Some thirty years ago, the then head of CBS Records, Clive Davis, sent out a directive that no recording was to be undertaken if the recovery of its costs could not be projected within one year’s sale in the United States. Accordingly the plan to record Mozart’s Serenade for thirteen wind instruments with George Szell and members of the Cleveland Orchestra was canceled. One of the producers at CBS was properly indignant. “Doesn’t he know that we’re an international company?” he said to me. “The sale of classical music in Japan is twice that of the United States, the sale in Europe three times as great. We could have recovered the costs of this record in a short time with no difficulty.”

Thinking in terms of so long a time as a year was, in fact, unusually broad-minded in the American record business. Normally the goal was nothing more than a fast recovery of costs and a quick profit. A continuously growing profitability was also desirable since selling only the same number of records each year would neither please stockholders nor attract investment. Staying in business merely by sustaining the same level of activity was not commercially appealing. This is part of a general conviction that affects most activities today. Countries must attract more tourists each year, airlines must fly ever more passengers to more destinations, energy companies must supply—or appear to supply—more energy to more customers. This conviction, it seems to me, is less a principle of economics than an article of faith.

If the market does not grow fast enough, the most common commercial policy is not to try to sustain the level reached, but to cut back drastically. Canceling a respectable project if it does not promise a fast return is the easiest road to take. It is often deplored that the market for classical music is not growing or that it is even shrinking, although it is hard to interpret sensibly any of the figures sometimes given. The population in the parts of the world in which classical music is historically most at home—Western Europe, for example—is also shrinking. Part of the loss of interest in classical music may, however, be laid at the door of the record industry. At the time that listening to records was beginning to overtake going to concerts as the chief way of staying in contact with the classical tradition, the record companies consistently refused to make records freely or cheaply available to schools. Educating a future public would have meant planning in longer terms than the habits of thought of the modern business world are comfortable with. Nevertheless, this makes a coherent view of our cultural heritage in literature and music an awkward undertaking. Some educators have abandoned the idea as hopeless and even (sour grapes!) as unnecessary. Even the idea of a canon of great works of the past can inspire resentment today.


At the beginning of the third book of his Discorsi (a commentary on the first ten books of Titus Livy), Machiavelli writes, “If one wants a republic or a sect [i.e., a party or religion] to live a long time, it is necessary to bring it back often to its beginnings” (il suo principio). He puts it simply and dogmatically. With the passage of time, a republican system of government and a religious sect will need renovation: “It is as clear as light that without renovation, these bodies cannot last. The mode of renovation is, as I have said, to reduce them toward their origins.” These renovations can, he remarks, be brought about by extrinsic causes, as when attacks by the barbarians inspired the Roman state to “wish to be reborn, and in being reborn, to take on new life and new virtue,” but it is better when the return to the basic principles comes from “intrinsic prudence,” when the origins of the society are systematically rediscovered. “We can see,” Machiavelli remarks a few pages later, “how necessary this renovation is by the example of our religion, which, if it had not been returned to its origins by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, would have been completely exhausted, since with poverty and the example of the life of Christ, they brought it back to the mind of men, where it was already exhausted.” The return to beginnings is, for Machiavelli, not only a rebirth but a way of finding new life and new vigor. The sense of a society’s origins is embodied in its tradition and guarantees its survival.

I have tried to ennoble these simple home truths by dressing them up with Machiavelli and his awareness of their practical value. It is interesting that he conceives them as having the greatest importance above all for the republican form of government (“He who wants to create absolute power, commonly called a tyranny, must innovate in everything”). Machiavelli is realist enough to understand that tradition is often an illusion or a fraud: “Whoever wishes to reform the government of a city,” he observes, “and wants it to be accepted and to maintain it to everyone’s satisfaction, will have to retain at least the shadow of the ancient ways, so that to the people nothing will seem to have changed although in fact the new laws are in all respects completely alien to those of the past.” A sensible opportunist will therefore fake a tradition when he has to.


It has often been observed that revolutionary movements generally claim to be restoring the past, to return to an as yet uncorrupted state, an age of innocence. Martin Luther’s ideal, like that of Saint Francis, was to restore the earliest decades of the primitive Church; the Jacobins of the French Revolution wanted to return to the naive virtue and courage of the Roman Republic; the early Romantic poets wanted to restore to poetry the simple clarity of everyday speech. The appeal to tradition is useful both to sustain the system in power and to destroy it. This is because a tradition, if it is to function practically, is malleable, not rigid. Returning to one’s origins in a moment of crisis will alter the origins, and literally transform the past to fit a new sense of desperation or hope.

A democratic society—at least, a society with democratic elements—functions most cohesively when there is a general knowledge of its laws, its history, and its artistic inheritance. In eighteenth-century England and America, the only part of the literary heritage that one could take for granted as shared by almost everybody was the translation of the Bible, but during the nineteenth century a wider knowledge of fiction, poetry, and drama began to work its way into layers of the population. Since the fifteenth century a knowledge of Roman and Greek literature was the standard way of appearing to return to one’s cultural origins. Athens and Rome were the mythical sources of modern society and a superficial acquaintance with their classics provided a certificate that one was a gentleman; even women were reluctantly allowed to acquire this distinction at times. It was, however, female taste in the vernacular literature that was the most powerful force in fixing the criteria that determined the status of writing in English. Eventually an informal canon of serious literature in the vulgar tongue was formed and imposed by education.

The essential paradox of a canon, however—and we need to emphasize this repeatedly—is that a tradition is often most successfully sustained by those who appear to be trying to attack or to destroy it. It was Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky who gave new life to the Western musical tradition while seeming to undermine its very foundations. As Proust wrote, “The great innovators are the only true classics and form a continuous series. The imitators of the classics, in their finest moments, only procure for us a pleasure of erudition and taste that has no great value.”1 Any canon of works or laws that forms the basis of a culture or a society is subject to continuous reinterpretation and to change, enlargements, and contractions, but to be effective it is evident that it must retain a sense of identity—it must, in fact, resist change and reinterpretation and yield to them reluctantly and with difficulty. A tradition’s sense of identity is dependent on the way it is transmitted, on what kind of access to it is made available to the members of the society concerned, and on whether the transmission makes the canon too rigid or too yielding.


To illustrate the strange problems in the definition and the diffusion of tradition in the arts today, I must begin by descending from these grand generalities to personal anecdote. Last summer I was in Oxford and thought this would be an opportunity to buy a volume of the early philosophical works of Francis Bacon published by Oxford University Press as part of an ongoing complete critical edition. This was not stocked by most bookstores since the press had decided that it would henceforth publish this kind of book only for libraries and accordingly put an exceedingly high price on it, way beyond the means of most students, teachers, or book lovers in general. (This policy started about twenty years ago and coincided unfortunately with the moment in England and America which most university libraries found themselves strapped for cash, so it became beyond their means as well.)

I went to the store that the press keeps in Oxford and asked for the book. “Not all the volumes of that edition are available,” I was told, but the salesman helpfully looked up the edition on his computer. “That’s the volume I want,” I said, pointing to the item on the computer. “We have zero stock of that volume,” I was told; “perhaps you can find it secondhand.” This was a strangely defeatist attitude from a publisher—above all since, even in Oxford, secondhand bookshops are closing permanently with the inevitability of leaves falling from the trees in the autumn.


In any case, it has become common enough to find that when the fifth volume of a new, complete, and at least temporarily adequate text of a classical author appears, volumes one to four are already unavailable. It used to be the boast of Oxford University Press that they never let a book go out of print. We can understand that economic pressures in the modern world would not permit such a grandiose policy to continue, but the British university presses have no longer any pride in providing the best possible version of the English classics. These are made available today in the most haphazard fashion, and usually only if each volume is heavily subsidized by institutional funds.

A good deal of writing is intended for a quick sale of six months—or two weeks, a single day, or even a few hours. Modern publishing is geared for the most part to the short term, and in general properly so, although publishers are naturally pleased if a book sells for a longer time than they thought they had any right to expect. (The insane policy of some governments of taxing publishers on their unsold stock makes printing for long-term sale impossible.) However, a short-term policy makes no sense with a volume that presents a classic like Bacon or Dickens in a new text based upon years of research, and doubly foolish when the publication is part of a large project which requires some years to reach completion.

From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth the greatest part of English literature that had attained some kind of classical authority was available in well-bound, well-edited publications largely available to readers of modest means, and the less expensive paperback versions made some of this even more widely accessible. Various series systematically covered the field: Bohn’s library, the Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, the World’s Classics, the Oxford English Texts, and others. Nevertheless, in the second half of the last century, this representation began to decline, and even to fall apart. Most of these series have disappeared, retrenched, or gone into paperback—in many cases, the latter expedience proclaims the impermanence of the product.

The same decline was seen throughout Western culture. At the end of the nineteenth century, the European model for printing the national heritage was the elegant pocket-sized volumes bound in cloth or leather published in Germany by Insel. These were imitated in France by Gallimard with the Pléiade, and in Italy by Mondadori. The aftermath of World War II effectively wrecked Insel, dividing it up between Frankfurt in the West and Leipzig in the East. Mondadori was bought up by Berlusconi and its classical series disappeared. All of the other grand projects for printing the Italian classics have closed down; only odd volumes in secondhand shops are left of the Scrittori d’Italia of Laterza or of the ambitious volumes published by Ricciardi.

Some twenty years ago in Germany, a new series of classics was launched. The publisher was Suhrkamp, which had promoted much avant-garde writing after the war. “They used to publish Benjamin, Habermas, Adorno,” one distinguished German art historian said to me indignantly. “Now, what are they printing? Goethe!!!” The most important German classic authors are represented in complete editions by this new branch of Suhrkamp called the Deutsche Klassiker Verlag; the format is like the old Insel books but with extensive explanatory notes at the end, imitated from the Pléiade. However, many of the planned issues are years late in coming out, and several authors are still awaiting their final volumes; plans for the future seem to be considerably reduced. (Financed, I am told, by a Swiss armaments manufacturer, this series has lost some of its backing since the end of the cold war, but perhaps today’s increasingly bellicose atmosphere will see this change, a fringe benefit from a deplorable state of affairs.) Beautifully edited and produced, this project came along at a time that most university libraries had to reduce their acquisitions, and the Deutsche Klassiker Verlag has not been able to persuade bookshops to display a large selection of the volumes together so that the project can develop an identity for the public.

The Library of America has met the same commercial resistance from booksellers, particularly the large chains, in which one can find only a few of its books mixed in with less ambitious publications. This series is gradually covering the whole canon of American writing, and the texts are carefully edited; the annotation, however, is generally insufficient. Printing the speeches and letters of Lincoln, for example, with only a few pages of explanation of what was going on in the political and military situation of the time shortchanges the average reader. In France, the Pléiade series is heavily annotated, and is displayed in bookstores throughout the country. It covers the most important parts of French literature, with the complete works of Montaigne, Ronsard, Pascal, Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine, Flaubert, Balzac (still two volumes to come out of sixteen), Proust, Vigny, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and many others, and many foreign authors like Chekhov, Shakespeare, and medieval Arabian travelers are represented as well in translation.

I am told that the Pléiade runs at a loss, but it adds prestige to the firm of Gallimard: the volumes are widely bought for Christmas and birthday presents. But if the situation is troubling for American, German, and Italian literature, it is even worse for the great English tradition, one of the richest of Western civilization. No really first-rate complete edition with the most modern scholarship at a price affordable for the average reader is available of Wordsworth, Shelley, Dryden, George Eliot, Thomas Browne, and Ben Jonson, to list only a few, and no publisher appears to have any plans to make the English literary tradition more accessible.

There are, of course, libraries from which one can borrow books, and also the new technology of printing on demand, which should replace the need for the publisher to stock books.2 Until now, the new technology has not developed very far, although it will surely do so in the future. One university press offers to print any book needed within a month, but a bookseller who ordered from them told me that a volume requested a year and a half ago has still not arrived.

Neither the public library nor print-on-demand are satisfying solutions for becoming acquainted with the fundamental works of our culture. Reading the works of Shelley in a copy borrowed for a month or two from a library is not acceptable if you admire his work deeply. A classic may almost be defined as a book to which you wish to return from time to time even if only for a few minutes. When I take a book from a library and find that it is that kind of work, I immediately return it largely unread in order to force myself to find a copy of my own.

The technology of print-on-demand, too, neutralizes an important element of the pleasure of reading: after all, a book is a material object as well as a collection of words, and I do not like to decide to buy one before holding it in my hands for half a minute and glancing at its contents. Typography, page design, the hue and quality of the paper—all this contributes to literary pleasure. Perhaps in the end, however, we shall all have to resign ourselves to reading mainly the texts we can order electronically.


Access to what are considered the great works of painting and sculpture is adequately provided by museums. They stand as a formidable barrier to those who would like to get rid of a canon, or radically alter its character (generally replacing dead white males with candidates selected by ideology, politics, or sexual preference). As I have said, a canon properly resists change, although, in the end, it must change if it is to exert a living influence. However, an abrupt and radical alteration is generally impossible to achieve: the old values spring immediately back into place once the new ideology’s back is turned. Introducing new figures into the canon is therefore with few exceptions a slow process, the additions generally reaching public acceptance only after decades of professional interest.

The example of two poets, John Donne and Friedrich Hölderlin, often said to have been discovered at the end of the nineteenth century after years of neglect, can show that the pathos of neglect and rediscovery is largely a myth. The present fame of Donne is popularly supposed to be owing to the influence of T.S. Eliot, but he was greatly admired by Coleridge and influenced Browning; and editions of his poetry were available throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most influential academic critic of the time, George Saintsbury, wrote of Donne as “always possessing, in actual presence or near suggestion, a poetical quality that no English poet has ever surpassed.” The criticism of Eliot brought Donne to the attention of a larger public, but he had never lacked admirers. Hölderlin is said to have been rescued from complete obscurity at the same time as Donne by the interest of two great poets, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, but earlier Robert Schumann wrote music inspired by his work, and Brahms set his verses to music. The fame of both Donne and Hölderlin increased greatly at the opening of the twentieth century, but these additions to the canon were made possible by the earlier existence of a continuously sustained admiration.3

The efficacy of a tradition, however, can be weakened by swamping it with a host of minor figures, and we have seen this happen in our time. The fashion for baroque music has awakened the interest of recording companies and concert societies, and the novelty of an unknown figure has a brief commercial interest. A brilliant essay by Theodor Adorno mocked the way the taste for baroque style reduced Bach to the status of Telemann, obliterated the difference between the extraordinary and the conventional. Concerts of music by Locatelli, Albinoni, or Graun are bearable only for those music lovers for whom period style is more important than quality.

Of greater concern, however, is the way the taste for novelty has made it more difficult to enlarge the canon with more controversial figures today. Some thirty years ago, I was invited by Pierre Boulez to record his piano music for CBS records, which had hired him as both a conductor and a composer with an engagement to make his works available on records. I started by recording Sonata No. 1 and the two movements of Sonata No. 3 then released to the public, Trope and Constellation-Miroir.4 The composer was present at the recording, which does not, of course, make it official, but I carried out the few suggestions he made, and the record won the Edison Prize in Europe. Then it was deleted from the catalog a few months after being issued. This was not due to any malice on the part of the company, since it kept my album of the last six sonatas of Beethoven in the catalog for more than a decade and reissued it on CD; it was merely the mechanical action of a computer which cut out any disc for which the sale fell below a certain mark. (I could have gone on to record Boulez’s Sonata No. 2, which I had performed several times, but Maurizio Pollini came out with a beautiful recording of that work, although with perhaps somewhat less ferocity than I would have preferred. In the end, it seemed to me unprofitable to continue a project that was being treated so cavalierly by the company.)

The policy of either an immediate profit or the withdrawal of any book or record that does not have sufficient commercial interest when issued makes it awkward to establish the achievement of a new figure whose work has a certain complexity. Committing the company to represent Boulez as a composer on records should have required CBS to keep a representative number of them accessible over a period of years, so that a body of work could remain before the public. When Mozart was played in Paris in the early nineteenth century, he was popular neither with the critics nor with the public, but his music kept being frequently performed until both of them came around.

The question is not the ultimate worth of Boulez’s music, although a great many musicians find him one of the few important composers of the last fifty years, but the possibility for the general music lover to arrive at an informed opinion. His works are rarely played in public in America and not that often in France. When Boulez was director of the New York Philharmonic, he consistently refused to conduct a single one of his orchestral compositions, since the rehearsal condi-tions would not have permitted an adequate performance.5

Record companies have not always been so shortsighted and irresponsible. When Goddard Lieberson ran CBS, the complete works of Stravinsky were recorded and remained largely available, and this certainly contributed to the almost complete acceptance of his style in the world of music. The two complete recordings of the works of Anton von Webern that CBS issued have made it much easier to perform this music before the public. There would be much less difficulty with the programming of contemporary work if composers whose musical language has awakened professional respect, interest, and admiration were made substantially available on records which remained in the catalog long enough to give them a chance with the public.

During Lieberson’s time, I asked my producer at CBS, Jane Friedmann, how the two largest American companies stood with regard to the classical repertoire. She replied, “RCA has all the big blockbuster recordings, but oddly enough we make more money in the classical field.” CBS issued many more inexpensive recordings; RCA preferred large sales figures even when they did not cover the costs of expensive projects. This skewed ideology influences many of the CEOs in the culture business. Even when the company loses money, large sales figures have more prestige and glamour than small but steady sales with a profit.


Not only production but critical interpretation is affected by the market. To attract attention, to sell a critical interpretation, novelty is an aid, but scandal is often thought to be required. Were some of Felix Mendelssohn’s works really written by his sister Fanny? Was Huckleberry Finn homosexual? These are the grand questions that provoke discussion. It is true that to create an outrage may often be salutary: for example, William Empson’s book Milton’s God took seriously Milton’s intention of justifying the ways of God to man, and claimed that the Christian God was so horribly cruel that no real justification was possible; Empson’s study of Milton’s arguments and logic made readers attend to the details of Paradise Lost with renewed intensity. A traditional interpretation of a traditional work seems to be insufficiently exciting even when it goes more deeply than others have gone before or casts further light on the work. We require the stimulus of shock.

The very elderly and supremely distinguished art historian Walter Friedländer once returned a paper to a student at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University with the laconic remark that it was not good. The student asked Friedländer to tell him where it was wrong so he could correct it, and Friedländer replied sadly, “It wasn’t even wrong.” No doubt it has always been better to be right than wrong, and clearly better to be wrong than uninteresting or trivial. But in today’s climate, being provocatively wrong is often far better than being right with no matter how great a success. The pianist Glenn Gould, whom I knew slightly and found courteous and charming, once invited me to listen to an unedited tape from his forthcoming Mozart sonata records: it was the first movement of the Sonata in F Major, K. 332 (one could hear him singing on the tape, and he also sang along with it while listening, which made the experience very vocal). Very eccentrically he executed the opening theme staccato except for its last appearance. When I asked him why he played the theme legato at the end, he grinned and replied disarmingly, “Well, I thought I should do it right once.” Many of Gould’s performances were right and sublime, many were wrong and both interesting and stimulating, and some were wrong and simply awful: it was probably the last two categories that gave him much of his celebrity.

Plays and operas are available in books and scores, so we can imagine what dramatists, librettists, and composers had in mind, but finding this out from almost any staging today has become impossible. It is not, I think, always understood how much imagination can be deployed in an interpretation that remains faithful to the original text: there is always a place for innovation that enhances without deforming the original. However, to be talked about, a production of an opera or play must generally misrepresent the work in a striking way. In a recent production of Hamlet, the hero rapes Ophelia on the stage, and his mother, Gertrude, is drunk throughout the play. A few years ago, a film of Shakespeare’s King Richard III with a fine performance by Ian McKellen set it in a world with Richard as a dictator, jack-booted troops, and Nazi decorations. But Shakespeare’s Richard had no ideological ambitions, no political philosophy: his intentions were dynastic—he wished to kill enough of his relatives to ascend to the throne. The film distorted the purely personal ambition that impels the action.

It had, however, the merit of a commentary on the modern world and the unbroken continuity of cruelty throughout history. But what are we to say to a production of Siegfried filmed in Stuttgart and shown on television, in which Brünnhilde is not awakened behind a wall of fire but in a bedroom, displays an odd desire to go to bed immediately after having been asleep for more than sixteen years, does not try to preserve her virginity and resist Siegfried’s advances, but, in flat contradiction to the text, attempts to seduce him by sitting down on the bed and patting the place next to her invitingly (perhaps to convey the popular male chauvinist dogma that women always mean yes when they say no), and brushes her teeth while Siegfried expresses his love? This kind of approach to staging has become the norm rather than the exception. Respect for the libretto obviously pays no dividends.

Perhaps the lowest point of opera production in my experience was reached two years ago at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris with a staging of The Magic Flute by Mozart with circus equipment. The Sarastro could not sing the famous low notes that the composer wrote for the original singer (surely a prerequisite for casting), but he could swing from a trapeze. In the scene where Prince Tamino asks the priest when he will see Pamina and the priest replies, “Soon, or never” [Bald oder nie] to Mozart’s gravest, most solemn phrases, both priest and prince bounced up and down in time to the music on a trampoline.

For two and a half centuries, serious opera has always been run at a considerable loss, supported by reaching into the pockets of taxpayers. Perhaps a production would not get talked about enough to justify the continuation of this kind of financing unless it subverted the opera and gave the newspapers an outrage to write about. Perhaps, too, any kind of nonsense is judged appropriate for a genre traditionally considered dramatically absurd from its creation in the seventeenth century, if only one can draw in an audience large enough to dazzle the donors with their tax-deductible contributions. A fine production of an opera used to remain for many years in the repertory. Simply sustaining tradition today has become much more difficult.

This Issue

November 6, 2003