I’m trying to make up for lost time since I didn’t post as much during the first week.

I remember one of the first readings, I can’t remember if it was in the Carroll or the Barnard books, but it described different works in the canon. While I am familiar with canon and what it means, I’ve wondered what it is that makes something canon. To elaborate, works are analyzed and critiqued based on their merits frequently. What is it about certain pieces that cause them to resonate with enough critics that they become part of the canon? Is it a matter of controversy? Of technical skill? Is it the context in which it was made?

I actually have a mildly strange example of canonicity in recent memory. Many of us know of the well-established works of Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, Stravinsky and the like. Many of you may have even participated in a debate on the merits for or against “Classical Music”. Much of the canon of the period is practically set in stone. Conversely, much of what is considered “Early Music” existed for a very long time with a rather small and inconsequential canon or much of it has been lost to time or fallen out of fashion. Certainly many people may have heard of Monteverdi and some have even heard of William Byrd, but beyond that there is very little in the way of canonical early music.

In the last 20-30 years, there was a huge revival of early music interest. In early music ensembles, in performances, in finding underrated or less well-known but beautiful pieces, there has in fact been something of a, pardon the pun, Renaissance of early music. I say this and my mention of Classical Music because almost paradoxically, early music, despite being significantly older, now has much more free reign over interpretations of the music. It has cultivated a culture of discovery and improvisation that is creating a new canon. In Classical Music, there are many that are of the opinion that much of the music we have in written form is almost immutable or sacred. There is a large camp of musicians and instructors that heavily discourage “messing with the Classic Repertoire.” This is not currently the case with early music, and hopefully the culture of reinvention surrounding it will endure.

I find the example of early music to be particularly odd because unlike an evaluation of current art, the chips have already fallen where they may. There is no “wait and see” needed like evaluating the genius of Lady Gaga or other contemporary artists. That ship has sailed, been moored, dismantled and burned for kindling. However what is different is that we are evaluating music through our current lens. No doubt a stronger canon created at the time would result in different pieces being highlighted, very likely for political reasons as opposed to artistic merit as the Church had a much stronger affect on the generation of art back in the 12-17th centuries. While some “new” pieces are being discovered, most of the ephemeral music has already been lost or sorted through. There remains a body of curated works from which new concerts are being performed regularly. Criticism is being done implicitly by the music that they choose to highlight.

Is canon only unchangeable as long as it’s in the public consciousness? How easy is it really to add to an existing canon? What sort of consensus or dissent needs to occur to keep or dismiss something?

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