Category Archives: canon

Musical Canons

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The canonization of the Hebrew Bible occurred in several stages, though it is difficult to determine how and when it coalesced into the standard version we have today. Despite the enormous significance of the process and its monumental outcome, there is no direct record of the canon’s origination or the criteria employed by those who fixed it. Certainly the canonized books do not comprise the entire literary output of ancient Israel, nor were its books the only ones reputed to be holy or believed to be written under divine influence. The Bible itself lists several collections that were, for one reason or another, excluded from the final edition and thus lost to history (e.g., the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” referenced in Num. 21:14 and the “Book of Jashar” cited in Josh. 10:13 and 2 Sam. 1:18). In the absence of contemporaneous documentation, scholars have had to rely on indirect evidence, such as early surviving versions of biblical texts and later discussions of canonization in rabbinic sources. As a result, any suggestion of a timeline is tentative, speculative and subject to revision.

Perhaps the best that can be claimed are these points from Marc Zvi Brettler. First, the final phases of canonization were a reaction to the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., a crisis that spurred the transformation of the Jews from a people of territory to the People of the Book. Second, canonization was not just a top-down procedure conducted by groups of elites. Certain works were already considered authoritative by large segments of the population, and their inclusion amounted to official recognition of their significance. Third, the canonization process was highly inclusive, yielding an anthology of works reflecting the assorted cultural, ideological, theological and aesthetic tapestry of ancient Israel.

The three attributes of cultural necessity, two-directional selection and representative sampling are also present in the formation of musical canons: corpuses of pieces viewed as illustrative of a place, period or group. Every age and every genre generates far too much music to be remembered or retained in wide usage. Statistically, there can only be a few survivors. As the (subjectively determined) cream rises to the top it is packaged into a canon, which may take the form of a songbook, performance repertoire, industry list, greatest hits album or another type of essentially stable compilation.

Like the Bible, musical canons help preserve the cultures they represent. A book of show tunes from the 1920s, for example, will contain only a fraction of pieces written for that setting. But its selections—which have earned enough notoriety to be included—are received as exemplary of the period, and are thus an important part of American heritage. As with biblical literature, the anthologized sounds carry associations with their place of origin and contribute to the self-understanding of those who have inherited them.

Canons of music also mirror the biblical canon in that they arise through a mixture of top-down and bottom-up processes. The former is a conscious and calculated effort of authoritative entities, such as entertainment executives, academicians, cultural societies, publishing houses and professional organizations. These influential bodies can—and often do—play a considerable role in determining what reaches the ears of the general populace. However, the latter movement—bottom-up—is historically more prevalent. For example, the musical menus of synagogues and churches most commonly take shape through the organic forces of taste and time. According to Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, new music enters religious services on an ephemeral (temporary) circle. If the music is not rejected outright, it may pass into a conjectural (more stable) circle, and from there eventually be incorporated into a structural (mainstream) circle. This natural selection accounts for the survival and continued singing of a handful of melodies from disparate periods and locations, as well as the “new traditions” that emerge within a generation.

Musical canons also possess an inclusiveness resembling that of the Bible. Though they epitomize a certain kind of music or music accepted by a particular group, the collections display internal diversity. The very term representative implies a snapshot of the music-culture as a whole, which rarely (if ever) is a homogenous soundscape. One need only survey contemporary songs on the radio to appreciate the diversity of our popular music. A select few of these recordings—which are themselves a tiny sliver of songs being made—will be included in the retrospective canon of American popular music of the 2010s.

Due to the limited size of a musical canon and the variable factors that affect its complexion, worthy pieces are inevitably left out while questionable ones invariably appear. This, too, is a characteristic of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, despite such inescapable flaws—and the calls for revision they may provoke—canons remain crucial contrivances for condensing, conserving, shaping and sharing culture.

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