Tiptoeing into the minefield of so-called classical canon

A recital by the ConTempo Quartet and Fiachra Garvey was the first of six Sounding the Feminists concerts this season

Is it in the canon? Concerts this past week made me wonder about music that is and music that isn’t considered part of the so-called classical canon.

As the week wore on and the canon idea took hold, it wasn’t long before I was fretful thinking about how the whole notion of a defined classical canon was such a minefield.

On Wednesday the London Mozart Players included great classics by Mozart and Haydn. Easy: obviously in the canon. But they also played Delius. Is Delius in the classical music canon?

I love Delius, but I reckon you’d get differing answers to these questions depending on whether you were asking them in England – where Delius sits comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of early 20th century English pastoral composers alongside Vaughan Williams, Bax, Holst and so on – or in Ireland (which I’ve always reckoned indulges a collective national blindspot when it comes to these composers).


But would this mean that there is canonic flexibility, something that can be influenced by things like geography and history? Delius lived in Florida for a while – does this mean that he is considered hot canonic in Jacksonville but in Chicago not so much?

And what if you're an entirely canonic composer like Schumann? Does it mean every one of your works is automatically listed, such as his Violin Concerto which the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra included on Friday?

And anyway, who decides?

Also, how do you get in if you’re knocking on the canonic door from the outside, like the three women composers who featured in Thursday’s recital by the ConTempo Quartet and pianist Fiachra Garvey?

High culture

It was time for dictionaries, Wikipedia, JSTOR, phone calls. And a fretful determination to go on tiptoe into the minefield.

The Cambridge Dictionary says that canon means “the writings or other works that are generally agreed to be good, important, and worth studying”. That’s to cover vast millennia’s worth of Western high culture of every kind going all the way back to Homer and Socrates.

As for who decides, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the late Harold Bloom, an American literary critic and Yale professor who died last week on October 14th aged 89. He was still giving lectures up until the week before, and his name seems to come up more than anyone else's when you start scratching around the word canon.

His 1994 book The Western Canon samples 26 great works of English literature in order to defend the notion of canon against anyone who mentions the uncomfortable truth that traditionally the canon is nearly entirely focused on Europe and on men.

Those who promote broadening the canon to include more women or post-colonial or LGBT or non-English or non-white writers belong to what he calls a “school of resentment”.

There are obvious parallels in music, and perhaps Bloom would have offered enrolment in his school of resentment to the members of Ireland’s Sounding the Feminists (STF), a collective which aims “to improve the representation of women island-wide, who are working in many areas of the music sector”. One of its early achievements has been a five-year collaboration with the National Concert Hall’s annual chamber music series (which this year presents 47 concerts – well worth grabbing the printed brochure).

Aesthetic merit

Thursday's recital by the ConTempo and Fiachra Garvey was the first of six STF concerts this season, and there were lively, enjoyable performances of three full-length works by women composers.

But I thought I could hear the voice of Bloom whispering emphatically in my ear about the primacy of aesthetic merit, just as I found myself reluctantly admitting that much of the music was more interesting than truly musically engaging.

This included the String Quartet by coming-out-of-the-brother's-shadow Fanny Mendelssohn, and a spectacularly flashy Piano Quintet with an outrageously busy, non-stop, 88-keys piano part by a French woman called Louise Farrenc. Within eight years of becoming the Paris Conservatoire's first woman piano professor in 1842, she secured equal pay to that of her male colleagues. Not even BBC News is doing that yet.

Garvey – and I hope the ConTempo showed him the score before he signed up – was heroic, and in fact looked like he was enjoying it.

The piece I genuinely found the most engaging was the String Quartet in E minor by Wicklow-born Ina Boyle. I hope it wasn't bias, or the presence of her biographer and champion Ita Beausang in the audience, but I found that Boyle's pastoral back-drop, hints (only) of something celtic, and her little surprises of key-change and instrumentation pulled me in more than the other two pieces.

Spoken introduction

Each piece received an interesting spoken introduction, particularly helpful for non-canonic music. Howard Shelley, both piano soloist and conductor with the London Mozart Players, also spoke before each piece, a very nice set-up before each sparkling performance, still very welcome even though his programme was all canonical (if you include Delius). (I also loved that he sent us out into the night with a vivacious Haydn Symphony, No. 104. Chronological order usually dictates against a Haydn finish).

Perhaps a spoken introduction might have helped with the flat account of Schumann's moot-canonic Violin Concerto presented by conductor John Wilson and soloist Alena Baeva, who seemed surprisingly underpowered.

Still, perhaps double espressos all round for conductor and orchestra during the interval saw the night finish with an uproarious, occasionally hairy but ultimately rollicking stampede through Dvorak’s exuberant Symphony No. 8.