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?