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January 23, 2012 / C. J. Sperling

Mostly Harmless

One of the reasons of classical music’s crisis seems to be a major taboo. So it’s worth starting this blog: the big, collective fail of contemporary composers.

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What were the last pieces of classical music that really convinced the masses – the pieces one really could call a “hit”, pieces known on the street?

I’d say:

  • Peter and the Wolf (Sergei Prokofiev, 1936)
  • Boléro (Maurice Ravel, 1928)
  • (possibly:) The Rite of Spring (Igor Stravinsky, 1913)

That’s it.

Seventy-five years ago. Nothing since.

It doesn’t even change much if one includes Ennio Morricone’s music for “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968). Or Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” (1957), which is, although great, pop music written by a classical composer. (Occasional bestsellers like Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony in 1992 are interesting. But no-one would recognize the piece now, as opposed to the real hits mentioned above.)

Terry Riley’s “In C” et al.? Only known within the scene, not on the street.

Sure there were and are composers with great skills. But during the last decades, not one single piece of classical music has been written that is known to ordinary people.

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Now the pundits say, Hey, it’s about great art, it’s not about ordinary people liking the music.

What a b.s.

Take Mozart, as a key legacy of European classical music. Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297/300a, the “Paris” symphony from 1778: “Some time after the premiere, he [Mozart] encountered the man who ran the concert series — and was told that the second movement was too complicated. Mozart obediently replaced it with another one (which explains why the symphony bears two Köchel numbers; the first one is for the three original movements, and the second is for the new second one.) Graciously, Mozart even said that his new second movement was better than the first.” (as told by Greg Sandow, who runs a great blog on the future of classical music).

Dear pundits: you think you know more about arts than Mozart?

OK, Mozart was a different time.

But in our time, it’s quite normal – outside classical music – that great contemporary works are publicly known. Think of e.g. Christo & Jean Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag (Berlin, 1995) or The Gates (NY Central Park, 2005). Think of Warhol’s Campbell or Monroe. Think of literature. Think of cinema.

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There is no new classical music the people are actually eager to listen to. As opposed to most other fields of music. Contemporary classical music mostly brings comments like “interesting”. Any instrumentalist wanting to get such comments after having played? I’d be red with shame. It’s a polite way of saying “I don’t want to harm you, but the music really didn’t win me over. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I listened to it without much happening inside me.”

In his “Slipped Disc” blog, Norman Lebrecht collected data from the major publishers about the most performed new music that was written since 2000. A mere 65 performances world-wide within ten years was enough to be in the top twenty. WTF?

Even worse, most contemporary works won’t even be played three times. This seems to be valid for near to all composers.

How much hubris does it need to insist that such music is really, really good?

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So if no great new stuff is around, you have to listen to the old stuff. Which is great music, I love it. But its musical language is from the past, and you have to be familiar with that language to really get what the composer put into it.

In literature, one wouldn’t expect the masses to crave for Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri or Goethe. Why should they crave for old musical masterpieces?

If people don’t want the new music and only a few can enjoy the old music – how could there be no crisis in a field that used to be mainstream?

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