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In the 19th century, music became a vital aspect of the lives of citizens. A major change occurred, however, when the concert hall became a “musical museum” and the “musical canon” transpired. This was not an actual museum, but a shift in the types of works that were to be performed and appreciated. The musical canon coincides with the museum, as it is essentially a list of extremely selective pieces of the highest quality. Old works and works of past composers became what audiences desired, as it was a more serious and rewarding performance to experience.
Composers strived to create pieces to be placed in this musical museum, changing the structure and inspiration of symphonies completely. The emergence of the musical canon created a monumental change in the 19th century in regards to the concert hall, composers, and music itself that forced all parties involved to adjust and adapt to the dramatic shift.
There were several factors that led up to the concept of the canon, one of the most important being the rise of historicism and its effect in the concert hall.
Historicism became a pronounced movement in the 19th century when the concert hall audience developed a familiarity with symphonies of past composers (Burkholder 116). The concert hall is primarily what caused the shift of preference away from new musical pieces of living composers and onto more classical works by the deceased. This created a drastic split between popular music and classical music. Popular music was no longer played in concert halls due to the lack of seriousness and instead took refuge in various locations such as the musical theater and nightclubs (Burkholder 119).
Classical music now gained an atmosphere of a lecture, where music had to be studied and understood, rather than a source of entertainment. By the end of the 19th century, the concert hall was a museum for the performances and display of symphonies and other works from prior generations rather than a place for new music.
Once historicism and the transformation of the concert hall into a museum was established, the musical canon also proved to change the purpose of art music itself. The primary goal of music used to be to entertain and serve as a social outlet for the audience. Now, however, the music itself and what the audience takes away from the performance became the primary goal. Audiences were expected to know the pieces being played prior to attending, and it became a somewhat individual experience rather than a social one. The music spoke to each listener differently, creating a private atmosphere for each member of the audience. Each person had their own thoughts and understanding of what they experienced, proving this shift of priorities (Lecture 1/30). Music was also more serious and uplifting, which created an aesthetic purpose for the art aspect of the pieces.
An example of this serious and uplifting quality of music would be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. There was definitely an emphasis on the final movement, as he repeats the first three before dismissing them and bringing in a new, final one. He begins the symphony in minor and ends in major, representing a transition from darkness to light (Lecture 2/1). This shows the seriousness and uplifting ending that proved to be a significant aspect of classical music for the canon.
After the canon became an established tradition, living composers had to adapt and contend with its existence in order to be able to create a piece for the museum. In order to create a successful museum piece, it had to achieve a lasting value of extreme importance (Burkholder 120). They began to study and analyze composers from prior centuries to gain an understanding
of what is expected for them to create masterworks. Beethoven was a prime example of a great master, as he had 9 symphonies throughout his life, each taking years to make. Writing symphonies during this pursuit of historicism cultivated the main problem of balancing tradition and lasting value while also obtaining a unique, personal style. Some composers looked towards ideologies of progressivism to create their own style, which “placed an emphasis on technical innovations and compositional firsts over other aspects of music” (Burkholder 122). This did help some but often made their work “too different” to be a candidate for a spot in the museum. However, the composers that have written music specifically for the musical museum over the past century present an esoteric aspect of their works, which make the pieces difficult to listen to but extremely satisfying to study, analyze, and understand (Burkholder 125).
Works of successful composers such as Johannes Brahms, Aaron Copland, and John Cage present their ideas through music that may serve as reactions to the establishment and existence of the musical canon. For example, Johannes Brahms appeared to be a fan of historicism and the musical museum. He took music extremely seriously and was even intimidated by the works and legacy of Beethoven (Lecture 1/30). He was so insecure that he did not write his first symphony until he was aged in his forties, but his work was very well received as it had both esoteric and historicist underpinnings. He was especially inspired by Bach and Beethoven, both composers with works in the musical canon. Another composer in favor of the musical museum was Aaron Copland, who created his Symphony No. 3 that was actually placed in the museum. He adopted a simple style in the 1930’s that represented an American sound for rural America and country life. His symphony was in the form of a traditional piece, while also integrating a distinctive personal style that reflected “the euphoric spirit of the country of the time” (Lecture 1/30).
John Cage, on the other hand, was not a fan of the musical museum or preservation of past works. He was another American avant-garde composer and appreciated music as an experience of sounds. However, he was not interested in timelessness like Copland and Brahms, but rather viewed music to be present and in the moment. Cage’s 4’33’’ in 1952 was exactly four minutes and 33 seconds long, and consisted of 3 movements with no music (Cage 46). Instead, all that was heard were sounds coming from the audience or some outside source, expressing his view of sounds as music. This piece was partially a cynical reaction against the concert hall transforming into a musical museum, contrasting the views of both Brahms and Copland and their admiration toward the museum (Lecture 2/1).
The musical canon portrayed a radical shift in all aspects of music, and changed how music was perceived and experienced to this day. Historicism played a major role in this transformation, and the symphony was now seen as a magnificent artistic statement of serious, classical music. Composers, audiences, and music itself were affected by the musical canon, and to this day has an impact on the way listeners around the world perceive and interpret classical works.
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