Cellos Crossing Cultures: Rethinking Canon, Diversifying Repertoire

Image credit: Pixabay

By Miranda Wilson

(Adapted from a speech given at the DSU Cello Festival, St. George, Utah on September 18, 2021.)

The privilege of coming together with other people to make and listen to music is something I’ll never take for granted again.

I’ve always thought one of the nicest things about our profession is its ability to bring people together. When the pandemic took that away from us, it felt like the punch line of a really bad riddle. “If a cellist only plays the cello at home in their room, does it make a sound?”

It seemed particularly cruel to have our concerts taken away in 2020, which was to have been a Beethoven year. I’d been looking forward to several concerts of Beethoven cello sonatas and chamber music. All my life I’d had concerts to prepare for, and now I felt unmoored. Who am I, if I’m not playing concerts?

Locked in our houses, many cellists decided to use the time to take a deep dive into Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Cello Suites. I didn’t want to do this because — shameless plug — I had just written a memoir about them (The Well-Tempered Cello, to be published in October 2021) and had spent the past several years playing them a lot.

I wanted to absorb myself in music that was new and exciting to me, so I turned to YouTube to listen to cellists I admired to see what they were playing these days. I was particularly hoping to buy scores by living composers, since by doing so I could provide my fellow musicians with some financial support, however small, in these troubled times.

Then, right in the middle of this already frightening episode in human history, George Floyd was murdered, and the world changed forever. It was a time of reckoning and reflection in many, many ways. For musicians like me, it meant re-evaluating our very way of being. Many of us began the painful process of reflecting on all the ways our profession privileges some and excludes others. Most of us realized the need to do better — and do it now.

One of the things that happened was that some music organizations began to say that perhaps we shouldn’t be lionizing Beethoven so much just because it was his 250th birthday. Beethoven already gets plenty of airtime. You might even say that if you’re Beethoven, every day is your birthday. Maybe, they suggested, we should turn our focus towards some composers who haven’t always had their share of the limelight, and arguably deserve it.

As soon as the press heard about this, a few journalists who had previously given very little sign of caring about Beethoven suddenly decided that a bunch of tyrants were trying to “cancel” Beethoven. A backlash of faux outrage ensued.

This was a very silly debate. No one cancelled Beethoven. Beethoven is going to be fine. He was never not fine. But the controversy did provoke me to start thinking hard about our so-called musical canon, the core repertoire that we’re educated to believe is the “best” music. I started to read a lot of the work by scholars of music history and theory who argue persuasively that the existence of a musical canon points to broader injustices in our society.

Right about this time, another controversy sprang up in my second profession, academia. In Idaho, where I teach, a right-wing think tank wrote a report objecting to our teaching more diverse material alongside the traditional canons — by which I mean the canons in all disciplines, whether that’s music, literature, philosophy, STEM subjects, and so on.

In this fact-free diatribe, professors like me were subjected to the extraordinary allegation that we were “indoctrinating” our students to be Marxists or feminists or atheists or leftists — whatever “-ist” outrages you the most. The absurdity of their rhetoric made me wonder whether this organization had ever actually met a professor. I’m a professor and I can’t even indoctrinate my students to play scales. Where are these indoctrinating ogres? In twelve years of being a professor, I’ve never seen anyone indoctrinating anyone.

Part of what made these faux scandals so astonishing was the idea that anyone would imagine professors or classical musicians to have any particular social clout.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought of instances where musicians got in trouble with authority. I’ve written before about Pete Seeger’s run-ins with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Bach’s getting thrown in jail by an employer, and Shostakovich’s struggle with the Composers’ Union in Soviet Russia. If we were entirely powerless, we would never threaten the powerful. But we do, because we have the power to move human emotions.

This brings me back to the idea of a musical canon. For cellists, that’s the core repertoire we’re told we have to learn for competitions, exams, recitals, juries, and auditions. It’s the “3 Bs” — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. warhorses like Haydn in D, Dvorak, Elgar, Schumann. I like playing this repertoire. No one loves the 3 Bs more than me. I wrote a whole book about Bach (again with the shameless plug) and I was going to play a ton of Beethoven last year.

Beethoven has done a lot for me. But what have I ever done for him? His sonatas have been recorded by all the top cellists and performed untold thousands of times. Is another interpretation by me really going to contribute anything to the conversation? Do I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said by others?

Why do we have to have this canon of received works anyway?

In this day and age, isn’t it about time to give it a good shake-up?

Here’s why we need to expand the canon to make it fairer and more diverse, now:

When I go visiting public school music classes, I sometimes ask children what they think a composer looks like. The response? “An old white man in a wig.”

Now, I love old men in wigs. Some of my best ancestors were old white men in wigs. But wigs haven’t been a common fashion accessory for a long time now, and if a child thinks classical composers only look like old white men in wigs, that’s a big problem. Representation matters. If the universal idea of “a composer” = “old white man in wig,” children are not going to envision themselves as classical musicians. If there’s no one around who looks anything like you, you might very well feel you didn’t belong.

I have the privilege of being a professor as well as as performer, and I’ve come to see it as my life’s mission to promote more diversity in music, with a particular focus on living composers. It’s time to breathe some new life into our repertoire.

Many of us who also teach music history subjects have had to think hard about what to teach in the classroom to breathe some life into that too. As an undergraduate, I loved music history classes — and yet, as I recall, in the six semesters of classes I took, I studied exactly one Black composer, Scott Joplin, and one woman composer, Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179). Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel and Clara Schumann were mentioned as performers and as the family members of male composers, but we didn’t study any of their compositions. If you took the syllabuses at face value, you might assume there simply hadn’t been many composers who weren’t men or weren’t white people.

This assumption is simply not historically accurate. Thankfully, present-day scholars are revealing more and more overwhelming evidence that there has always been racial and gender diversity in classical music composition. That certain composers were written out of the history books is attributable to race- and gender-based discrimination. We can now give heartfelt thanks to musicologists, and librarians, and IMSLP, and intrepid performers for making it possible to celebrate their talent.

It isn’t hard to get started. It has never been easier to diversify the repertoire that we perform and teach. Music has never been more accessible than it is now. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to play a cello piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor or Louise Farrenc, you couldn’t. The scores were out of print. If you wanted to go on a wild goose chase, you could ask for an interlibrary loan or trawl through second-hand bookshops. Now you can get those scores in 15 seconds and for free on a device that you carry in your pocket. You can listen to a recording on YouTube. The world of music has opened up to us.

IMSLP isn’t just for dead composers. Plenty of living composers have generously shared their scores on IMSLP in the hopes that performers will play them. Other living composers have scores you can download from their websites in seconds — a nice way to send money directly to the composer.

There are so many systemic and social injustices in the classical music world that we as individuals can do little about. But one thing we each can do individually is to bring more justice, equity, and diversity into the repertoire we personally perform and teach.

Here is just one of the changes to consider. When putting together a concert program, or a program for a student, consider pairing a piece from the traditional canon with a complementary piece by an underrepresented composer. If time is short, consider playing the lesser-known piece on that space in the program instead.

Below is a (very incomplete) list of suggested pairings. By normalizing repertoire by underrepresented groups of composers, we can expand and greatly enrich the core repertoire. It’s a win-win situation and there is literally no down side. The worst-case scenario here is that….we might learn some new music! And with every piece we learn, we learn something about the cello, about others, and about ourselves. I hope you will come with me on this exciting journey.

Core RepertoireSuggested Pairing/ReplacementScore Availability
Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 1 in G Major BWV 1007Adolphus Hailstork, Sonata for Solo Cello (2015)Theodore Presser
Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 6 in D Major BWV 1012Dorothy Rudd Moore, Baroque Suite (1965)American Composers Alliance
Luigi Boccherini, Sonata in C Major for Two Cellos G. 74, ed. Paul BazelaireJoseph Bologne (Chevalier de Saint-Georges), Sonata in E-flat Major for Two Cellos Op. Posth., ed. Maureen HeflingerIMSLP
Ludwig van Beethoven, Variations on Mozart’s Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen WoO 46Helene Liebmann, Cello Sonata Op. 11 (last movement is a set of variations on Mozart’s La ci darem)IMSLP
Ludwig van Beethoven, Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 1Louise Farrenc, Cello Sonata Op. 46IMSLP
Felix Mendelssohn, Lied ohne Worte Op. 109Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel, Sonata o Fantasia HMU 238Breitkopf und Härtel
Frédéric Chopin, Cello Sonata Op. 65Luise Le Beau, Cello Sonata Op. 17Hildegard Publishing Company
Camille Saint-Saëns, Cello Concerto No. 1 Op. 33Marie Jaëll, Cello Concerto (1882)Sheet Music Plus
Johannes Brahms, Cello Sonata in E Minor Op. 38Ethel Smyth, Cello Sonata Op. 5IMSLP
Serge Rachmaninoff, Cello Sonata in G Minor Op. 19Rita Strohl, Sonate Dramatique (1898)Enoch
César Franck, Sonata in A Major (1886)Mélanie Bonis, Cello Sonata Op. 67IMSLP
Gabriel Fauré, Élégie Op. 24Nadia Boulanger, Trois Pièces (1914)IMSLP
Zoltán Kodály, Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 8Bright Sheng, Seven Tunes Heard in China (1995)Schirmer
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926)Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Variations for Cello and Piano (1918)IMSLP
Ernest Bloch, Prayer B. 54Rebecca Clarke, Rhapsody (1923)Wyastone
Benjamin Britten, Suite No. 1 for Cello Op. 72Imogen Holst, The Fall of the Leaf (1963)Oxford University Press
Samuel Barber, Cello Sonata Op. 6George Walker, Cello Sonata (1957)Lauren Keiser Music Publishing
Dmitri Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1Minna Keal, Cello Concerto (1994)Sheet Music Plus
György Ligeti, Sonata for Solo Cello (1948/1953)Tania León, Four Pieces for Solo Cello (1981)Peermusic Classical
Arvo Pärt, Fratres (cello-piano version, 1980)Dorothy Rudd Moore, Dirge and Deliverance (1974)American Composers Alliance


© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.