Pluto’s demotion from Planet to Minor Planet has been worked over to death. (In fact, didn’t Phil’s first blog on Dial M reference Pluto’s unfortunate encounter with fortune’s wheel?) So I’m not going to talk about the real Pluto. Likewise, The Canon (bless it) has—in the abstract and in actuality—been much discussed, problematized, reviled, and in general belabored. I’m not going to talk about that either, except indirectly.
The way we regard Tradition means we are much more comfortable letting new additions accrue than we are letting go of the old. This is true with almost anything I can think of. Curriculum is an obvious case, as becomes apparent when someone suggests review or revision:
“What do you mean, ‘incorporate new material’? We don’t have sufficient time to teach what we need to cover as it is! Perhaps if you added a separate class in X, taught by someone else, someone younger, someone who…but then, of course, you would have to add units in the Music Education major, which the state wouldn’t allow. Well, I suppose we could establish a committee. Besides, I’m not convinced that this more recent stuff is anything more than ephemeral; why don’t we wait to see if it has any staying power before we make it part of the curriculum? Well, I have another meeting to go to; perhaps if we revisit some of these questions at a later point, but not next year because I’m on sabbatical…”
Jewish tradition is another example, much on my mind as we approach the Days of Awe. Over the millennia prayers and repetitions and other rituals were added for various reasons, but almost never deleted—how can you delete what is holy? Of course, far be it from me to imply that services are FAR TOO LONG, but…
Reluctance to let go of things that have acquired both familiarity and sanctity is normal and all too human. Thus with the concert music canon: we study it, we play it, but we are really reluctant to let things go, sometimes in defiance of reason. So: I would like to make a nomination.
I recently heard a live performance of Bizet’s early Symphony in C. It’s like a student work, really; lots of Mozart, some Haydn, a bit of Beethoven, some recognizable Mendelssohn, and a pseudo-Arabic oboe solo that shows (to me, anyway) a pretty clear influence from Félicien David’s Ode-Symphony Le Dèsert. It is formally clear and clean—going beyond “classical” to “textbook,” I would say—and it’s tuneful and attractive, or is generally considered to be. It has an additional existence as a famous Balanchine ballet, which means that in the minds of many of the dancers I knew (in my previous existence as a ballet pianist) it was sort of the artistic equivalent of the Bach double violin concerto. You know, one famous Balanchine ballet, another famous Balanchine ballet. (I know, I know. You get used to swallowing your outrage.)
I’d like to nominate Bizet’s Symphony in C for the next Plutonian demotion. Bizet produced a competent piece, but he was not really a symphonist, and the piece is ultimately a bit boring. To what extent do we need the Immortal Western Performance Canon (irony intended) to include also-rans like this? With which other symphonies is this equal? Franck’s D Minor symphony used to be more a part of the Canon than it is now, and even D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air (with piano obbligato) once had a firm place in the repertoire. Does Bizet’s piece stand above those? Are the overtures and concertos of Joseph Joachim really inferior to this Bizet piece? I’ve always enjoyed Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune; it is not often played, and the symphonies of Hanson and Piston are even rarer. The Bizet is better than all of those?
It isn’t. It’s light and inoffensive, and the composer is famous because of Carmen, and that may be it. Time to allow this piece to recede into the distance; there’s plenty of New and Should-Be-Better-Known Old that is better deserving of time in the concert hall.