”
He adds that “for many people, including large proportions of our audiences, those traditions represent timeless values and the reassuring comfort of long familiarity. But those traditions also risk stifling us in our journey to create an art form that is vibrantly alive to the present.”
I quote these passages at length not because I disagree entirely with Woods. In fact, I agree heartily with his claim that Americans have historically been blind to much of the compositional talent on our own shores, even if he does somewhat overplay his hand in making the argument. (If European modernism were the true standard for symphonic success in America, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and the institution of the pops orchestra would have seen little success during the 20th century.)
Rather, I quote these passages because they demonstrate the impersonality of Woods’ concept of the canon. To Woods, the canon is not a conversation between people but a third-person historical straitjacket “stifling us in our journey,” emptily “reassuring” and “comforting” us, circumscribing our imaginations, and reinforcing the aesthetics of European modernism.
The canon, to Woods, seems akin to what religion was to Marx—the opiate of the people, a bringer of bondage in the guise of liberation; an age-old original sin, rather than a living institution upheld by real people. The only human agency to appear in Woods’ narrative occurred a century and a half ago, when European musicians first arrived on American shores to enslave our minds.
This denial of agency clearly serves Woods’ argument. For it makes it easier to ignore the fact that the canon represents the artistic judgments of a huge global community of both experts and amateurs over hundreds of years; as well as to dismiss the notion that when it comes to judging the quality of works of art, those millions of people might be onto something.
In Part 2, I will address Woods’ two remaining contradictions, and the underlying assumptions that the canon is static, exclusionary, and useless. I’ll see you then!
I love this essay! And I agree wholeheartedly with you.
I'm looking forward to part 2 next week.
Beautifully written, as always.