The Emergence of Musical Canon in the 19th Century

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In the 20th Century, musical concerts changed from being the common social events to individual listening events and not necessarily for entertainment, but purposefully for understanding.

Hence, concert halls became the musical museum that majorly perceived the work of some long-dead music composers resulting in affecting the way of composing musical works by the living composers. This study is about the emergence of artistic canon specifically in its original nineteenth-century context. Secondly, the paper will consider the canon as an established tradition with the way the living musical composers contended with its extent. Therefore, the idea of writing excellent music, especially the symphonies changed as a result of the concert halls turning to become musical museums as illustrated in the following paragraphs.

Factors that helped lead to the emergence of the Musical Canon

Canon is described as the lists if musical works that are considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality. Canon is characterized by its subjectivity on how precious the musical work is perceived. The second aspect of canon is the selectivity of this music, where few pieces could be selected as canon since not every musical work is considered as being the best. One of the constituents that lead to the emergence of canon is the shift of audience interest's from the new music to the old musical works in concert halls. During this time, composers were hired to perform old music as opposed to the new music of the late 18th early 19th century. The concert audience also influenced canon through shifting their interest in socializing at the halls to listening and understanding the musical work. An individual could go to the halls, talk and sing along with a performer. The second group of people listens keenly to the music without talking or singing to understand the musical piece well and the third category of people listened to the music on their own even when the concert rooms were filled with other people. Hence, the primary objective was to understand music and not necessarily to be entertained. Music for understanding, needed a lot of concentration while composing, at the same time, this music was supposed to have a lot of value of listening (Burkholder, 120). These factors imply that the composers had to change their way of composing music resulting to the emergence of Canon, and a good example is the Beethoven's 3rd Symphony.

Ways in which Canon revolutionized the concept and purpose of Music

The canon made it possible for composers to compose inspirational music. Secondly, canon influenced the development of professional orchestra resulting in the first generation of the professional conductors. The third aspect of the canon is that it led to significant publishing with an increase in the market of the middle-class audience. The fourth way in which canon revolutionized the concept and purpose of music is through influencing instrumental literacy resulting to the development of instrumental virtuosos, which was against the art of prominence that was dominant in the entertainment music (Frisch 176). The fifth aspect is that it facilitated the development of self-education and self-cultivation among the musical composers of the late 18th and the early 19th century.

The music and reception of Beethoven within this Context

One of the significant contributions to the Canon music is the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 that is written in D minor. The Symphony No. 9 was composed between the years 1822-1824. However, the emphasis of the symphony was on the final movement thus finale. The aspects of the change in the composition are experienced in the symphony through a movement from a minor key to a major key, specifically from the darkness to the light. Secondly, they are hard in the first three movements where they are dismissed, and Beethoven introduces new concept again. On the other side of music, concert halls were taken as musical museums as mentioned early because the audience commonly requested the old music. These factors led to a very lasting aesthetic value of supreme importance of musical composition by Beethoven (Goehr, 207). Many other factors contributed to the drastic change in music including the economic status of the people in the period, the aesthetic value of music and the cultural values.

The Canon as an established Tradition

The tradition of canon music was started by establishing the concert halls to become dominated by the musical works of the dead music composers. In most cases, these composers would have developed the best pieces that still received acceptance in the society, or the works were contributing a lot to the society long after their deaths. In the concert halls, the new music was judged against the music of past masters, hence; making it quite difficult to break in by any new composer. The concert hall music was characterized by having participated in a tradition of serious art music. Secondly, this music was supposed to be more uses than only entertainment. The third characteristic is that music must have lasting value, study analysis and reward rehearsing among other aspects. The fourth feature is that this music must proclaim a distinctive personal style (Burkholder, 120). The sixth characteristics of the concert hall music were that it could not copy paste the past composers and at the same time could not be too far from the previous composers like Beethoven but also could not be too similar. The music was supposed to be different, but not too different.

Ways in Which the Living Composers Contended to the Canon

The living composers contended to the canon through adopting some styles of composition that were featured by the use of old forms and elements of composition. Hence, the living composers had to possess knowledge on the works of the masters of music composition (Cage, 44). Therefore, the old music for the dead was accepted at large by the living composers.

How the Musical Museum Changed

There was an increased prestige of symphony as a genre in the music of this period. The length of the symphony became very long. The complexity of the symphonies also increased making it difficult to play the symphonies, and they changed to becoming artistic statement. An excellent example of the symphony of this period is "haunted by Beethoven's Ghost" that was the symphony of Johannes Brahms. Brahms grew up when Beethoven had long died and hence, he was among the first composers who grew in the era of the musical museum. He had a lot of knowledge of the past compositions. His symphony was very difficult and significant. It was well accepted by the audience since it was based on the old musical forms including chaconne or passacaglia. Brahms also used variations in the finale of his symphony the same as Beethoven in his finale of Symphony No. 9.

The second compose of the museum era under discussion in this study is Aaron Copland who was an American composer between the years 1900 to 1990. He adopted a simple style in the 1930s by making the classical music to be more accessible to the common people through the mass media, radio among many other ways. His style was American in nature which was distinctive and widely emulated. Aaron introduced his distinctive style in the symphonies that he created (Goehr, 208). The fourth movement of the Symphony No. 3 by Aaron was based on his own piece. His symphonies reflected the euphoric spirit of the country at those times that was seen as monumental.


In conclusion, in the 19th and the 20th Century, the musical concerts changed from being the common social events to individual listening events and not necessarily for entertainment, but purposefully for the understanding as discussed above.

Work Cited

Burkholder, J. Peter. "Museum pieces: The historicist mainstream in music of the last hundred years." The Journal of Musicology 2.2 (1983): 115-134.

Cage, John. Silence: lectures and writings. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Frisch, Walter. Music in the nineteenth century. WW Norton, 2013.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Clarendon Press, 1992.

October 05, 2023

Art Music


Composers Musicians

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