Ah, the classics… Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. Names that appear on countless concert programs year after year. Names that fill “best of” lists and those cheesy classical compilation albums. Names that pretty much any person would recognize, whether they are familiar with classical music or not. Names that have stood the test of time.
However, as wonderful as these composers and their music are, something is missing. Where are the women composers? Where are the non-white composers? Where are the living composers?
One burgeoning issue that classical organizations are now facing regards the subject of repertoire and programming. Each year, when orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, there is an alarming focus on the same dead, white (mostly European), and male composers. Little space, if any at all, is left for variety—namely new works and/or works by minorities. (This post focuses on the latter area. The first—the issue of new music—will be the subject of the next installment.)
As such, the following question has become more pertinent than ever in this day and age:
How can orchestras better reflect the diversity of our modern world?
The notion of the classical music canon is mostly to blame for this phenomenon. Similar to other forms of art such as painting, literature, and film, the classical canon consists of what are considered to be the “greatest” pieces of music ever written—ones that are time-tested and deemed worthy of being heard over and over again. However, this canon is naturally restricting. Let me explain why.
Now, the classical canon didn’t always exist. Pre-1800s, most concert audiences wanted to hear the newest pieces from the hottest composers. (Haydn’s visit to London is a perfect example of this—people would often flock to concerts that featured his latest symphony.) As the Romantic era got underway, though, concertgoers gradually became less interested in the new and innovative and turned their attention to the works of past “masters”—figures such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart—who, by this point, had all been long dead. Beethoven, whose music had received mixed reception during his lifetime, was particularly lauded and over time, he became the stoic figurehead of Western art music. Furthermore, the concert hall was no longer a place for mere entertainment—the music heard within its walls needed to be serious, contemplative, and morally uplifting.