The Musical Canon



  • Canon in music is used to describe a body of works in a particular genre (eg: symphony)
  • These works are recognised as masterpieces
  • Institutions are also linked to the canon (eg: Royal Albert Hall)
  • There are several classical canons, or smaller ones within the main canon (eg: 19th century opera, string quartets)
  • Canonical statues is shaped by performers, audiences and institutions.
1 of 10

Handle - Messiah

An oratorio for SATB, written in 1741 (Baroque)

  • its superb music
  • its popularity
  • its ability to be performed by professionals and amateurs
  • relates to the Bible, descibes the events in the life of Jesus (Part 1 = Christmas, Part 2 = Easter, Part 3 = Book of revelations)
  • Mozart also had an arrangement of the Messiah, with a larger orchestra (18th century)
  • no definitive text, shaped by performers and conductors.
  • some groups (eg: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) aim to give an 'authentic performance', playing on the authority of the Baroque movement.
2 of 10

Holst - I Vow to Thee My Country

A hymn (1921) in SATB form, created from a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, set to music by Holst

  • hugely popular and well-known
  • asscoiated with important events, including armistice day commemorations and Diana's funeral
  • taken from music for The Planets, a popular orchestra work
  • poignant lyrics.
  • poem refers to the sacrifise in WW1.
  • hymn tradition from Greek Homeric hymns (8th century BCE)
3 of 10

Mozart - Non Piu Andrai

a tenor aria from The Marriage of Figaro, written in 1786

  • a Mozart opera
  • undisputed part of operatic canon
  • comic opera 
  • first performed in Vienna
  • adapted from a banned play, considered risque because of comedy of the upper classes
  • great portrayal of character in opera
  • catchy march in a major key
4 of 10

Cole Porter - Anything Goes

a song from the musical of the same name about an oceangoing liner, written in 1934.

  • from the Great American Songbook (GAS), a core repetoire of singers and jazz musicians from 1920s to 1960s (eg: Gershwin, Berlin, Kern and Porter)
  • sharing of common musical struture featuring a verse and chorus (32 bar chorus of AABA or ABAC form)
  • numerous versions and performances (eg: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra)
  • links to the musical Anything Goes
  • lines incidentely used by Malcom X in a speech 
  • also features in Dancing at Lugnasa (Brian Friel), 20th century society encroaches on traditional Irish rural life
5 of 10

Schubert - Der Erlkonig

a German song called Lied, written in 1815

  • from the Lied repertoire, a type of popular song written by Beethoven, Shcubert, Schumann and Brahms
  • based on a poem by van Goethe, tells the story of a child who dies in his father's arms having been killed by the Erl-king.
  • written for 1 voice who plays the 4 parts (father, child, Erl-king and narrator)
  • has been transcribed by Listz and Berlioz, also members of the classical canon
  • highly charged music which is incredibly difficult to perform successfully due to 4 parts for 1 voice and demanding piano part of rapid triplet figures. 
6 of 10

Vaughan Williams - The Vagabond

from a song-cycle Songs of Travel which aimed to express an ongoing theme or thread.

  • composer was an avid collector of folk songs.
  • established the English song as part of the canon
  • poem from Robet Louis Stevenson, have simple stanzaic structures which lend themseleves to being set to music
  • demonstrates the travel theme, a predominant theme in literature at the time
  • the first part of the cycle which introduces the traveller.
  • 'all I seek is the heaven above, and the road below me'
  • AABA structure, changes denote the only point the traveller dreams of a 'fireside haven'
7 of 10

Beethoven - The Symphony

nine in total, written between 1800 and 1824

  • symphony mainly developed in Austria and Germany, centred on Vienna.
  • his music was widely available in catalogues and newspapers, this attracted many reviews
  • described as 'supassing many of his predecessors' in the musical form
  • conforms to typical structure (1. opening fast movement, 2. slow movement, 3. minuet or scherzo, 4. fast closing movement)
  • eroica, use of 3 (the 3rd)
  • pastoral, use of country imagery and birdsong with Piccolo (the 6th)
  • addition of new instruments, as orchestra grew in size
  • use of Mozart and Haydn prototype
  • his deafness was part of his appeal
  • turbulence of life
  • from death onwards his reputation contiued to grow.
8 of 10

The Stradivarius Violin

  • best in the world
  • Renaissance
  • musicians develop a close bond with their instruments (eg: Nathan Milstein)
  • subtle instruments
  • linked to virtousity
  • instruments used across genres (eg: Gupta's use in Raga Jaunpuri)
  • 18th century violin in a modern cross cultural context
9 of 10

John Adams - Dr. Atomic (Batter my Heart

from a controversial opera, embracing several genres.

  • subject matter is political, focuses on Dr. Oppenheimer and the test of the first atomic bomb (the Trinity Test)
  • Oppenheimer enjoyed classical music and sonnet writing as well as having a deep interest in Baudelaire whose work he read before the first test.
  • part of the opera canon, in 2 acts (1. a few weeks before, 2. the day of the test)
  • the liberetto is constructed by Sellars using quotes from literary and historic documents as well as Hindu scripture and poetry.
  • Act 1 concludes with Batter My Heart, written by John Donne, a passionate appeal to God to physically hurt the speaker and shows a tension between earthy and spiritual love. It is a petrachan sonnet comprised of octave and sestet, the alliterative words battle one another, there is no clear rhythm.
  • Adams creates a highly emotional, drawn out soliloquy with Oppenheimer alone on stage, with dramatic orchestral interjection to show the turbulence experienced by him.
  • Oppenheimer enjoyed metaphyiscal poetry which was highly intellectual (think Marvel 'The Definition of Love', references to parralel lines and Donne 'A Valediction', reference to twin compasses.)
10 of 10


No comments have yet been made

Similar Other resources:

See all Other resources »See all Music resources »