Updated: Jul 16
Have you ever bemoaned the lack of progress in the musical canon for the past 150 years, as you proceed to program yet another performance filled exclusively with works by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms? Yeah, me too.
I will be the first to admit that when it comes to the Western musical canon, I am someone who perpetuates the problem. My musical education largely consisted of learning works by dead white men, and those are the same composers whose music I happily play now. Do I think it’s a problem? Yes, absolutely. Have I ever seriously expended time and effort expanding my musical horizons, exposing myself to a more diverse body of work? Well, no, not really.
Here’s the thing — I like that music. Late Schubert and middle-period Beethoven are what got me interested in classical music; I remember listening to Schubert’s last string quartet obsessively as a child. However, the Black Lives Matter protests’ spotlight on institutional racism made me reconsider my somewhat (in retrospect) cavalier approach. While there are multiple factors helping classical music remain an overwhelmingly white, affluent space, for now, let’s just talk about the canon.
To begin, some perspective. I am a classical pianist, which means I play an instrument with a massive repertory that stretches back to the 17th century*, with a huge body of work from the 19th century, when the piano was culturally dominant. String players, especially violinists, and singers face a similar dilemma. Even if we collectively decided to stop composing for these instruments tomorrow, there’s more repertoire than a person could get through in a lifetime. It’s genuinely difficult to strike a balance between playing music I love from the past with playing unfamiliar music of the present, and it’s a problem that only gets more challenging as more works are composed.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a systematic re-ranking of the repertoire, and making value judgments about which composers actually “deserved” to be included and which new voices should be added. What I am saying is that there needs to be a broad acknowledgement that there is simply too much repertoire for that to be possible; an acknowledgement of the role individuals and institutions have played in advocating for a “Great Works” model at the expense of newer works; and offer resources and ideas for creating a less rigid, more inclusive culture, starting with the repertoire.
From an institutional perspective, it’s not difficult to understand how this problem developed. Coming out of any reputable music school, it's expected that you will leave with a particular, core body of knowledge. This expectation is reasonable; having a shared baseline of knowledge allows for better collaboration and gives everyone a common vocabulary to work with. It would be difficult for one program (or pre-collegiate teacher) to start exclusively teaching “non-standard” repertoire, knowing that a potential outcome is that their students will be deemed unprepared to enter the next stage of their music career, relative to students coming out of other institutions.
But while I think the (somewhat perceived) pressure to teach the “standard” repertoire does factor into limiting exposure to works by lesser known composers, especially works by women and people of color, I would argue that there is a self-selection aspect strongly at play as well. Students majoring in music generally already like the Western canon enough to want to keep studying it; this is doubly true for graduate students who aspire to become faculty members** and make curricular decisions. In cases where a student develops a serious interest in works falling outside of the canonical repertoire, perhaps they can find a niche program designed specifically for that interest or an open-minded program willing to support them. However, the likelier scenario is that the student, feeling out of place, chooses to simply self-select out of the system entirely.
While I don’t doubt that most faculty support the idea of having a more diverse, culturally inclusive canon as part of the curriculum, their own professional success has been predicated on buying into this particular canon’s value, and there is no real incentive to drive change. Students keep showing up to audition, happily playing Beethoven and Rachmaninov, which faculty will happily teach, and few feel compelled to seek out new music. But conservatories and university music programs are still the primary pipeline to a career in classical music and generate most of the next musical generation. Explicitly and intentionally including more diversity across the curriculum signals to students that this music has value and builds a culture in which diversity is the norm, not the exception. With that attitude carried out into students’ eventual professional activities, the cycle of playing the same handful of works by the same handful of composers can weaken.
What can performers and teachers actually do? Let’s start with personal efforts. The canon is expanded when people play and teach new works, repeatedly. For people like me, who would ideally want to include a wider variety of composers in their repertoire, but who have also quietly wondered how to even find new works, here’s a list of resources to get started. It will take
a certain amount of personal effort, but hopefully this removes an initial barrier.
Institute for Composer Diversity - Excellent composer database that easily allows you to filter by gender, genre, demographic information, and location. Links to composer’s personal website. Maintained by the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Living Music Database - Database for living composers. Doesn’t have a great way to search, just a few keywords, but ideal if you are in an explorational state. One of the few databases with audio samples.
Music by Black Composers - Database of living black composers, spearheaded by Rachel Baron Pine. Can search/sort alphabetically, by gender, date of birth, and location. Links to composer’s personal website.
The Living Composers Project - Another living composer database. Criteria for inclusion: composer must have lived past the year 2000, writes principally ‘classical music,’ composer must have some record of performance(s), and been born 1991 or earlier. Can search alphabetically or by country.
Kapralova Society - Women Composers Database - Database of classical women composers who have been published with a commercial label or independent publishing house. Maintained by the Kapralova Society. They also maintain a database of women composers of other genres (electroacoustic music, experimental music and sound art, music for the screen stage, jazz), with no publishing requirement for inclusion.
Oxford Music Online - Women Composers by Time Period - List of women composers, sorted by time period, from pre-Medieval music to present. Links to Grove Dictionary Online.
Kassia Database - A resource for singers, teachers, performers, and the supporters of art song by women composers.
And from an institutionally-unaffiliated high horse, here are some thoughts on possible institutional changes:
If you are an applied or private teacher, regularly and explicitly encourage learning repertoire by underrepresented groups at every stage of development. At least for me, this would have made a difference and left an impression that this repertoire is valued. Additionally, provide to your students some modelling of how to look for it.
Expand and reprioritize repertoire required/suggested for pre-collegiate and collegiate festivals, competitions, and auditions. While these events offer good performance opportunities, locking students into the same repertoire cycles year after year ultimately limits their development, especially at a time when the focus should be on breadth — exposing students to as wide of a variety of music as possible.
And on a side note, make an effort to place equal value on all repertoire performed for auditions. For a pianist, it is standard to prepare a Baroque piece (which, really, should be a Bach Prelude and Fugue), a Classical sonata, a large-scale Romantic work, and something from the 20th century. While everything prepared does get heard, I was always left with the impression that the 20th century piece received a rather cursory listen in comparison to the rest. And I prioritized my practice accordingly.
Explicitly include more diversity in the history and performance curriculum, and make performing living/women/POC composers a requirement for graduation.
When it comes to the literature survey courses, it gets tricky, because there are real time constraints that necessitate picking and choosing which repertoire to include. While unlikely that many students would be interested in an expanded 6-8 semester sequence, making a concerted effort to include more diversity in the literature courses, especially the instrument-specific literature courses (i.e. piano literature), would be demonstrative of more inclusive educational values. Perhaps also include a list in the syllabus of repertoire you wish you could have included but couldn’t fit into the course.
Or, make (and regularly offer), a survey course that actually covers this literature. This could take a lot of forms — contemporary music, living composers, women composers, historically overlooked composes, etc.
These suggestions won’t fix systemic problems overnight, but it is a good starting place. And you have to start somewhere, right?
* The first (surviving) evidence for keyboard literature is the Robertsbridge Codex, which dates back to 1360. Practically speaking, however, pianists typically consider their canon to start with J.S. Bach (1685-1750), with earlier keyboard music designated to the realm of “early music” practitioners who utilize the piano’s predecessors, the harpsichord (primarily) and the clavichord.
** Graduate students today will probably not become faculty members, given the current academic market and general attitudes toward higher education, especially toward the humanities.
Author: Allison Jerzak