The Legacy of the Musical Canon

Until it became necessary to venerate and glorify the works of renowned composers from the nineteenth century, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn, the term “classical music” had neither been utilized nor exploited. Upon the transformation of the concert hall into a musical museum, J Peter Burkholder argues that the only appropriate works to be performed were museum pieces (Burkholder 119). As a result, the musical canon emerged; an established tradition that designated a list orenownedwn composers and their works to be permanently seen as masterpieces.

Once initiated into the canon, the works of established composers, such as Beethoven and Haydn, could be cherished and emulated by patrons and classical music connoisseurs alike. The development of this tradition, the canon, resulted in a change to the way both patrons and musicians understood and considered musical excellence. In response, auspicious and novice composers emulated these masterpieces and studied them vigorously, ultimately serving as the guide and framework for their future vocation and legacy.

The shifting role that composers played in the late nineteenth century became the foundation for the erection of the musical canon. Before this era, a composer’s common intention for constructing a symphony was to benefit and entertain those who could afford it. Their purpose for creation also heavily coalesced with the desire of the aristocrats; while still esteemed, composers were obliged to serve the upper-class for economic stability, as they were employed to do so. While the industrial revolution impacted many different aspects of society, the most prevalent influential factor on the music scene was a newfound sense of liberation for prospective composers and musicians.

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This notion of liberation sprouted from the ideas of Beethoven and the progression of the “rising professional middle-class” during this time (Goehr 206). Symphonies were written by composers now reflected “a choice as to the source of their livelihood and in being able (in theory at least) to make use of or to exploit this choice in whatever ways they saw fit” (Goehr 208). As time passed, composers received acknowledgment as freelance artists who were recognized as creators and independent masters of their artwork.

The ability to distinguish the composers of the canon from their lesser contemporaries was due to “their level of craftsmanship” and “the strength of their musical personality” (Burkholder 120). During the industrial revolution, the development of the mass market affected the construction of the canon; it made music more accessible to the masses on an unparalleled scale. Subsequently, composers began to create sizeable amounts of non-rigorous music in an attempt to cater to this new widespread interest. As a result, dedicated composers opposed the easy-to-play music being sold to the public and began revering the works of those who they felt embodied the aesthetic genius of musical art.

Steadily, the idea of “classical masters,” such as Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, was considered and highly valued in the classical music society. Their works dominated over pieces from the contemporary age and were labeled as classic and everlasting; their excellence could neither be surpassed nor degraded with time. Howrenowned patrons and composers considered music suddenly changed; music lost its heavy association with entertainment and gained a newfound sense of intellectuality. In turn, contemporary musicians and composers strived to produce music of similar eminence. Novice students began heavily studying the music of renown deceased composers whose music, “having survived the fabled “test of butan  ”,” continues to motivate young composers to “meet the requirements for entrance” to hopefully “win space in the permanent collection” (Burkholder 120). Composers of the contemporary era began to emulate the works of great composers of the past, while also maintaining composersown “classical craftsmanship and a distinct musical personality” (Burkholder 133).

One of the most influential composers who implemented this trend of emulation as well as personal style and flare was Ludwig van Beethoven. Born in 1770, this German composer was employed as a court musician in his teens until he was funded by an aristocrat to travel to Vienna and study with Haydn. Beethoven’s third symphony “Eroica,” is an early example of this trend; it was abnormally long and contained abrupt disturbances throughout, contrasting against the current musical style. Not only was this piece radically different, it was also poorly accepted. He was no longer creating music for the affirmation of his patrons, he was expressing his creative freedom.

As the musical canon was accepted and considered onestablished tradition, composers now faced the challenge of maintaining relevancy and staying competitive as a contemporary compose as opposed to composers affiliated with the canon. Born in 1833, German composer Johannes Brahms was the first to be raised during the era of the musical canon. Haunted by Beethoven’s ghost, Brahms reportedly stated in 1871, “I will never compose a symphony!” (Frisch 178). He was so afraid to contend with Beethoven’s music that he did not write a symphony until his forties. “Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98” is one of Brahms’s most famous pieces—it displays his fascination with historicism and its lasting influence upon Twentieth-century later compositions. Another Brahms symphony, “Movement 4,” was also heavily based on historical underpinnings such as the past work of J.S. Bach’s “Partita for Violin No. 2” and the finale of Beethoven’s “Eroica” (lecture).

Although the legacy and pressure to live up to works of the canon hindered some composers such as Brahms, others had a different outlook. One such composer, Aaron Copland, thrived from this new tradition; his adoption of a “simple style” in the 1930s gave current value to his works and mustered widespread attraction of his style. His idea that old music was intended for academics and composers brought about this change. Copland, best known for his ballets, is recognized as the creator of “American” sounds by incorporating sounds associated with the wild west and rural America (lecture). Copland’s “Symphony No. 3” followed the forms of traditional symphonies but his distinctive personal style and flare are incorporated throughout.Copland considered his “Movement 4,” written towards the end of the war, as reflecting “the euphoric spirit of the country of the time” and his pieces are regarded as monumental to America(lecture). Distinctively, Copland’s music is widely emulated and still appreciated to this day, such as the theme song of Disney’s attraction, “Soarin Over California” (lecture).

Twentieth century American composer, John Cage, opposed the legacy and expected influence that the canon had and responded with complete nonconformity. Found throughout his writing “Silence,” Cage disagrees with the common norm of preserving past music and rebelled with his piece “4’33”.” Released in 1952, “4’33 exhibits Cage’s negative attitude towards the canon’s interpretation of what represents music by composing a piece of his own interpretation. With the publication of “4’33”,” the boundary between art and life was blurred: sounds were now heard as sounds and as music rather than as melodies that soothe the mind and bring forth enjoyment (lecture). Cage elaborates on the sounds of his piece when he of that “at any moment destruction may come suddenly and then what happens is fresher” (Cage 44). Any sound could be interpreted as music—a cough from the audience or even the shuffling of the feet.

The legacy of the musical canon owes its prevalence to the progression of culture. Liberating composers of their former servitude and mustering widespread attraction for this newly discovered art formRegarding, the industrial revolution played a large role in the evolution of classical music. Music evolved from an individual experience to one in which an entire audience could congregate and enjoy symphonies of various composers. In regard to ideas of the canon and its relationship to the musical museum, contemporary composers, such as Copeland and Cage, complicated these ideas. Opposing those of the established tradition, their firm standpoint and beliefs allowed for the variation and evolution of music, stemming away from those of the canon. As the canon progressed, it continued to influence the music of composers still to come: a composerby now defined themselv,ofrom how they chose to respond to this recognized establishment. Throughout the works of Cage, Copland and Brahms, it is expressed that the outright defiance to the musical canon cannot define success—only a career.

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The Legacy of the Musical Canon. (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from

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