Of Canonic Oscillation, Ontogeny and Phylogeny


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I found the opening of  Leonora Saavedra’s dissertation OF SELVES AND OTHERS: HISTORIOGRAPHY, IDEOLOGY, AND THE POLITICS OF MODERN MEXICAN MUSIC exciting and refreshing for the way it digs down into the central contradictions of Twentieth-century Mexican art music. In the readings and studies we have  engaged with in this seminar, this contradiction has been abundantly evident: the attempts of Mexican nationalist/modernist (there’s the contradiction right there! Yet the two are so intertwined it is almost impossible to separate them) composers, artist and writers to create specifically Mexican art all began  with European ideas. Saavedra attributes this in part to the implicitly peripheral role granted to Mexico (and other colonial cultures) by the West. Her persistence in rooting out the assumptions underpinning the development of Mexican national styles reveals some significant truths.

For instance, the assumption that the developmental stages and processes apparent in European music are universal and will inevitably arise in the development the music of any culture is astonishing, yet it rings true with regards to the attitudes of both Western and Mexican music historians. The roots of musicology in Western rationalism and science are somewhat veiled but quite obvious once they are pointed out. There is an assumption reminiscent of Haeckel’s Law of Biological Evolution (now largely disproved)  “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny” that posits that each individual in a species musit go through all the evolutionary phases that the species passed through in its own devlopment. In musicology, this translates into the  idea that Mexican music must logically go through all the stages that European music did, and have their own Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven etc. I find Saavedra’s point helpful in understanding why some scholarship on Mexican music seems to try to fit it into boxes that are the wrong size and shape.

Her highlighting of the conflicting impulses among Mexican artists of various mediums to be authentically Mexican and at the same time “catch up” to Western peers who seem to be “ahead” according to Western models and the idea that development in the artistic disciplines is always linear and progressive. Again her assertion that this creates an oscillation and tension  which results in a wonderful richness rings true based on the examples we have studied and listened to. For instance Revueltas’ incorporation of Mexican street cries into many of his work can be seen as reaching for both authentic “Mexicanness” and European modernist ideals of relating art to everyday life.

Saavedra’s points are especially salient when viewed in the context of Philip Bohlmann’s article “Music and Canons”. Bohlmann’s article is largely about the formation of Canons, the rethinking of Canon’s, and where the authority comes from to do so. Like Saavedra, he is quite clear that traditionally Musicology’s Canon derives from colonialism and imperialism. Bohlmann also makes the point that the “Canon” is evolving into “Canons” and “Music” is evolving into “Musics”, a process that began in the twentieth century and now continues into the twenty-first.

Bohlmann stresses that those in control of the Canonic texts gain authority, and as these texts become ubiquitous, they reinforce their own authority by being omnipresent. This idea ties in neatly to Saavedra’s observance that Carlos Chavez “….saw to it that the documentation on his historical and musical persona that had already been produced by 1928 in the United States became an early primary source.” Chavez understood the canonic process, and made his own texts central to the Mexican music canon.

Bohlmann’s article also points out that Canonic authority can come from skill, tenacity, or a position of power such as an editorial office. In the case of the Mexican nationalists/modernists, the Mexican government was essential in the formation of the canon, by its choice of which artists to support.  He ends his article by asking where the Canonic authority of the future will come from: from the working masses who are the main consumers of musical culture? From the consumers of musical texts? (a much smaller group!) In Bohlmann’s and Saavedra’s articles, I read the writing on the wall, that those who figure this out first will likely gain the Canonic upper-hand.

-Flora Newberry


Leonora Saavedra, Musicologist and Professor at UC Riverside


Philip Bohlmann, Musicologist and Professor at University of Chicago


Bohlmann, Philip. “Musics and Canons”. In Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, 197-209.

Gould, Stephen. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1985.

Saavedra, Leonora. (1979).  Leonora Saavedra, “Of Selves and Others: Historiography, Ideology, and the Politics of Modern Mexican Music” Phd dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2001.


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