What Gets Heard?

Three quotes from pieces recently appearing online that are very much worth reading:

“Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras. Meanwhile, a look at the 2015-16 season shows that UK audiences hear as many as 19 major works by British composers – Tippett, Walton, Britten, Vaughan Williams – performed by each leading orchestra in each season.”

– Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, in a blog post at The Guardian

“The cases of Tim Souster and Bill Hopkins are relevant to this, because once a composer is no longer with us—both these two were born in 1943, the year also of Brian Ferneyhough; Hopkins died at thirty-seven, Souster at fifty-one—and therefore no longer a present personality, the music fades. Neither do you have to die young for this to happen, nor do you have to be British. I could mention many U.S. composers who have become posthumously inaudible: Jacob Druckman, Donald Martino, Mel Powell, Ralph Shapey. And the same fate overtakes individual works all the time, the première being a kind of death. Even widespread esteem is no protection. Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody has had eleven performances in over seventeen years; compare that with the fifty performances enjoyed by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in one season (that of 1937-8) when it was new. Of course, the Bartók is for smaller resources, but it was hardly less irregular by the standards of the orchestral habits of its time, and we’re talking here about an almost hundredfold difference in exposure.”

– Paul Griffiths, critic, author of numerous books on music, librettist for Carter’s What’s Next? in a conversation with Matt Mendez at Music and Literature

“At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: Schumann and Stockhausen spring to mind – and there are a few, like Mendelssohn, who sprang forth fully fledged, and didn’t really develop. But they are also a small minority. Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ’emerging composers’ – most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. I am now old enough to have seen this happen over and over again. In one or two of my curatorial positions, like juror for Schloss Solitude in Germany, I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong.

“There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an emerging composer. There are gifted composers and there are not-so-gifted composers. Age is irrelevant. Emerging, who cares? Publicists.”

– composer Kevin Volans in his keynote speech at an international conference held by the Contemporary Music Centre of Ireland

There are plenty of reasons here for astonishment and fury. A single piece by Birtwistle has had 11 performances in 17 years while all the orchestral music of Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Carter has received 20 performances in the past five years in the U.S. This reminds me of the remark of Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times that Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times.” My point here is the wildly differing numbers of performances of music by American and European composers.

Griffiths quite rightly observes that the music of Druckman, Martino, Powell, and Shapey has been little played after the death of those composers. Certainly, it does not get played with a frequency anywhere nearly commensurate with their formidable musical contributions. But you don’t have to be dead for that to be the case, as Kevin Volans points out. There is a middle generation of composers that is getting overlooked. Speaking as an American composer, it seems the generation of (to use rough figures) ’38 and the generation of ’78 have received, or are receiving, a goodly number of performances while at least a portion of my own generation – that of ’58 – not so much, though practitioners of some styles have made further headway than others, and there are a very few composers who have achieved remarkable prominence in certain genres like opera or art song. I think one issue is the desire of classical music institutions to attract younger audiences by programming music by younger composers. Since composers my age are unlikely to be able to DJ the party after the concert, what good are we? In a healthier musical environment, there would be a different sort of balance in programming among composers living and recently deceased, among composers of various ages, among composers of differing nationalities. And repeat performances would mean that no longer would the premiere be “a kind of death”.

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