Valuing the past In the times when music was thought of as a progressive art – that is, when it was taken for granted that the music of any generation represented an improvement on that of the one preceding – the idea of glorifying composers of the past would have seemed strange. A composer’s reputation was unlikely to survive long, in a wider world, when styles and fashions were changing rapidly and change was regarded as progress. Only in the hermetic world of the musicians themselves did reputations persist, and there only briefly. As early as the 14th century, the fact that Guillaume de Machaut took the trouble to collect his works, literary as well as musical, following a tradition initiated by poets in the previous century, implies some sense of history or posterity. But in the 15th and the early 16th century, the music of even the most widely acknowledged and admired composers rarely outlived them in any repertory for more than a few years, although they were sometimes remembered through the citation and praise of their work by theorists and the quotation and reworking of elements from it by composers of the next generation. A few were mourned in music by their pupils, friends or contemporaries, for example Jean de Ockeghem, in a lament by Josquin des Prez.


The perpetuation of a composer’s memory took on more serious dimensions during the time of Josquin himself. When he died numerous laments were composed by his colleagues, anecdotes about him circulated, and theorists drew on his music for exemplary quotations. The process accelerated in the late 16th century, when the printing of music could ensure a far wider distribution. Palestrina, reverently remembered not only for his music itself but also for its supposed role in ecclesiastical musical history, achieved an unprecedented reputation, and his music enjoyed a currency that easily eclipsed Josquin’s. At this time too, the notion developed of a ‘classical repertory of church music – works by Palestrina and others in Italy, for example, or Byrd and others in England – that was to continue in regular liturgical use, as it still does.

Pre-eminent musicians, like their counterparts among painters and poets, were accorded a status beyond the expectations of their social group, and a few of them won places in some of the collective biographical surveys of the time. Dictionaries of music that include biographical accounts of composers began to appear at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, and it was then too that the idea of giving physical embodiment to the subjects of reverence seems to have originated. Evrard Titon du Tillet drew up plans, never realized, for a vast monument, ‘Parnasse Francois’, intended to be built on the site in Paris where the Arc de Triomphe now stands, made up of statues of poets and musicians of the Louis XIV era: his first version was to have included a statue of Lully and portrait medallions of Lalande, Marais and La Guerre.

The first statue actually erected to a composer was Roubiliac’s of Handel, in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London in 1738. Handel too was the subject of the first published monograph on a composer, the first to be commemorated in a massive ‘centenary festival, in 1784, the first to have a collected edition published of his works and the first to be interred and commemorated with a monument in a national shrine.

Almost a century before, a splendid monument had been placed over Lully’s grave, but in a local church and at the request and expense of his widow. Purcell had been buried in Westminster Abbey, though without a monument, and Corelli in the Pantheon at Rome. In the 19th century ceremonial burial was more widely practised. Many composers rest in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, most of them in a dedicated area for musicians, often with elaborate memorial stones, and the great figures of the French musical scene are to be found at Pere Lachaise. Most of the distinguished Russian composers were Statue of Lully: detail from Louis Garnier’s model, ‘Parnasse Francois’, commissioned by Titon du Tillet buried in a corner of the Tikhvin cemetery in St Petersburg, the great Czechs in the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague. Lesser men, eminent figures in their own towns, were often granted places of honour in their local cemeteries.

Until the middle of the 18th century, virtually all music heard in public or private, in all European countries, was new music, composed during the preceding ten or 20 years. The only exceptions were in liturgical contexts, in performances by groups specifically dedicated to the investigation and revival of older music and in the preservation of certain privileged repertories. In France, the operas of Lully and later the motets of Lalande were kept alive, under royal patronage, well beyond their composers life-spans. In England, the music of Handel and Corelli remained in currency well after the middle of the century, and a clear dichotomy came to be perceived between ‘ancient and ‘modern styles, respectively those of Corelli and Handel on the one hand, Haydn, J.C. Bach and other living composers on the other.

It was this solidifying of a repertory of‘old music’, to which that of J.S. Bach was soon to be added, coupled with the social and economic developments of the early 19th century and their aesthetic consequences – the growth of the musical public, the beginning of cheap music publishing, the rise of music journalism, the building of larger concert halls and opera houses, the development of transport, making international interchange swifter and easier – that led to the establishment of a ‘musical canon’, a central repertory that could claim international celebrity. It varied in some degree from country to country, as it still does, and it renewed itself in each generation as fresh repertory accrued and some of the old and some of the new fell away. But a solid core of‘classics remained, and it still remains. The link between the formation of a canon and the construction of national identities is plain, and its centrality in the two great European countries that found national unity only during the 19th century speaks for itself: in the German-speaking countries the symphonic tradition, beginning with Haydn and Beethoven and culminating in Brahms and indeed Wagner, in Italy the operatic tradition from Rossini to Verdi and Puccini.

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