Maybe It’s Not Our Fault…

Some surprising figures:

“For years, [William Weber] has been gathering data on late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century performances, and he summarizes his findings in graphs showing how works of dead composers came to dominate concerts in Paris, London, Leipzig, and Vienna. In 1782, in Leipzig, the percentage was as low as eleven. By 1830, it was around fifty, going as high as seventy-four in Vienna. By the eighteen-sixties and seventies, the figure ranged from sixty-nine to ninety-four per cent (in Paris). Matters progressed to the point where a Viennese critic complained that ‘the public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time… for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best,’ and organizers of a Paris series observed that some of their subscribers ‘get upset when they see the name of a single contemporary composer on the programs.’ These quotations come from 1843 and 1864.”

This summary comes from Alex Ross of the New Yorker in an article called, “Why So Serious?

I was dumbfounded when I saw these numbers; clearly, the lack of contemporary music in concerts is not a modern problem. As Ross puts it:

“Anyone who believes that twentieth-century composers, with their harsh chords and rhythms, betrayed some sacred contract with the public should spend a few moments absorbing Weber’s data. In fact, the composers were betrayed first.”

This says to me that there is something deeper at the root of the modern state of affairs than a simple disdain for the whims of modern composers. Would, for example, this void still exist if composers essentially never stopped composing like the classics? I’m thinking the answer may be affirmative. Even as contemporary composers return to more palatable material, audiences are not following. It doesn’t take any brilliant analysis to see that the music of contemporary composers is not really making any headway with the public.

We might look instead to changes in cultural practices that surround this music. For example, classical concerts used to be a sort of background music for aristocratic socialization. Such a function might be compared to the modern “elevator music,” background to our everyday activities. At restaurants, music is inevitably piped through the room with anything ranging from pop to cheesy classics. This is quite similar to the way in which opera was originally consumed (at least fairly similar.)

The fate, however, of ending up piped over some dingy speakers in a overcrowded restaurant is not desired by modern composers, myself included. Part of our job as composers goes beyond just writing music down to making sure that people hear it.

How can we be a part of culture if culture never hears us?

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