Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why not play the premier league composers more often?


Much has been written about classical music's unhealthy obsession with composer anniversaries. So it is time to turn attention to the equally unhealthy obsession with music written in the twelve decades between 1854 (Wagner composed Das Reingold) and 1971 (Shostakovich composed his 15th Symphony). In fact the obsession with composer anniversaries and the obsession with music from those decades has created a perfect storm, with anniversaries for Mahler, Wagner, Verdi and Britten followed by Richard Strauss this year and, wait for it, Sibelius and Nielsen in 2015. In fact a newcomer to classical music looking at concert programmes, listening to the radio or scanning CD release schedules, could be forgiven for thinking that the music written before Wagner is of little consequence. Which is, of course, terribly and dangerously wrong.

There are a number of reasons for this unhealthy obsession. Musicians themselves are partly to blame: specialisation means that the pre-1854 repertoire has become the province of specialist ensembles and specialist conductors, with the result that Mozart and Mahler now rarely meet on the concert platform. Which is a nonsensical state of affairs, as Bruno Walter and other past giants of the podium proved. Compounding this is the politically correct view that a modern symphony orchestra cannot and should not play Bach and his contemporaries, more nonsense which is exposed by Sir Adrian Boult's recordings of the Brandenburgs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a condescending assumption that because audiences like Mahler, they will only like music that sounds like Mahler. Which, again, is nonsense: audiences like Mahler because it is good music, and audiences also like good music from before 1854. Of course Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and their peers are first division composers. But above them is a premiere league populated by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Classical music wants to expand its audience. So why not play the music of the premier league composers more often?

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8 comments:

Pliable said...

Richard Bratby comments via FaceBook:

Respectfully disagree that Wagner is not 'premier league'. Agree with everything else. But - speaking solely from my own experience - there is a very noticeable falling-off in ticket sales when a symphony orchestra programmes pre-Beethoven repertoire, irrespective of the quality of the performance or the music, or the energy with which it is marketed. But why?

Pliable said...

Richard, you are one of the very few who shares facts from the sharp end of the classical music business and that is very much appreciated. That “there is a very noticeable falling-off in ticket sales when a symphony orchestra programmes pre-Beethoven repertoire, irrespective of the quality of the performance or the music, or the energy with which it is marketed” is very concerning, as is the similar problem you previously highlighted when contemporary works are programmed.

This does raise the question of just how far is classical music going to chase audiences down the slippery slope that leads to film music, Broadway musicals etc etc? Of course there must be an audience, but at what cost a big audience? Of course, without an audience there is no classical music. But if the programmes are film music and Broadway musicals, again, there is no classical music.

Funding pressures and changing tastes means classical music must compromise. But how far it must compromise is the crucial question. I am just glad it is you and not me that depends on classical music for a career these days.

Re. Wagner: just let’s amicably agree he is a candidate for promotion!

Presumably you saw this - http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/arts-entertainment/classical-music-renamed-film-music-2014011382538

Pliable said...

Richard Bratby comments again via Facebook:

As regards pre-Beethoven repertoire and symphony orchestras, there are, of course, reasonably reliable exceptions: choral works like the Mozart Requiem and Bach Passions. Mozart concertos are unproblematic when played alongside larger-scale works. The problem really arises when the 'main' (ie second-half) work or works in a programme is classical or baroque.

Colleagues who've studied the numbers and have conducted audience research tell me that audiences do not like to see a symphony orchestra at less than full size: that they feel somehow shortchanged if they see fewer players on stage. Pre-romantic repertoire is played with reduced forces as a matter of (largely unexamined) course - presumably a side-effect of the period instrument movement.

Of course, there are actually excellent historical arguments for playing Mozart with a 70-strong band...

Pliable said...

Richard, your point about classical and baroque works no longer being the main work in a concert is an important one - the only Mozart symphony played in the 2013 BBC Proms season was the Haffner which opened a concert in which the main work was Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. I know we need audiences. But are we really prepared to allow Mozart and his peers to be relegated to curtain openers?

Joe Shelby said...

One factor might be, at least in the states, classical music radio. Most classical music radio is non-commercial and publicly funded (NPR stations). As such they strive to keep costs down and one way is to limit royalty payments by presenting mostly music that is pre-1900, since the music itself is out of copyright, it reduces what they have to pay ASCAP and BMI compared to a pop-rock radio station.

I wonder if this leads to a kind of saturation: when the radio is often playing Mozart, Haydn, Vivaldi, Bach (and sons), and earlier (the DC station has an obsession with Teleman that I've never quite understood), one's "heard it all before".

Also perhaps, given how prolific those composers were, individual pieces don't quite stick out?

For myself, I have very little interest in the earlier material, but some of that is personal saturation, and some of that is that after 40 years listening, and spending most of my childhood and early adult years in church choirs, I simply am not surprised at it. Tonality of that era is so ingrained in my head now that even for a piece I've never heard before, I can still generally predict exactly where it will go and how it will get there.

While I used to find such experiences interesting, I no longer do today. As such, i've given up on the local radio and play either just my collection, or hunt down contemporary music stations on the internet.

But hey, that's just my anecdotal statement, certainly not meant to be the answer to your question. :)

Pliable said...

There has been comment on Facebook and Twitter about listings from Bachtrack that show Mozart, Beethoven and Bach as the most performed composers.

Bachtrack is an unweighted measurement that does not take into account the length of the work, the forces that performed it, the venue etc. This means an amateur performance of Bach’s Minuet in G, BWV 841 that lasts for 1 minute 14 seconds carries exactly the same weight as a performance of a Mahler symphony at the Proms lasting more than an hour. Moreover the rankings in Bachtrack depend on concert promoters submitting event details and although undoubtedly comprehensive are not complete.

My concern is the paucity of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn performed by first rank non-authentic instrument orchestras. As an example yesterday's Independent detailed three classical concerts in its events listings. One was the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Martinů and a Shostakovich Symphony. Another was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and another Shostakovich Symphony. The third is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with two works by Richard Strauss and one by Prokofiev. There was not one work from before 1854.

http://bachtrack.com/2013-stats

Elaine Fine said...

Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart are still popular choices for pianists and string quartets, and pianists still routinely play Bach. There are, however, many pieces of music from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that get played only rarely, and are worthy of a hearing or two (or many). As a consumer culture we are always so quick to judge someone we don't know as somehow inferior. And again and again I find that when I play concerts that include music by excellent "unknown" composers, people respond to the music favorably. Sometimes they enjoy hearing something that is new to them.

I love Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and Beethoven, and I play their music daily (on the viola and on the piano), but I enjoy the experience of hearing something new to me. People who are new to orchestral music get treated to that experience of newness with Beethoven, but your general subscription audience might actually choose to pick their concerts based on programming that mixes the familiar with the non-familiar.

kea said...

Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc, all sound more or less like film music (or -- more accurately -- film music sounds more or less like recycled bits of Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, etc) and therefore don't require any intellectual involvement or serious effort to listen to. Understanding the music of Bach, Mozart or Haydn, etc (or for that matter Schumann, Brahms, Webern, Cage, etc) actually requires people to listen actively rather than being pulled along by emotional propaganda and rhetoric, so it's no wonder they are declining in popularity.

(NB. There is, in fact, quite a lot of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, etc, on US public radio. Comments I've read from people living in the US suggest they are very unhappy that these composers are heard more than e.g. Elgar, Glazunov, Pettersson, [insert other film-music-sounding composer here])