Canonicity and collegiality “other” composers, 1790 – 1850

Common Knowledge 14 (1):105-123 (2008)


A paradigm shift occurred in musical culture in the early nineteenth century, whereby revered old works—newly called “classics”—began to rival contemporary ones as the guiding authority over taste. This article explores the less well-known composers found on programs in the period when classical repertories were becoming established. A kind of professional collegiality developed during this period on concert programs among pieces of diverse age and taste, reaching far beyond the iconic composers (now seen by most of us to have been Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn). Many of the “other” composers came from Italy, France, or Britain and became famous for opera selections and songs, some termed “popular,” and a substantial number of their pieces were performed throughout the nineteenth century. The present-day narrative of music history has canonic blind spots for composers then widely performed—Louis Spohr, Thomas Arne, Giovanni Viotti, Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, George Onslow, Louise Farrenc, and Robert Franz, for example. To understand musical life of that time, it is necessary to rethink the language of canon and canonization. The concept of canonization and the concept of the masterpiece have narrowed musical thinking harmfully. We need to look back at the fruitful collegiality that existed between canonic and contemporary music in the early nineteenth century, involving as it did a wide array of composers and tastes not yet bound by rigid assumptions about supposed “levels” of taste

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