Classical music listeners

For those of us who do not listen to classical music (other than what we hear on TV and in the movies) the only composers that most of us are really aware of are people like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc…; people who lived centuries ago.

My question is, are there or have their been any composers within the last 50 years that have as much acclaim within the classical world as the composers listed above?

As much acclaim? No, but hey, those other guys have centuries of headway.

The highly regarded composers I can think of offhand who were active post-1950 (or are still active) include Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Samual Barber, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, and if you wanna stretch a bit, John Williams and Stephen Sondheim. There are plenty more well-known 20th century+ composers still active but those are the ones that spring to mind.

The best concert music being written and played today (a lot, I’m sure, is written but can’t get publicly performed) is in colleges, universities, and a few very big cities. I’m sure most of it faces an uphill struggle even to get noticed outside academia.

One lingering problem is the after-effects of the mid 20c. movement towards serialism, basically our-way-or-the-highway atonal modernism. For many years you couldn’t get the respect of musicians writing anything else, and of course listeners - even most sophisticated ones - didn’t want any part of the stuff.

So we came to a situation where you basically couldn’t get a reputation thru public performances - and worse, almost everybody involved thought that state of affairs was actually good for music. And we’re not over it yet. The ivory tower still has the shutters up and the oil a-boiling.

I’m familiar with the names Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass. And while I could see Stephen Sondheim being a stretch, why would John Williams be considered one? Is it because film scores aren’t considered true classical pieces?

Are you saying that creativity has been stifled for a long time and so it’s hard for new people to make a name for themselves?

Somewhat true. I mostly think that the intelligentsia pulled away from the lay audience as far as they possibly could. Sort of like what happened in jazz, and look at what’s happened to the relevance and liveliness of jazz.

These threads come up from time to time, and while I always find them fascinating, I’m afraid I’m too long-winded to give brief replies.

Last 50 years, huh? Well, how about Alexina Louie, R. Murray Shafer, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, George Crumb, Jake Heggie, Julien Bilodeau. There are lots more, but I don’t think of any of them as household names…

One of the interesting things about today is how our aesthetic has expanded to include a greater range of musics than at any other time in history. Consider - in Beethoven’s Vienna (to focus on just one of many interesting cultural places and times), Folk music was not very highly regarded (except as a source of melodies for serious composers to arrange), music of non-European cultures was disparaged if any attention was paid to it at all, and most importantly, very little attention was paid to the music of 100+ years earlier. Mozart and later Mendelssohn revived the music of Bach, who had been writing 30 - 50 years previously (give or take, depending on the piece.) In Bach’s day, New Music was the norm - I often think that Bach would be astonished that his music is still being played 250 years later.

Whereas now, we have a greater access to different historical periods, cultures and styles of music than ever before. Beethoven was in competition with his contemporaries; a 21st century composer is competing for attention with every composer who has ever left us music, not to mention every genre of music that humans have conceived.

The 20th century was a time of great exploration in ideas of how to organize music, and one of the side effects of that exploration was a polarization between practitioners of different styles. Boulez, a strict serialist, broke off with John Cage when Cage began to explore aleatoric music. Schoenberg and Stravinsky hated each other; Bartok made fun of Shostakovitch in his ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, and the list goes on…

Fortunately, as Edgard Varèse said (and Frank Zappa quoted him often), “The present day composer refuses to die.” And on that note, (Ha!) I need to sleep.

Very nicely put.

The modern school of composition places very little emphasis on the accessibility of a work. In fact, there’s a prevailing opinion that if the general public likes it, it must be trash. This is why film scores, for example, get so little respect among “serious” orchestral composers. Snobbery, plain and simple.

I’m not convinced about this “prevailing opinion.” Can you dig up any cites that might demonstrate this to be true, beyond vague intuition?

As for the film score question, also not convinced. A lot of scores rely on unchallenging motifs intended to prompt precise emotions in correlation to the scenes for which they’re written, but stuff like the scores of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, even James Horner here and there, gets plenty of respect. Even something like Jonny Greenwood’s work for There Will Be Blood I think has earned similar respect. And Mihaly Vig’s work for Bela Tarr’s movies is among the greatest instrumental composition of modern times - I doubt anyone would quibble with that. Just because there’s a general impression of “serious composers” disdaining the gusty emotions of someone like John Williams (who, let’s be honest, has already gotten his due in terms of public recognition), doesn’t mean that this opinion exists across the spectrum.

And I’ll bet that the modern-day orchestral composers who sell the most compositions are those writing for high school and and junior high orchestras. If you compose an ambitious score for a world-class symphony orchestra, you’ll have a very hard time getting it programmed. But if you write for the student level, you may be able to sell it all over the country (and world). We wouldn’t know about those composers unless we attended junior high or high school orchestra concerts.

Stravinsky and Shostakovich were both still working, albeit nearing the ends of their careers, 50 years ago, and both have arguably as much acclaim within the classical music world as Tchaikovsky, if not as Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart.

A huge difference between a typical composer of the Baroque or Classical period and that of a late 20th/21st century composer is that the former had to write accessible music to please his patron or whoever was underwriting the work, or starve. There were no public agencies or grants in those days to promote “artistic freedom”. You might have been able to get a university gig, but if they didn’t like your output it didn’t matter how daring or critically praised you were.

To help rescue modern “serious” music from the clutches of atonality, we really need to do away with government and foundation sponsorship of composers.

By the way, I’d rank Bernard Herrman as one of the best composers operating in the last half-century (clearly I’m one of those crude types who thinks film scores deserve consideration as serious music. I also think George Gershwin was the best American composer of the 20th century, possibly of all time).

Or composers like Rachmaninoff or Chopin, or even Tchaikovsky. I often wonder whether this has always been the case, or is it unique to the 20th/21st centuries?

“Last fifty years”

Ralph Vaughan Williams Died in 1958.
I like his music quite a bit. To my uneducated ear he sounds more Romantic than modern.

I think it’s because film scores aren’t primary works of art, they’re like book cover art or movie posters: they exist to enhance the primary work.

Jazz is a genre I consider trying to get into from time to time. And one thing notice about jazz lovers, and classical music lovers, is that they take pride in how sophisticated their music is; something they see lacking in “radio friendly” music. So I’m guessing that maybe classical artists, such as those who do film scores, who appeal to a wider audience are seen as lest sophisticated.

And also because John Williams is a derivative hack.

I agree 100%. If there was any justice, Herrman would be mentioned in the same breath as Stravinsky and Shostakovich. He’s criminally under-rated by music snobs just because he wrote movie music. And Gershwin deserves just as much acclaim for mixing popular and classical styles so well.

Serialism did a great deal of damage to the popular credibility of serious modern concert music but as its influence has waned in recent years, there have been successful concert works that have achieved at least some mainstream popularity, despite the long odds. Henryk Górecki’s haunting “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” commemorating the holocaust became a world-wide hit and Marjan Mozetich’s unapologetic neo-romanticism in “Postcards from the Sky” and “Affairs of the Heart” have also achieved surprising degree of mainstream success.

I don’t know how much acclaim they’ve gotten, but I like Clare Grundman, Brian Balmages, and James Curnow. Not a fan of Elliot del Borgo, though.

Snobbery it is. The kind of snobbery that is so well advanced, and so well entrenched, that it no longer even knows it’s snobbery. The kind that is so total and all-pervasive that any position on the artistic spectrum in between pure art and pure crap is rendered uninhabitable, because it won’t be long before the taste-bots come sweeping along and put you in your place.

…surely by what amounts to target marketing. You can’t go wrong memorializing a group that a) almost got wiped out within living memory and b) happens to support and actively participate in the arts by a per capita ratio of about ten to one over the rest of us.