What happened to living composers?

I am not the first to write about the following, but it consolidates some of my thoughts and offers my perspective upon the subject.

The title of this blog post should perhaps be 'what happened to living conductors?', but I will return to this later. And please note that when I write about conductors in this article it is primarily within the context of orchestral music.

Firstly, I must provide some contextualisation:

'Conductors' were, in the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods (BCeR) in Europe, almost exclusively composers. I use the term 'conductor' lightly here as, for orchestral music, it often consisted of a form of leadership from the continuo and/or concertmeister, but these roles developed into what we now know as the conductor (concertmeisters still exist in orchestras of course, but their role has evolved). In the first half of the 19th Century, baton-wielding conductors start to appear, such as Mendelssohn (see his batons by clicking here).

During the BCeR, many music ensembles prolifically performed the music of their composer/director. Patrons, audiences, and the church wanted and needed new music for a variety of reasons. Once a piece had been performed, it was often 'yesterday's news' and was therefore of less interest. This in part is why many composers during this period wrote a large amount of music.

Due to their directorship of the orchestras, composers had a monopoly over what was programmed and they incubated a climate in which the audience expected to hear new music. The consumers of the music written by composers such as Handel and Mozart craved the next big thing, the premiere, the scandal, should there be any (Handel's entrepreneurial Royal Academy of Music provides fascinating reading in this regard).

Now, it should be mentioned that music in the BCeR did often have different social circumstances compared to today and that music often had a greater functionality, such as Bach writing for the church. But the premise remains that composers had a large amount of control through their directorships.

As orchestras grew in the 19th Century and music became more complex, specialist 'virtuoso' conductors were required and - with a few exceptions - composers generally lacked the ability to direct the performances of their compositions. The composer became more reliant on the conductor for performances of their compositions.

However, under the first generations of virtuoso conductors, contemporary music appears to have flourished. At the start of the Twentieth Century around two-thirds of orchestral concert programmes consisted of music by living composers.

Imagine if that was the case today!

So, 'what happened to living composers?'

In modern times, what are the reasons for music written by living composers being side-lined for the established core repertoire? This appears to have been increasingly the case since the middle of the Twentieth Century.

There are many reasons, including:

  • When the record industry began in the early Twentieth Century, the music that they recorded was not representative of what was being played in the concert halls. They generally recorded what was being established as 'core repertoire'. Thus, these works reached a larger audience and overly popularised the core repertoire.

  • At present there is a larger repertoire to choose from, including the drive for the re-discovery of older music by period orchestras since the 1950s.

  • Managers of orchestras are reluctant to programme contemporary music because they may take a box office hit (leading to a 'catch 22' situation, which in turn further establishes the core repertoire and ostracises contemporary music).

  • Many believe that during the 20th Century, the avant garde composers turned people away from new classical music. Is this really the case? It was the avant garde of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century that caused more people to attend concerts (think of Ballets Russe). And consequently, why do other art-forms - e.g. visual art and theatre - rely on innovation and scandal?

  • Modern technology has made the arts disposable commodities, arguably more for music than any other art form. There is a general perception from many that classical music - or western art music - has to explore the new avenues and possibilities that have been opened up with technology and contemporary living.

If classical music in the Twentieth Century is to continue to be relevant and move with the times then contemporary music surely needs to be promoted centre stage, not as a peripheral novelty (slightly off topic, but of the commissioned and performed orchestral music of the last 30 years, I wonder what proportion lasts under 15 minutes and how many were performed more than once? And how many were placed within programmes where the 'feature' work/s are core repertoire compositions of a much greater length). The present is defined by what happens at the present, not the past.

Don't misunderstand my premise; I love a wide variety of music including the core repertoire and this music should be played. I am aruguing that the programming of many orchestras has become stagnant due to a lack of real artistic innovation. Arts organisations should be continually innovating because it is this that justifies their existence and creates an enriching and relevant experience for their audience. The arts should not be so reliant upon programmes with guaranteed ticket sales, the arts should take risks. The visual arts and fashion have shown us that this model can be successful by truly leading their field. We don't dress like Victorians, so why should anyone almost exclusively listen to Victorian music?

So who has the power and the moral duty to innovate and work more closely with composers?

The composers?

The managers?

The audience?

The conductors?

The conductor is surely at least in part responsible and I dismiss the premise from some established conductors that they prefer to leave contemporary music to the younger generations of conductors as heresy. The conductor replaced the composer as director and - with this power shift - it is therefore their responsibility to initiate and programme contemporary music. Conductors did this very successfully when they first came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th century.

So in the present day, what happened to living conductors?...

#Conductor #Composer

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