The Tipping Point of Becoming Repertoire

The Tipping Point of Becoming Repertoire

Last week I heard fantastic performances of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto and Elliott Carter’s Dialogues for piano and orchestra performed by the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, conducted by Petr Kotik, at an unfortunately very sparsely attended concert at Alice Tully Hall. As luck would have it later that week, in the same hall, another group with a different soloist, also performed the Ligeti Violin Concerto, and Dialogues seems to keep turning up all the time. All of which has led me to think about what I’ll call The Tipping Point of Becoming Repertoire.

When does a piece of music go from being a curiosity item to full-on repertoire? How long does it take? I don’t delude myself that Dialogues or the Ligeti have entered the illustrious pantheon inhabited by, say, Brahms’s First Symphony, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, or Beethoven’s 9th which every one seems to play everywhere every season. To this day, there still isn’t a single piece of music created in the past century that is as ubiquitous in classical music programming as the 19th-century warhorses. Even a work like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which admittedly gets trotted out quite a bit, is ultimately done so as a novelty item. But a variety of pieces by Bartók, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich turn up all the time now with nary a whiff of surprise. And specific works by Barber, Bernstein, and Copland are hardly rarities in subscription concert fare. But none of these works have a sound that is radically experimental in nature, so they are not completely incongruent with the sound world of the 19th century-repertoire around which they will inevitably be surrounded.

Older works which have a defiantly different approach to the fundamental elements of so-called classical music still can’t get a foothold in this milieu. Whether it’s the dodecaphony of Schoenberg and Webern (Berg’s rapprochement with romanticism makes his music an easier fit), the microtonality of Hába, or the polystylism of Henry Cowell—all composers who I feel are equal to Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich—true challenges to the hegemony of romantic tonality remain on the sidelines nearly a century later.

Both the Ligeti Concerto and Dialogues to my ears are every bit as compelling and worthy of repeated examination as anything in the established canon. But might their completely idiosyncratic approaches to pitch, rhythm, and timbre preclude them turning up as often on programs as Tchaikovsky?

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7 thoughts on “The Tipping Point of Becoming Repertoire

  1. jchang4

    I think a pretty good rule of thumb is if you take an informal survey of some performers that you know and ask them not even necessarily specific pieces, but ask them if they have heard of, or are familiar with so-and-so composer, and you find that a majority of these performer friends of yours say yes, then that composer’s work (or, really, that composer) has been canonized, if only in a *small way.

    Because I think performers cut a wider swath of the classical pie, and as a performer I am reminded of conversations where composers would talk about people I’ve never heard of. Those people, and those works, are probably not a part of the canon. But I think Ligeti and Carter, at least among pianists, are pretty much canonized.

    Then again, I didn’t know about Ligeti or Carter until college.. And I haven’t played any of their work, although I am kinda working on some Ligeti right now.. But that was 8 years ago when most young pianists were taught that 20th c music is Gershwin. Oh, and Bartok. And Prokofiev. OK, a bunch of people, but I dunno what they’re teaching the kids nowadays. Maybe they’re studying Ligeti and Carter and so those guys really are canonized.

    OK, so maybe that’s the real answer: If it makes it to the kids, then its canonized. More reason to take Bartok for inspiration and start working on your pedagogical compositions. But only if you want to up your chances of being canonized. Otherwise, eff the canon, and the kids (not literally).

  2. gborchert

    Jonathan Kramer used to assert that the last piece to join the standard orch. repertoire was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. I think maybe the Shostakovich Tenth qualifies by now; certainly the Candide overture; possibly Short Ride in a Fast Machine?

    Another rule of thumb: If musicians are expected to know excerpts from a certain piece for orchestral auditions, it’s canon.

  3. jchang4

    Been reading through Alex Ross’s Anniversary edition, and came across some obvious though unfortunate evidence that winning prizes does very little for one’s bid for canonization:

    Lamar Stringfield, I also should have known, won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1928.

    Oh, yes, of course. Stringfield. Mmm hmm. Never heard of him.

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Not sure how Lamar Stringfield could have won a Pulitzer Prize in Music in the 1920s, since the prize was not instituted until 1943. Although according to the introduction to the Inventory of the Lamar Stringfield Papers, housed in the Manuscripts Department of the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stringfield was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship (see here). This was something I had never heard about before; I thought those fellowships were only awarded to journalists.

    Lamar Stringfield is an unfamiliar name to me as well, but you’ve now definitely piqued my curiosity to hear his music!

  5. Kyle Gann

    MORTON FELDMAN: …what do they play of Stravinsky’s repertoire? What do they even play of Schoenberg’s? Five pieces for orchestra. I mean, they’re short enough, they’re attractive enough, like five little photographs of particular scenes. One would be the Black Forest, another the Alps, etc. But no music has gotten into the repertoire. Beethoven is not even in the repertoire. For example, how many symphonies do they play? The Third, the Fifth, and for the pension fund they play the Ninth. I heard Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony the other night. That piece should be played at least once every three years or so. What I’m really trying to say is that nobody is in the repertoire. Nobody has made it.

    PETER GENA: Nobody is accessible?

    FELDMAN: Nobody is accessible. Unless you go to church, where will you hear Renaissance music? If I want to hear Renaissance music, I have to convert! Where are you going to hear it? How much Bach do they do? Again, I have to convert. I have to go Easter week. Nobody is in the repertoire. Mozart is not in the repertoire. If you get some clarinetists, then they play the Clarinet Quintet. You have new generations playing these pieces – new fiddle players wanting to compete with Mendelssohn. If there wasn’t that competition for the violinist, you wouldn’t even hear Mendelssohn. So nobody made the repertoire. A few selective pieces. It’s all hokum, you know. There’s no repertoire. They’re going to do Pelleas and Melisande at the Met. They’ll fall asleep, for crying out loud. Monteverdi’s Orfeo – they’ll doze off. When’s the last time you heard Machaut in Chicago? Did you ever sit through a Machaut mass? You could commit suicide. The repertoire is in books and, I imagine, in records.

    – H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody), 1982

  6. jchang4

    Also, performance repertoire has a way of changing like fads do. Someone does a fantastic rendition of, say, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, people are inspired by it, and suddenly you’re hearing Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata everywhere, until it becomes passe and/or they move onto to the next thing. We had an extreme(-ly annoying) version of this in college when Bomi Lim did a truly fantastic rendition of Beethoven’s Op 31 No 2 and then the next year there were five pianists working on the piece. Most of us because of her performance, although some may have just been a coincidence, or just something in the air, who knows.

    Anyways it became a nuisance because you kept hearing the piece everywhere, literally. In neighboring practice rooms, in the studio classes, at jury. I think everyone was sick of the piece at that point and so people vowed to never go near the thing for years afterward. And by that point doing a whole series of Etudes had became fashion.. and it goes on.

  7. philmusic

    “Nobody is in the repertoire.”

    Well. Then nobody’s out of it either.

    Even us nobodies.

    Phil Fried,


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