A Pluto Transits the Canon

Jonathan Bellman

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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to A Pluto Transits the Canon

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    I have thought for a long time that the Canon was actually established by what was in the repertoire of conductors during the major advents of recorded sound, starting from roughly 1913. As each technological development appeared, the electric microphone, LPs, stereo, etc. This canon had to be re-recorded because it’s what the buying public knew and could compare the improvements. I have often wondered whether or not the canon would have been much different if all these development occurred, say, twenty years or so earlier than they did.
    I would also like to take this opportunity to defend a war-horse almost long-gone: Herold’s Zampa Overture. If this Overture is any indication of the quality of the opera itself, then we have a long-neglected masterpiece here ready to be rediscovered. The problem, as I understand it, has to do with the title role which was written for a very specific singer with an unusual vocal range. There must be ways around this without compromising the music.

  2. OK, it’s True Confessions time: I love the Bizet symphony, especially the oboe part in the adagio.
    That said, I don’t think it’s at all essential to the canon. It’s a bonbon, an amuse-bouche, a piece to stumble upon now and then.
    But is it truly part of the canon these days? (Your live performance aside, that is.)

  3. Jonathan says:

    I don’t see myself doing without that oboe solo as a teaching example (Exoticism In Music), but the symphony doesn’t persuade me. To Terminal’s question, “Is it part of the canon these days?”, I’d say yes: today’s canon is really both live performance and (sorry, but it’s true) classical radio station/NPR playlist. And I head this thing on the radio fairly often: light, tuneful, NOT 59 minutes.
    And David: I actually spent some time this past year with *Zampa*, because a particular number in it figures tangentially into my Chopin book. All I’ll say is “go find the plot.” It’s online. Then listen to whatever of the music you can find. To summarize my opinion: NOT NOT NOT a lost masterpiece. But that’s just me.

  4. grrg says:

    Doesn’t Taruskin specifically point to this piece as evidence for how vacuous and inconsequential the symphony as a genre had become by the 1850s?
    In any case t’s worth pointing out that at least a small part of the reason why this piece remains familiar is its use in Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” (originally titled “Palais de Cristal”).

  5. Jonathan says:

    I didn’t know that Taruskin pointed that out–hard to read everything he’s written, after all. I did know about Balanchine, though (third paragraph from the end).

  6. David Cavlovic says:

    Zampa not a masterpiece? Curses, I was afraid of that. I can only think of a Homeric quote : “D’OH!” Still, I like the Overture.
    I guess though I shouldn’t hold much hope for the possibility of lost masterpieces amongst the chamber, orchestral and choral oeuvre of Franz von Suppé.
    Maybe the old musicological dream of locating that lost masterpiece is just that: a dream. Maybe it’s all been discovered, at least among works written before 1900. There’s still a tonne of new stuff (i.e. post 1900) out there waiting to be resurrected, masterpieces waiting for their time again (like, for example, Jonny Spielt Auf. Dammit, that should be standard repertoire in every major opera house!)

  7. Elaine Fine says:

    I wouldn’t every want to eliminate the Bizet Symphony from what could be called the musical canon. We have so little of Bizet to begin with, and performances of that work are few and far between. I challenge any living composer to write a piece that could replace it. If nobody ever had a chance to hear the Bizet Symphony the world would be a sadder place. Nobody will ever go to Pluto, and the mythology connected with the ex-planet certainly preceded the scientific scholarship that classifies it as whatever it is. The main thing is that it is still in the same place and it does the same thing.
    The mere mention of the Bizet sends the inside of my head into instant blissful oboeland. Eliminating that piece for me would be like eliminating peanut butter from the sandwich canon. Homely as it is, we take it for granted, yet it is always satisfying when we eat it. Peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth, and Bizet’s symphony sticks to the roof of the musical oversoul. It can’t be replaced by tunafish, ham, or cheese.

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