Opera and the Musical Canon, 1750-1815

Foyer of Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Photo by Paul Doerwald.


Opera and the Musical Canon, 1750-1815 is a three-year research project (2015-2018) funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, based at the Fountain School of Performing Arts, Dalhousie University.

Headed by principal investigator Estelle Joubert, the project will comprise of a postdoctoral fellow, two MA-level researchers and various graduate and undergraduate research assistants. An international conference on opera and aesthetics the age of Goethe is envisioned for 20-24 June 2017, to be held at Český Krumlov.

Opera and the Musical Canon, 1750-1815 uncovers opera’s decisive role in the history of the musical canon during its formative period. Challenging the long-held supremacy of instrumental repertories in histories of the musical canon, the study reconnects opera to the conceptual elaboration of key ideas such as aesthetic autonomy and the musical work concept. Key catalysts for canon formation during the second half of the eighteenth century--a public audience and concert hall, an increase in printed music and, most importantly, music criticism––are believed to have emerged in relative isolation of, if not opposition to court culture and its associated musical genres such as Italian opera seria. This project foregrounds the convergence of the sphere of music criticism and court opera collections, most notably the Berlin court library, now part of the recently rediscovered Sing-Akademie archive, ultimately offering a fresh historical account of the musical canon still acknowledged today.


Baroque theatre at Český Krumlov. Photo by Paul Doerwald. Used with permission.

Detailed Description

Histories of the musical canon, including Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (rev. ed. 2007), inextricably link German symphonic music, especially Beethoven, to a regulative work concept emerging ca. 1800. This work concept is underpinned by the notion of aesthetic autonomy, which musicologists such as Mark Evan Bonds locate in German aesthetic theory of the late eighteenth century (2014). The cultural significance of this moment in European music history remains undisputed. As musicologist Richard Taruskin aptly sums it up, ‘without the notion of aesthetic autonomy the modern concept of fine art is unthinkable; and for music to qualify as a fine art, it had to be reconceived not as an activity but as a body of works’ (introduction to Goehr, 2007). Reconceiving music as a body of works, however, depended upon a number of catalysts, and scholars tend to weight these differently. Anne Shreffler points to the economic significance of published sheet music, the development of a ‘middle-class audience for whom the public concert became an important social ritual’, and a growing sense that music of the past could have lasting value’ alongside notions of the work concept and autonomy (2013). Joseph Kerman similarly gives credence to the ‘new social configuration’, but places a greater emphasis on music criticism, captured in his oft-cited assertion that ‘repertories are determined by performers, canons by critics’ (1984). In particular, he observes that early nineteenth-century music reviews of Beethoven’s works by E.T.A. Hoffmann feature a sharp increase in music examples. These are reviews of scores rather than live performances; this, for Kerman, encapsulates the ideal of the Beethovenian work concept and aesthetic autonomy upheld by music criticism, on which the musical canon is based.

It seems at the very least curious that opera–-a genre so closely associated with musical fame and renown during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries–-is essentially absent in histories of the musical canon. Roger Parker and William Weber have remarked upon the precarious role of opera in accounts of canon formation (Parker 2007; Weber 2008, 2009). Parker raises the issue of multiple authorship in opera, hampering the genre’s perceived suitability for the work concept. He also points to the issue of progressive musicalization in opera—the idea that opera was primarily viewed as a subspecies of spoken theatre prior to the nineteenth century, when music became viewed as the ‘dominant element of the work’. In effect, all of these narratives are governed by the implicit belief that opera either did not or could not have contributed to the emergence of aesthetic autonomy; the work concept, mostly established around 1800; or indeed the formation of the musical canon itself.

Yet the landscape of scholarly inquiry relating to eighteenth-century opera and music criticism has in recent years been vastly transformed. Laurenz Lütteken’s database Musik in den Zeitschriften des 18. Jahrhunderts (2004) enables near-comprehensive searches of over 300 German periodicals. In 2002 the Sing-Akademie archive of Berlin containing some 9,735 works by 1,008 composers, arguably the most important historic collection of eighteenth-century European music believed lost to the Red Army during WWII, was returned to Berlin and a new catalogue has recently been published. Opera studies, too, has been more fully integrated into musicology relatively recently (at least compared to symphonic music), all of which prompts the question of opera’s involvement in the canon anew.

Opera and the Musical Canon, 1750-1815 reconnects opera to aesthetic ideals such as autonomy and the musical work concept, and posits that the genre contributed significantly to the formation of the musical canon. In view of Kerman’s suggestion that ‘canon is shaped by critics,’ the project aims to combine criticism related to particular ‘moments’ in reception history with a rich variety of empirical data gathered from primary source documents. Theories of the ‘classic’ are central to any study on canon, and this project is informed by Frank Kermode’s seminal work on the ‘classic’ (1977; 2004) and to a lesser extent that of John M. Coetzee (2002). In particular, this project relies heavily on Kermode’s assessment of the socio-aesthetic processes involved in monumentalizing renowned artists, which for him lies in ‘conversation about works’ rather than the static ‘monuments’ of art themselves (2004).

This uncovers a thorny issue in histories of absolute music and the musical canon. As Emily Dolan has recently pointed out, narratives of the rise of instrumental music intimately bound up with the work concept ‘resonate most closely with the philosophical discourse, particularly analytical methods that focus on musical form’ (2012, 6). Her work, as well as that of James Davies (2014) seeks to recover the materiality of sound in studies of nineteenth-century music, in essence connecting the history of aesthetics with embodiment. Although this current project is not focused on instrumental music, it does share their concern with the materiality of sound in shaping aesthetic ideas surrounding autonomy and the work concept. Recalling Kermode’s foregrounding of pleasure (real or imagined) of an artistic experience as a key catalyst to collective ascriptions of value, it would seem that opera contributed historically to aesthetic debates eventually culminating in canon formation. This implies a conceptual framework that employs opera criticism as an entry point to recovering the materiality of music in conjunction with aesthetics.

Possibilities for collaboration at the postdoctoral and masters level could include, but are certainly not limited to:

Works Cited

Mark Evan Bonds, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Coetzee, John M. ‘What is a Classic? A Lecture’ in Stranger Shores: Essays 1956-1999, London: Vintage, 2002.
Davies, James Q. Romantic Anatomies of Performance, University of California Press, 2014.
Dolan, Emily I. The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Axel Fischer and Matthias Kornemann, Ed. The Archive of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin Catalogue/Das Archiv der Sing-Akademie zu Berlin Katalog. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010.
Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, revised edition. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Kerman, Joseph. ‘A Few Canonic Variations’ in Canons, ed. Robert von Hallberg, Chicago University Press, 1984, 177-198.
Kermode, Frank. The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence and Change, Harvard University Press, 1977.
———. Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Parker, Roger. Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Shreffler, Anne C. 'Musical Canonization and Decanonization in the Twentieth Century' in Der Kanon der Musik: Theorie und Geschichte. Ein Handbuch, Ed. Klaus Pletschmann and Melanie Wald, Munich, 2013.
Weber, William. ‘Canon versus Survival in “Ancient Music” of the Eighteenth Century’, in The Age of Projects, Ed. Maximillian E. Novak, Toronto, 2008, 91-114.
———. The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England: A in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology. Oxford University Press, 1996.
———. The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms, Cambridge University Press, 2008.


Cover of Ideen zu einer Mimik, 1785-1786 (private copy). Photo by Paul Doerwald.


Estelle Joubert

Principal Investigator

Estelle Joubert is an Associate Professor of Musicology with a cross-appointment in European Studies at the Fountain School of Performing Arts, Dalhousie University. Her research focuses on eighteenth-century music, particularly opera and political thought, paradigms of the public sphere in musicology and music in the global eighteenth century. Articles have appeared in Cambridge Opera Journal, Eighteenth-Century Music, Music & Letters, Plainsong and Medieval Music, Musica e Storia as well as various edited collections, and her monograph German Opera and the Politics of Sensation, 1750-1815 is forthcoming. She held a Balzan International Research Visitorship at the University of Oxford in Trinity Term 2014 and was a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley in 2015-2016.

Austin Glatthorn

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Austin Glatthorn’s research focuses on the negotiation of music, politics, spectacle, and representation in Central Europe in the years around 1800. Specifically, he is interested in music at the crossroads of the old and new regimes, exploring the ways in which music articulated cultural and national identity during a seminal period of transformation in European (music) history. By extension, his current research investigates the role of the Holy Roman Empire’s Nationaltheater in the formation of the musical canon c.1800. Through an examination of the diffusion of German-language theatres, their repertories, and the critical responses to their most frequently performed operas, Austin aims to uncover how the Nationaltheater provided the political, philosophical, and aesthetic foundations upon which a subsequent canon was cultivated throughout Central Europe and beyond. From 2013 to 2014 Austin held a DAAD research grant to conduct archival research in Germany and Austria. In 2015 he was a doctoral fellow at the Leibniz-Institute for European History in Mainz. In addition to his research, he strives to bring long-forgotten music back into the concert hall. Pieces featured in Austin’s research have received their modern premieres in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. His article ‘The Imperial Coronation of Leopold II and Mozart (Frankfurt am Main, 1790)’ is forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century Music and his chapter ‘Das Mainzer Nationaltheater und die Kaiserkrönung Leopold II’ appeared in Mainz und sein Orchester: Stationen einer 500-jährigen Geschichte, edited by Ursula Kramer and Klaus Pietschmann, 95-118. Mainz: ARE Verlag, 2014.

Hilary McSherry

M.A Candidate in Musicology and Research Assistant

Hilary McSherry's research focuses on eighteenth-century opera in Prussia, especially the impact of international relations and diplomacy on the Singakademie archive. She hopes to share and preserve this cultural collection through her research.

Hilary is interested in music and its relationship to politics, culture, and history. Much of her previous research has focused on Central and Eastern Europe, including topics such as the strength of civil society and its impact on the functioning of democracy. She also studied the music of Dvorak and Ligeti in the context of changing cultural, political, and social norms.

She holds a degree in music and a degree in international relations from the University of the Pacific, a master's degree in international policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and is now a current student of musicology at Dalhousie University.

Laura Jones

Undergraduate Student in Musicology and Research Assistant

Laura Jones is going into her fourth year at Dalhousie University, earning a Bachelor of Music with a concentration in musicology. The focus of her undergraduate honours thesis is mid twentieth-century French art song. She is also a voice student, and has studied with Marcia Swanston and Gregory Servant.

Downtown Halifax. Photo by Dennis Jarvis. CC.


An international conference entitled “Opera’s Canonic Entanglements” is planned for 20-24 June 2017, to be held at Český Krumlov.

Call for Papers (deadline: 15 December 2016)

Conference Program (mobile-friendly) (PDF)

Dalhousie’s Advanced Seminar in Baroque Culture, held from May 26 - June 25 2017, is open to Canadian and International Students. Due to the fragility of material culture at Český Krumlov, the course is limited to 25 students. Places are alotted on a first-come-first-served basis.

For more information see our informational brochure (PDF).

For informational videos see 1 minute video and 8 minute mini-documentary

Baroque theatre at Český Krumlov. Photo by Paul Doerwald. Used with permission.


Principal Investigator
Dr. Estelle Joubert

Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Dr. Austin Glatthorn a.glatthorn@dal.ca