The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In the “Can you believe the things that clog up my email inbox?” department, yesterday I received an all-caps “MEDIA ALERT” announcing that “the Romantic era is tops with fans” according to a survey just conducted by an organization called “Classical Archives.” This actually wasn’t the first time I received this missive, if memory serves, but something about the large bold font in all capital letters demanded that I think that this is important news, so here goes.

Unfortunately the press announcement didn’t include how many people participated in this survey, but a trip to the Classical Archives reveals that 223 people out of 514 people picked the Romantic/Late-Romantic/Post-Romantic period (e.g. Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Rachmaninoff) as their favorite era in music. Hardly a groundswell considering the number of respondents and not even a majority based on their own stats. Those 223 people represent 44.7% of the vote, which is something of a stretch from “capturing almost 50% of all the votes” as the media alert claimed.

The other options for folks to choose from on the survey were: Baroque (Bach, Handel, Scarlatti), which came in second place at a whoppin’ 23.1%; Classical (Mozart, Haydn), a close third at 17.8%; followed by a bizarre catch-all Impressionist/Modern/Contemporary (Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, and strangely no one alive despite the word “contemporary”), which was way behind at 10.5%; but at least beat out Medieval/Renaissance (de Machaut, Palestrina, Byrd) which received a piddly 3.9% and turned out to represent the views of a mere 20 visitors.

Admittedly music from the 19th century (although Rachmaninoff outlived Debussy and died only barely before Bartók) continues to dominate subscription programs at symphony orchestra concerts and opera houses, as well as most of what is played on classical radio (although these folks tend to be plugging the 18th-century guys more and more nowadays). But it still somehow feels like the whole thing was designed as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People tend to like what they know more than know what they like, whether it’s cuisine, perfume, clothing, or music in any genre. It strikes me that making an issue of people liking music from the 19th century more than twice as much as music of our own time, which someone might erroneously deduce from these statistics, is tantamount to making a headline out of most Americans not knowing who Harry S. Truman was or where Australia is. It makes folks who have a broader view feel bad, but doesn’t ultimately prove anything, much less make a difference. Indeed, what we need to do is advocate for the bigger picture, not wallow in how small some people’s perceptions are.

Mind you, I say this as someone who loves repertoire from all periods including the 19th century. But I doubt that if, for example, Joaquim Raff (1822-1882) was given as one of the choices for the Romantics that as many votes would have been cast for that era. I bring up Raff because I’ve only recently discovered his music and am totally entranced by it. Of course, there are countless others from all eras. Contemporary music does not have a monopoly on under-appreciated great composers. However at least we living composers can still scream and make our voices heard. To that end, I’m curious how readers of this site would have responded to such a survey and what such results might imply about the new music community. But I want to vary it a tad, just to make it a little more pertinent to us.

I know that for me it would be an extremely difficult call, since I hate playing favorites, but for aesthetic as well as societal reasons I’d have to choose Contemporary. What about you?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

19 thoughts on “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

  1. scottleee

    To me there doesn’t seem to be a lot of worth in choosing a favorite period of music. Within each are composers whose music transcends the boundaries of their period, and it seems unnecessary to lump them with other lesser composers who were simply their contemporaries. Good music is good music.

  2. colin holter

    Thanks for splitting Classical Archives’ “Impressionist/Modern/Contemporary” into “Modern” and “Contemporary;” my opinion is that weaning the classical music establishment onto a periodization scheme that acknowledges a split at or shortly after the second World War will help “up-res” new music for non-specialists.

  3. tgordon

    a question of audience
    This “Media Alert” sounds more like a plea than an announcement– a mass email sent out to “people in the music industry” to legitimize the hegemony of the canon, which is (slowly?) fading from power. Of course a website called “Classical Archives” will skew towards 19th century white European male composers (or “The Greats,” as their website calls them). And, I’d bet that the poll on this site skews towards living composers, because of the demographic of NMBx readers. Nothing “wrong” with either, though the “Classical Archives” poll is a political act thinly veiled as “news” about “art.”

  4. girl in a cornfield

    Why Force Exclusion?
    Apparently I am some sort of anomaly… favorite period: Contemporary. Second favorite? Medieval/Renaissance. Which makes me wonder is questions like this that break things up chronologically are really valid, since they only serve to highlight generalized stylistic differences, rather that what music of different periods might have in common. I love Part. I love Tallis. Is that really surprising? When Kronos recorded Crumb’s “Black Angels,” they followed it up, in a beautiful juxtaposition, with “Spem in Alium.” To me, it makes more sense to take the music I love, regardless of period, and look for commonalities (which probably provides clues to why I love it), rather than picking a favorite period, to the exclusion of works that fall outside its particular chronological parameters. But I suppose that complicates making the one click survey that is the incontestable barometer of what everyone thinks.

  5. Frank J. Oteri

    It’s no surprise that so far a majority of the respondents have claimed that their favorite music is contemporary music. This is NewMusicBox afterall. Although, curiously, it’s a slim majority, hardly the landslide I imagined it would be. The number of folks who prefer one of the other eras from the past is a mind-boggling 47% as of this writing, which is a greater percentage than the percentage of respondents over at Classical Archives who gave it up for the Romantic era.

    Admittedly surveys are kind of jive, yet even I find myself strangely compelled to follow them. It must be a flaw in the human genetic code. I guess it’s because pretty much all surveys are fast and reductive, as I’ll admit is the one I posted here.

    And I totally concur with the comments about my composer namedropping that folks have been making here as well as in private correspondence. I felt immediately uneasy about having done it, and knew right away that someone would inevitably take issue with it. It’s a lose/lose situation no matter whom you choose: for whomever gets cited, someone equally worthy doesn’t. I chose names that I thought everyone would instantly recognize and that would draw up widely divergent sonic images for people. And to me they certainly represent a broader range than, say, Bach, Handel and Scarlatti or even Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff—the names cited as representative of their respective eras on the Classical Archives survey.

    As soon as I posted this essay yesterday a debate flared in the office since all three folks I picked clearly came from the tradition of Western classical music. Indeed, what about jazz, indie rock, the endless array of musics that have emerged in the lifetimes of people who are still alive? But bear in mind that I was responding to a survey that was specifically oriented toward “classical music” in the “maestro and bouffant wigs” sense of the term, and I wanted to drive home the point that lumping impressionism, modernism, and contemporary music together is insipid, especially when not a single composer cited as indicative of that very large swath of time is currently alive. Indeed contemporary as a category by itself is probably all too large an arena, but that seems like a fight for another day.

    So for now I want to get back to this dead vs alive dichotomy that I’m inferring from the respondents’ data with yet another survey that lumps stuff together even more, so let’s try this…

  6. Colin Holter

    I voted for “surveys are dumb,” but what I really think is dumb is the way that asking “which era’s music you like best” reifies music. There’s an inherent asymmetry in asking twenty-first century people which era of Western classical music they most enjoy when the current era, whatever you want to call it, is probably the only one most of us have taken part in personally. What we’re comparing first-hand, essentially, is the philosophical coming-into-being, composition, rehearsal, performance, recording, and dissemination of contemporary music to the continuation of the rehearsal, performance, recording, and dissemination of old music. To say “I like the EMI recording of The Chairman Dances better than the Anne-Sophie Mutter Complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas DVD on Deutsche Grammophon – and that’s about all a current-day music fan could say, if comparing apples to apples is a priority – is to speak as a consumer rather than as a music-lover.

  7. philmusic

    It is unfortunate that so much of our musical world is defined by marketers with products to sell. Statistics and polls are so easy to “color” for political purposes. A “box” is presented to us and we are forced to work within it no matter how uncongenial.

    Sometimes one has to refuse.

    Phil Fried,

  8. jchang4

    My favorite changes. Right now I’m really digging Haydn, so I’d have to say Classical. But ask me six months ago and I would have said Schubert, and Romantic. There was a time when I was obsessed with the Bach Chorales, and thus Baroque. I wasted five months trying to play Ligeti’s Continuum on piano, so.. I’d say for those five months I was pretty enamored with Contemporary. I guess I tend not to think in periods, but more in composers. But if my life was on the line and I had to choose just one, I’m afraid I’d have to say that I’m with those Classical Archives folks. Of course, for the longest time, I thought (because I was taught) that Impressionistic was still Romantic. So where does one draw the line? I am convinced that the philosophies that were the foundation of Romantic music have yet to die out. We call it Contemporary or New, but the goals have not changed.

  9. jchang4

    .. actually, thinking about it some more, I don’t think it is entirely unreasonable for my favorite period to, ultimately, be Romantic. It is the era when the modern piano was birthed, and it is the period with perhaps the most rich piano repertory (because the others were fortepiano/harpsichord/etc). Contemporary has a real shot at eclipsing Romantic since it’s basically the same keyboard instrument, but I’m not sure that there is as much New piano stuff out there, maybe because of the anxiety of influence thing, or maybe because electronics and other instruments are considered more contemporaneous media. It is also possibly because we train too many pianists just to play piano.. Seymour Bernstein has opined that part of the reason why we don’t find great composers of piano nowadays is because all those potential composers are being pushed on stage.

    OK, that is all. Romantic is my favorite period. Judge me unsophisticated if you must.

  10. Colin Holter

    Seymour Bernstein has opined that part of the reason why we don’t find great composers of piano nowadays is because all those potential composers are being pushed on stage.

    Two things. First: I think we do find great composers of piano [music] these days – I’d submit Michael Finnissy’s name as a composer whose volumes of piano music compare favorably to the great 19th-century chestnuts. What’s rare about Finnissy, though, is that he is occasionally pushed on stage (where he always acquits himself well) yet he still finds time to write lots (and lots!) of music. Generally, I think that few twenty-first-century people have the time to perform at a high standard AND compose at a high standard – both much more demanding tasks than they were two hundred years ago, let’s not forget.

  11. Trevor

    I don’t know that the high standard performing/composing dichotomy is all that rare—or at least if it has been, its becoming increasingly less so with younger composers. Seems like half the composers coming out of Columbia, for instance, are also extremely high level players (esp. Steve Lehman, Eric Wubbels, Alex Mincek, Anthony Cheung). And like, half of the experimental composers I adore from over the years play their own stuff–Rhys Chatham for instance, and La Monte Young, who def. have chops. And Terry Riley. Then there’s people like Ned McGowan, Amy Williams, Lukas Ligeti, Steve Mackey, et al, people from all over the map of stylistic proclivities. And that’s just off the top of my head from the people I know and follow, there’s gotta be dozens more.

    The only blaring omission I see—and funnily enough I just saw a big facebook discussion about this amongst my cohorts—is amongst the New Complexity crowd, for whom Finnissy is pretty much the only example.

  12. pgblu

    The only blaring omission I see—and funnily enough I just saw a big facebook discussion about this amongst my cohorts—is amongst the New Complexity crowd, for whom Finnissy is pretty much the only example.

    This is quite false, on the one hand. But on the other hand, it also seems to make little sense to hold these composers to the same standard as some postminimalist composer who generally makes much slighter demands on the performer.

  13. Trevor

    Of course I should have said Finnissy was the only example I could think of, I’m sure there are others. But as personal experience and anecdotal evidence goes (yes, I know, Colin: a.k.a. “not real evidence”), a greater percentage of the new comp. peeps I know don’t play their own music than in other areas. Anyway, it was an interesting aside to me, and false, and not specifically germane to the main point, so mea culpa.

    I don’t know who specifically that I listed drew the “post minimal” flack, but if you can’t hold up the feat of playing The Well-Tuned Piano to that of playing Unity Capsule, then we’re just not going to agree. And besides, 2/3 of the composers I mentioned have nothing to do with minimalism.

    But post-minimal or not, what does genre have to do with playing at a high standard?

  14. Colin Holter

    This is quite false, on the one hand. But on the other hand, it also seems to make little sense to hold these composers to the same standard as some postminimalist composer who generally makes much slighter demands on the performer.

    I was going to say something about this too – Roger Redgate and Richard Barrett perform quite actively, and James Clarke and Richard Emsley both (I think?) conduct. Ferneyhough used to play the flute but doesn’t anymore – principally for health-related reasons, I believe.

    “New complexity,” remember, is a term that only really applies/d to a clutch of baby-boom British composers. Like “minimalism,” “new complexity” is construed to cover a wide range of musical materials and practices and so isn’t too descriptive of the actual music in any particularly meaningful way; rather, it indicates a constellation of people and ensembles active at a specific historical moment. And, like “minimalist,” many of the people who were so labeled in the term’s heyday absolutely hate to have it applied to them.

  15. Colin Holter

    if you can’t hold up the feat of playing The Well-Tuned Piano to that of playing Unity Capsule, then we’re just not going to agree.

    Just to clarify – I think minimalism (especially early minimalism) presents lots and lots of threshold performance challenges, and the WTP is certainly among them. In fact, if I had to choose between more flutists playing Unity Capsule and more pianists playing (from a hypothetical published and widely available score) The Well-Tuned Piano, I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat.

  16. pgblu

    Sorry if I stepped on any toes. I shouldn’t have used the term “postminimalist” as a stand-in for a large variety of styles all of which have nothing more in common than that they are less complex than so-called “Complexity”. My only real intention was to set the record straight about performer-composers within that purview.

  17. mclaren

    These kinds of surveys suffer from a basic methodological flaw, since the population of Western Europe increased exponentially over time. Therefore you would expect that since there were just a whole lot more European composers from 1800 onwards, there would be a whole lot more composers from 1800 onward producing vividly memorable music than say, during the 12th century. The reason composers from the last several generations don’t show on such a survey may be that we’re too close to ’em. In another 50 years or so, composers currently considered contemporary may well join the ranks of compsers from the 19th century as “classics.”

    The survey you posted also suffers from some intriguing problems. Suppose someone really gets a kick out of pre-17th century Western music and also from contemporary music, but has little interest in music done between (say) 1700 and 1900, with the exception of a couple of compoers like Bach and Buxtehude and Beethoven?


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