A Canon is an Idea: Craft, Genius, and the Making of “Classical Music”

by Peter Tracy

Watercolor of the Vienna State Operas opening concert

When the Vienna State Opera opened in 1869, its first concert featured Mozart’s Don Giovanni. By this time, the piece was over 70 years old, and was already considered an old masterpiece fit to be served up to royalty in the form of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I[1]. To us, too, this seems a logical choice: what more renowned or beloved opera is there than Don Giovanni? What better piece with which to christen, so to speak, the new hall? Yet the average patron of the Vienna State Opera company’s first seasons might have had much more to say about a piece like Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s hugely popular Der Apotheker und der Doktor than Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which was by then almost never performed. They might have been more interested in the scandal of Wagner’s recent Tristan and Isolde or have raved to friends during intermission about Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 opera Hamlet, which was widely popular in France at the time.[2]

As many of us shuffle into a concert hall to hear a program featuring a symphony by Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, we rarely stop to ask how or why it ended up there: these works are longstanding staples of the concert repertoire and respected icons of Western musical culture. The classics continue, in many cases, to bring in crowds of listeners, drawn in no small part by the almost universal renown and prestige which they enjoy. But the regular performance of older works has not always been the norm, and as the current relative obscurity of Thomas or Dittersdorf suggests, the body of older works which are still regularly performed in major concert halls today was by no means inevitable. While it is an exaggeration to say, as musicologist Jacques Chailley did in 1964, that “until the beginning of the nineteenth century… all music of a previous age was a dead letter, and of no interest to anyone”[3], there is a kernel of truth to this statement: if by dead we mean that the majority of older scores were never performed aloud in a time before recording was possible, then Chailley is not far from being right. Yet music from at least the eighteenth century has clearly survived today in performance repertoires at the expense of even widely popular pieces from later decades, and in fact this music forms a rather large part of the body of works, composers, sounds, and traditions which are usually associated with “Classical Music”. Although the relationship of musicians and listeners to older music, or indeed to any music, is always changing, we might be tempted at some point to ask why certain surviving works are performed continuously while others lie in obscurity, or why music of a certain, rather specific time period continues to dominate concert programs to this day.

An 1880 monument to Beethoven in Beethovenplatz Vienna

Europe before 1800 was obviously a very different place than it is now, and in fact Europe as we know it, with its nation states and standardized languages, did not exist until fairly recently. Rather, we can probably best think of Europe in the Medieval era, where most Western music histories begin, as consisting of a loose network of estates, towns, and small cities, many of which were rather isolated from one another[4]. The musical styles, tuning systems, and traditions to be found in the towns of Flanders, Bavaria, Burgundy, or Piedmont during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries were far from homogenous, and musical life was certainly not limited to the music of the churches[5]. Yet much of the music which we point to today as the precursors of the classical tradition essentially justified its existence through its part in the Catholic mass, a category into which both plainchant and the music of composers like Léonin and Pérotin fall. These two composers, of succeeding generations at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, were rather typical musicians of the time: both composers and performers, they were likely thought of as masters of a certain type of craft or science at best, and at worst simply as paid servants of the Church. As with court musicians of the time, they composed almost exclusively for specific occasions: masses, coronations, feast days, and royal weddings. Implications of genius were likely far from their minds, as was self-expression through art or any real concept of an individual artistic voice[6]. Although these two musicians are often cited as the first composers in the sense that we use the term today, their influence as individuals was limited. And though the musical style of what has come to be known as the Notre-Dame school seems to have spread, both orally and through the emerging practice of musical notation, to other musicians in the wider region during the thirteenth century, it was likely very uncommon for an older work to be performed in its entirety at Sunday Mass[7].

Yet something was clearly changing: although much music of the time was still orally transmitted, and although those works that were written down were not regularly signed by a single author, the thirteenth century Notre-Dame school repertory book known as the Magnus Liber attests to the fact that works from previous generations were deemed worth preserving in some performable fashion. The towns and cities of western Europe had also become interconnected enough at this time that the works of musicians from musical and geographical centers like Paris were able to have a more widespread influence than one might suppose[8]. Indeed, the musical style now known as ars antiqua spread among church musicians to such a degree that its techniques of complex polyphony and counterpoint became something of a point of reference for the composers of the following centuries.

In fifteenth century, the study of older music developed into a practice called stile antico, or “antique style”, which involved the creation of new works by intentionally mimicking the style of previous generations. Much as apprentice painters recreated older works in order to build technical skill, musicians learned their craft through attempting to reimagine older masterworks, and while these masterworks were likely performed quite rarely, the continued development of musical notation allowed musicians to learn from predecessors further removed by distance and time. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the notion of a “masterwork” came to denote not just a work by the master composer of a certain school, but the work of historical masters who might be far from local. In this way, composers like Dufay, Josquin, and especially Palestrina could become the foundation of what we might call a pedagogical canon: that is, while their music was not widely performed after their deaths, it did constitute an important teaching tool and a technical, craft-based high watermark for apprentice musicians of certain regions[9].

It was only in the eighteenth century that the tradition of learning from works by previous composers developed into what we might call performing canons, or that groups of older works moved from being revered dead letters in scholarly circles to being more regularly performed in certain musical contexts. By the 1720s in England, for instance, the term “ancient music” was widely used to mean the music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, resulting in London’s Academy of Vocal Music changing its name to the Academy of Ancient Music in 1731. By the late eighteenth century the term had been redefined to mean any work more than roughly twenty years old, such that a performance of Handel’s Messiah was given under this heading as early as 1785. In Paris, la musique ancienne became widespread in the 1740s as a term referring almost exclusively to the music of Lully and his successors at the French Royal Court, where “ancient music” developed into a separate body of older, continuously performed music for “learned” audiences. As a particularly extreme example, the end of the eighteenth century in Paris saw the Conservatoire Orchestra of Paris playing almost exclusively older works much as we do today. Thus, performance canons overlapped, yet were still rather regional: Byrd and Purcell in England and Jomelli and Viotti in France vied for space on concert programs with the increasingly prevalent and international canon of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While these two examples provide useful insight into regional relationships to older works, they were outliers in the Europe of the time: no other European city featured a parallel institution before the nineteenth century[10].

An illustration in the Magnus Liber

As this rather isolated and slow process suggests, the classical performance repertory did not appear uniformly, nor did it appear overnight. It is also important to remember that, as William Weber points out, “repertories were not built up as a set of revivals of old works from a distant past. Until after the middle of the nineteenth century, few works were brought back after long periods of complete disuse; the great majority of old pieces had been performed at least sporadically since the time of their composition, [and] so were involved in some kind of ongoing performing tradition.”[11] When they were revived after disuse, it was usually as a consequence of the growing reverence around certain composers, who’s works or the works of their students and known stylistic predecessors might be performed for the first time in decades without seeming particularly out of place.[12] Indeed, one could argue that this was behind the “revival” of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century: this music, while rarely if ever performed after Bach’s lifetime, was known to scholars, students, and widely renowned composers such as Mozart[13].

Yet it was largely the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that became dominant in mainstream concert programs, and it remains so to this day. It might therefore be tempting to look at the history of reverence for the work of past masters and suggest that the largely German-speaking composers of this time, who adorn our T-shirts and coffee mugs today, have remained so culturally pervasive even outside classical circles through sheer quality or through a universally recognizable criteria of excellence. In hindsight, it might seem that these composers were simply the pinnacle of a longstanding tradition of polyphonic, contrapuntal music, and that what came well before or after them is simply of less lasting relevance. As is always the case, however, history is a bit more complicated.

By the mid-1860’s, older instrumental music had begun to eclipse that of contemporary composers in earnest, and although Opera programs took until the 20th century to be dominated by older works, the christening of a new opera house with a performance of Don Giovanni was by no means out of place for the time. The late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century were periods in which composers became increasingly idealized, famous among a broader public, and independent from performers, churches, and royalty. This was in large part thanks to the relatively new phenomenon of public concerts and thereby to a somewhat changed conception of what it meant to be an artist. To varying degrees, prominent composers were increasingly thought of as geniuses, and cults of personality sometimes resulted that could persist long after a composer’s death[14]. Although this romantic vision of the artist as a hero rather than a skilled craftsman persists to some degree today, grandiose cults of personality around individual famous composers gradually gave way throughout the nineteenth century to a general pervasiveness and intense sense of reverence for a certain body of music. This was an attachment largely to composers spanning from Handel, Haydn, and Mozart to Beethoven, Brahms, and eventually Wagner, who each fit (were fitted in hindsight) into the culturally pervasive nineteenth century mold of what an artist should be. Today, this canon also includes composers like Bach, who’s music could, by this time, fit into a parallel and well-established set of priorities around music’s proper roles, techniques and methods of expression that likely differed considerably from those of Bach’s own time. Thus, a certain increasingly international set of aesthetic, historical, and technical priorities went into evaluating both older music and more contemporary works. The weight which the music of the composers now seen as the greats carried on concert programs and in the minds of subsequent composers thereby grew to become heavy indeed.

In the words of theorist Joseph Kerman, “a canon is an idea; a repertory is a program of action”[15]. A repertory of works that are performed regularly is by no means a canon, but what happens when our values around music, our conceptions of what it means to be a musician and of what a concert, score, or music theory textbook are radiate outwards from an eighteenth and nineteenth century German core? While further generations owed perhaps just as much to the largely anonymous generations of musicians before the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was the aesthetic and ideals of eighteenth and nineteenth century musicians, critics, composers, and theorists that happened to develop at a time and in a context within which they could become dominant over a much longer timeframe. Their music thus became the benchmark against which all music before or since continues in some sense to be judged. The average Jazz student at a university today, for instance, might very likely be required to spend years studying the harmonic style of eighteenth and nineteenth century of European musicians, a style which is most often summed up simply by the term “Music Theory”.

A 1754 poster advertising the Concert Spirituel one of the first public concert series in existence

Today, when the world of western classical music seems more international than ever and its heroes seem to be universal among a wide swath of the concert-going public, it is worth remembering that there was an immensely complex and contingent process at work in the development of the body of work that has come to be known as the classical music canon. Indeed, the canon doesn’t quite exist. We can think of there being several overlapping canons in different social contexts and regions, such as scholarly canons that fill the shelves of university libraries, canons for social occasions like Christmas or New Years, and canons that are still broadly termed classical music, yet which form, perhaps, their own sub-canons[16]. This is the position that Early Music and contemporary classical music or “New Music” occupy: such musical scenes have their own canons, ones that may be more open to the performance of lesser-known works as they are rediscovered or composed, but which nonetheless also form a certain backdrop against which programming decisions are made.

Like the mainstream classical canon, the music that is celebrated as part of these more niche canons also carries with it sets of ideals, ideals which form the specific reasoning or cultural context behind a work’s inclusion in a university course, article, or concert program. At times, the differing ideals and histories which are expressed within different canons can result in misunderstanding or even contempt between adherents of different styles[17]. Yet there is still a certain overlap between the worlds of specifically Early and New music because of their position close to, yet outside the classical mainstream. Below, you’ll find a playlist examining the ways in which more recent composers have reinterpreted and reclaimed the musical legacy of Early Music as their own, whether it be technically, formally, reverently, or sarcastically.

Early Music Seattle: Canons New and Old

The cultural and social context around music, whether we clap between movements, wear tails or t-shirts, or play in a bar or a church, is a large part of determining what is played, how it is received, and what we see its function as being. A work’s perception as being part of a widespread canon or its performance in a certain context gives it a certain authority that helps to tip the scale of programming decisions in its favor[18]. Perception of musical quality is therefore inseparable from the context in which a work is composed, rediscovered, performed, or listened to. The term “Classical Music”, having developed largely out of a veneration for the music of a specific time, is a lens through which we view music history, theory, and ultimately the sounds that we hear, a way in which we assign value to certain pieces or sounds over others. As our passion for a certain genre or composer grows, we may try to find reasons for our enjoyment, reasons that, within the prestigious world of Classical Music, can veer dangerously close to claiming a universal or objective appeal. We may also begin to ascribe a certain moral, civic, or even spiritual quality to certain pieces or to the music of certain composers[19]. We may begin to yearn for a return to the standards of an idealized musical past as a means of social renewal or come to see our preferred strain of music as being capable of fostering community healing or intellectual insight.

The reasons why we enjoy or find meaning in certain music and the ways in which music effects our lives are much more difficult to parse out, and they may have more to do with the history of our region, country, language, or culture than with any inherently appealing, morally uplifting, or beautiful qualities in the music itself. Yet the recognition that we are looking through a lens which distorts our image of music and music history, both recent and long past, by no means requires us to give up our conceptions of what makes certain collections of sounds worth remembering. In fact, this recognition might help us to see that what we think of as separate and distant, ugly and tasteless, or strange and startling in other musical spheres might simply be a consequence of the music we’re hearing working within a slightly different history or framework of ideas. As we attempt to grasp unfamiliar musical canons through their unique histories, we might even find ourselves buying a ticket, listening closely, and coming back for more.


[1] See the page titled “History” on the Vienna State Opera’s website, https://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/en/staatsoper/the-opera-house/history-architecture/history/
[2] For more on popular operas of the eighteenth and 19th centuries, see The Cambridge Companion to 18th Century Opera, (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Christoph Charle, “The Creation of an Operatic Canon in Nineteenth-Century Europe” (Biens Symboliques/Symbolic Goods, vol. 8, 2021).
[3] Jacques Chailley, 40,000 Years of Music, (Macdonald, 1964, p. 17).
[4] See William C. Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages, (New York: Viking, 2003).
[5] For more on non-church music in medieval Europe, see Deusen N. Van, Folk Songs and Material Culture in Medieval Europe: Old Stones and New Music, (Brepols, 2019).
[6] See Edward E. Lowinsky, “Musical Genius: Evolution and Origins of a Concept.” (The Musical Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, 1964, pp. 321–340).
[7] For more on the Notre-Dame School and medieval polyphony, see Catherine A. Bradley, Polyphony in Medieval Paris: The Art of Composing with Plainchant, (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Peter J. Burkholder et al., A History of Western Music, (9th ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 2014).
[8] See note 4.
[9] See William Weber, “The History of Musical Canon.” (Rethinking Music, 1999, pp. 336-55).
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] See Cliff Eisen and Stanley Sadie, “Mozart (Johann Chrysostom) Wolfgang Amadeus”, (Grove Music Online, 2001).
[14] See note 6.
[15] Joseph Kerman, “A Few Canonic Variations”, (Critical Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp. 107–125).
[16] See note 9.
[17] For a more in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see William Weber, “Consequences of Canon: the Institutionalization of Enmity Between Contemporary and Classical Music.” (Common Knowledge, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, pp. 78-99).
[18] See note 9.
[19] See note 9.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Burkholder, J. Peter et al. A History of Western Music. 9th ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.

Chailley, Jacques. 40,000 Years of Music. Macdonald, 1964, p. 17.

Charle, Cristoph. “The Creation of an Operatic Canon in Ninteenth-Century Europe”.” Biens Symboliques/Symbolic Goods, vol. 8, 2021.

DelDonna, Anthony R., and Pierpaolo Polzonetti, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Opera. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Eisen, Cliff and Sadie, Stanley. “Mozart (Johann Chrysostom) Wolfgang Amadeus”. Grove Music Online, 2001.

Jordan, William C. Europe in the High Middle Ages. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.

Kerman, Joseph. “A Few Canonic Variations.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 1, 1983, pp. 107–125.

Lowinsky, Edward E. “Musical Genius: Evolution and Origins of a Concept.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, 1964, pp. 321–340.

Van, Deusen N. Folk Songs and Material Culture in Medieval Europe: Old Stones and New Music. Brepols, 2019. Print.

Weber, William. “Consequences of Canon: The Institutionalization of Enmity Between Contemporary and Classical Music.” Common Knowledge vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, pp. 78-99.

Weber, William. “Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770-1870.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 8, no. 1, 1977, pp. 5–22.

Weber, William. “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Musical Canon.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 114, no. 1, 1989, pp. 6–17.

Weber, William. “The History of Musical Canon.” Rethinking Music, 1999, pp. 336-55.