I recently purchased David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music. It seems like it'll be worthwhile, though I haven't really started in on it yet. The goal of the book is to collect what are considered the most essential works of concert music.

Dubal divides music into 5 eras, Early Music, The Baroque Era, The Classical Era, the Romantic Era, and the Modern Era. For each era Dubal picks out the composers who are generally considered the most influential. He arranges them in rough chronological order, and for each he provides a 4-5 page biography, followed by discussion of what he considers the most essential works by the composer, with each of these works getting about a page. At the end of each composer's segment, he provides a list of the composer's other significant works. Once he finishes with the Big Important composers for an era, he goes back and does a survey of 20-30 minor composers, folks who contributed one or two pieces that entered the canon. He briefly discusses them and points to other pieces you might like.

It seems like a fine self-study guide. It provides the broad context of the era, some background for the composers, briefly touches on the work, but it mostly serves to point readers to the Big Important Works and leaves it to them to explore and draw their own conclusions. Dubal is also careful not to say "these are the only pieces worth listening to." These, he says, are the most representative, the most outstanding, the most revolutionary, the most significant, but they're not the Alpha and Omega of concert music. These are a jumping-off point for further listening. So, if you're working through the Early Music section and you find you like Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, you can go from there to listening to Orfeo or one of Monteverdi's other operas.

What's interesting, though, is a notable omission that I picked up on shortly after I bought the book and browsed through the Table of Contents. Dubal doesn't include Pachelbel. Pachelbel doesn't get a biography, which isn't surprising, but he also doesn't even merit a paragraph in the Minor Composers section. He gets one mention, offhandedly, in a minor Baroque composer's paragraph, indicating that he was one of several composers influenced by the composer being discussed.

There's a pretty clear reason for this: Most people who make it their business to know a lot about concert music don't think Pachelbel's Canon is very good. There are a lot of reasons for this. It's not very technically proficient, which is unfortunate because strict adherence to technical forms is the dominant characteristic of the piece. It's repetitive; you can mix-and-match the middle segments without noticing anything's amiss. Now, it's supposed to be repetitive, but a lot of more proficient Baroque composers found interesting ways, working within the same constraints, to play around with the repeating bass line and actually go somewhere with it. It's even misnamed; it isn't a canon, it's a passacaglia.

But it's popular. It's popular and it's concert music. And, arguably, it's highly representative of its era. The Baroque era didn't produce a lot of Bachs, but it did produce a lot of composers who produced workmanlike pieces that strictly adhered to a prescribed form, which is exactly what Pachelbel's Canon is. I personally don't have the visceral hatred of the Canon that a lot of classically trained music people I know have. Fundamentally, I don't think it's a bad piece, it's just not a great piece. And I think what infuriates people who are more invested in these things than I is that it's a very pedestrian piece that has attained popularity beyond its merits.

So I'm a bit concerned that Dubal decided to write the Canon out of the canon. Given its popularity, given that it's what a lot of people think of when they think of concert music, and given that it's a fairly representative example of Baroque forms, it seems like it merits at least a paragraph in the Minor Composers section. I realize that a canon is supposed to be determined by elite consensus, rather than popular tastes. Nonetheless, it seems that this is an area where the elite consensus is resisting inclusion of a piece that, while not particularly noteworthy in the big-picture sense, is still important simply because it's become representative of its era in the popular mind. The piece is not, perhaps, significant in and of itself, but its present popularity has made it significant.

So, while I'm excited about Dubal's book broadly speaking, I'm not inclined to trust him completely in terms of his selections.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 14, 2006 11:39 AM.

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