The modern classical concert hall tends to focus on primarily on music by well-known European composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This focus on established, familiar music dates back to the nineteenth century, when composers, critics and audiences began to view certain accomplished music as “timeless.” A canon of critically-acclaimed classical music began to form based on this idea, and alongside it a historicist performance repertory of transcendent “masterworks.” This repertory, while ephemeral and gradually changing, is still the basis for orchestral programming in the twenty-first century.
Recent attempts to expand the repertory reflect the broader debate in the humanities over the validity of the Western canon, as it applies to literature, art, and other disciplines. The purpose of this literature review is to take stock of the various critical perspectives on how canons come to be. I have examined the debate in the context of two different scholarly fields. First, I have taken a detailed look at the canon debate in literary criticism: possibly the field in which it is the most pronounced. The thinking of literary critics informs my reading of musicological scholarship, which makes up the second half of the literature review.