On the Musical Canon, Cultural Capital, and Fear

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When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...When I wrote the description below I had no idea how many products it would describe...One of the major challenges – possibly the primary one – of a feminist musicology is how to get the work of women into the musical canon. The basic content of what counts as ‘music’ - as in, what you should know if you want to count as a musician, or even just as a well-informed listener - remains resolutely male.

The institutional structures that maintain the canon have been analysed on more than one occasion, so I’m going to go easy on that here. (Bruno Nettl’s essay in Disciplining Music was a formative example in my development as a scholar.) Rather, I am coming back to the question of the internalised structures we maintain within ourselves as musicians. It is these internal landscapes my playlist of 2017 is intended to inflect.

The question I have been worrying at is the role of the canon in our self-identities as musicians. Why do we cling to it? Even those of us who are emotionally invested in righting the wrongs of unjust exclusion can find it hard to embrace female and/or non-white figures meaningfully into our internal soundscapes.

Part of the problem is no doubt the shape of music history’s standard narrative, built around the Greats and the also-rans. The big fish are the ones you really must know, and study in greater depth gradually fills in the minnows around them. Conceptually, it works rather like a tag cloud, with your Bachs and Beethovens in big letters, the gaps between them inhabited by mid-sized Vivaldis and Berliozes, the whole receding into a fuzz of Massenets and Frank Bridges.

This structure means that it makes it hard to take anyone you learn about in your later education very seriously, because the only space left in your head for additions are little spots for ‘minor’ composers.

However, we also need to recognise what this structure offers: certainty. There is far more music in the world than any one person can possibly know, but this structure gives a basic, limited subset that we can bond over and thus feel assured we are cultured. ‘Real’ musicians may laugh at The Only Classical Album You’ll Ever Need, not least because it is full of appealingly tuneful short pieces by ‘minor’ composers rather than hardcore symphonic stuff, but its logic is no different from the canon as taught in the academy, even if its content is.

Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital was framed to explain those personal acquisitions that permit people to gain and hold social status, and I’ve usually thought about it in interactional terms. Other people recognise that you have the right accent and knowledge base to be accepted into sharing their advantages. But it also has an internal function, as a provider of confidence, of entitlement. I know myself to be cultured because I can turn on the radio and tell whether the piano concerto playing is by Mozart or Beethoven.

When I turn on the radio and hear a piece of music that I can identify as from the later part of the 20th century, probably from an opera, probably English, but can’t actually put my finger on who might have written it, I feel less clever. And when the announcer tells me it was by Judith Weir,* I suddenly understand one of the obstacles to any significant expansion of our concept of ‘what counts as music’.

It’s not just that learning lots of new stuff at a point when you felt you were already quite well educated is more effort than most people can bring themselves to invest. It’s not just that the conceptual structures we have persistently draw our attention away from these later additions. It’s that in order to do this, we have to let ourselves feel ignorant. If one role of the musical canon is to allow those of us with the cultural capital it confers feel good about ourselves, then resisting adding new composers to the canon looks like a fear response: don’t make me feel stupid.

Around the same time as I had this penny-drop moment about my own relationship with the canon, I saw a beautiful example of this kind of fear response in action. It was in a conversation about the continued absence of women from A level Music studies (deep sigh). A 17-year-old student on the receiving end of this curriculum was reported as telling his mother, ‘They’re not on the syllabus because they weren’t influential in the period.’

Isn’t this so transparently an act of someone defending his privilege? To start with, if he has learned about no female composers, he is not in a strong position to judge how much or how little influence they had. (The conversation continued with some examples to report back to him.) But there’s also the slightly clumsy deployment of terms such as ‘period’ and ‘influence’: he knows that these are the conceptual elements from which the high-status narratives of music history are built, but he’s not yet using them very coherently.

And of course, he would have no direct evidence of what the syllabus-compilers were thinking when they failed to include any women. He’s making this up.

But it’s helpful to note that when people come out with what are clearly rationalisations to justify an untenable position, it is an act of self-defence. We can choose to be unsympathetic and regard this as self-serving defence of privilege, but we can also choose to recognise the fragility it represents. Here he was, starting to feel like he was getting a grasp of a large and complex knowledge space, and you suddenly make him feel like a complete rookie again. Defensiveness is understandable.

Just because we understand it, however, doesn’t mean we have to have to indulge it. I’m not going soft on you…


*I was hoping to provide you a link at this point, but my google-fu is failing to find the listings. It was on Radio 3 about 7am one day in late January or early February, and I failed to make a note at the time as I was in the middle of putting my socks on (and complacently assumed I’d be able to track it down later).

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