1956. London. British theater is very conservative, audiences are old.

Then comes the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Things change. One observer writes:

It is a matter for special remark that Mr. Osborne alone should have captured the young imagination and with it the fisher-sweatered noctambules from Espresso-land [here follows a rather mannered list of hipster types from the era]…Almost the worst thing about the English theatre is that it has lacked for so long the support of the young intelligentsia. Audiences are apt to look as discreetly silver-haired as if they had been furnished by a casting agency themselves.

The play causes a sensation. Part of it is shown on the BBC. Then all of it is shown on ITV, Britain’s newly-established commercial TV channel. Lawrence Olivier — feeling that he’s growing too old to play romantic leads, and that his career might be fading away — asks Osborne to write a play for him. Osborne writes his second big hit, The Entertainer, and Olivier’s career is triumphantly revived.

Three years later, when Osborne’s play had spawned a whole new trend in theater — leading to plays like Billy Liar and A Taste of Honey — the theater critic for the Spectator looks back at Look Back in Anger, and writes:

The basic kick of the whole moveoment has been the feeling that the play was written last weekend, the exhilaration of listening to talk alive with images from the newspapers, the advertisements, the entertainments of today.

So if this could happen to British theater in 1956, why can’t it happen to American classical music today?

(All this from Dominic Sandbrook’s very thick and very lively study, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles.)

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  1. says

    It must be happening to American classical music, but the issue as I see it is this: the major American orchestras and the mainstream classical musical probably aren’t acknowledging this new music, at least not with any real regularity or enthusiasm. Their focus remains on European music written at least 75 years ago (and especially music from the Baroque through Romantic eras, with a little more openness these days to canonical early 20th century Modern European-American music), with a small amount of already vetted and freshly commissioned music entering the picture. That’s it. There are pathways that exist today for not only premiering and featuring a musical piece of the kind you describe, but for disseminating it both to the cultural guardians who, like the critics of Osborne’s play, would then extol it to a wide range of people, and to the many other musicians, artists in other forms, and audiences who might enjoy it. Say, for example, a piece premiers at a non-mainstream venue in one of the places in this country where it might get noticed. It’s praised by some adventurous mainstream critics, by other musicians who hear it, by non-musician bloggers, and so forth; it’s disseminated via MySpace and iTunes or similar sites, really catching fire with other musicians, listeners, etc….and yet it simply will NOT being played by the likes of the major orchestra companies for years. If ever. It seems that if a composer is not already in their sightlines, i.e., part of the classical musical establishment (pedigreed, in academe or with similar institutional links, receiving commissions, etc.), and if her or his music does not fall within certain established aesthetic parameters (say it is using contemporary, popular idioms, it does sound as if it were “written last weekend,” and were full of “the exhilaration of listening to talk alive with images from the newspapers, the advertisements, the entertainments of today”) it would probably have a hard time getting on the playlist of the major orchestras. Take Michael Daugherty, for example. How often is his music played by the New York Philharmonic? The Chicago Symphony Orchestra? The major orchestras in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, St. Louis, etc.? If you go to his performance listing on Boosey & Hawkes, it’s mostly small venues, universities, smaller orchestras, etc. Perhaps many in the mainstream classical world don’t like Daugherty’s music; I don’t know. But it’s memorable, it draws tremendously upon contemporary American popular culture, it’s not forbidding, it’s easy to like. (I’m thinking, for example, of his Metropolis Symphony, or Route 66, to give two examples.) And it’s not being played by the Loren Maazels of the world. Nor are a wide array of more popular, engaging and contemporary classical composers. They don’t even play the most popular international classical piece, Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, which is probably known by folks who hardly know any other classical pieces. The problem is, among other things, institutional. Perhaps there’s too much money involved to change them substantially, at least any time soon.

    Thanks for this, I think you’ve touched on an important issue, or rather many of them. There’s been more new music done in the last decade by big orchestras than there used to be, so that’s an improvement. But almost none of it had anything to do with contemporary life outside the classical music world (apart from a few 9/11 memorial pieces). Certainly it had nothing to do with colloquial contemporary life, though of course composers of the past had no trouble bringing everyday culture into their music.

    Meanwhile, we do find everyday culture in music written outside the big concert halls. I’m looking forward to a time when this changes, when at least half the music at the average classical concert is by living composers (I believe — though I need better data — that this is the approximate proportion of plays by living playwrights produced at regional theater companies).

    As for Michael, I don’t think he’s had any luck of success with major orchestras. He’s had at least one piece premiered at the NY Philharmonic, and much success elsewhere, though now I think the Philharmonic has moved more toward European modernists. Maybe the remarkable thing is that — among composers who’ve been played by major orchestras — he’s almost alone, at least among composers his age — in using popular culture. Well, I guess Bill Bolcom does it. But it’s rare.

    Though I do think this will change. And someday, classical music will be as vital a part of contemporary life as theater can be (thinking of August Wilson, and Angels in America, and much else).

  2. says

    The Minnesota Orchestra Future Classics concert next Saturday (forgive the shameless plug) is filled with works commenting on the state of our world today. I’m looking forward to some bloodletting on stage. But in general I think orchestral writers may shy away from writing about the contemporary milieu because the world changes so fast and orchestral pieces can take years to develop. What may have been born as a statement on current events can become historical reflection or nostalgia in the blink of an eye.

    I wouldn’t suggest an opinion on this, but a question: is the smaller chamber work a better vehicle for social commentary, and has it been thus in the past? Perhaps orchestral writing lends itself to bigger themes – universal peace, the horrors of war, etc. I don’t know the repertoire well enough to even begin to speculate, so I’m hoping someone else can.

    As to whether or not a particular individual composer’s work is programmed or not, let’s not forget there can be non-musical reasons an orchestra chooses not to work with someone. you don’t have to contend with Beethoven’s crankiness or Grainger’s kinks when you program them, just to name a couple examples.

    Wendy, I don’t know the composers on the Future Classics program (I went to the site), but generally speaking — and this may have nothing to do with the concert! — there’s a difference between commenting on the current world and reflecting it. Berio’s O King mourns Martin Luther King, but doesn’t (in its sound or ambience) reflect King’s world in any way. Michael Daugherty’s music — with all its pop culture sound — reflects our current world without commenting on it. I’m more interested in music that reflects the world, that sounds like the world we live in (which so much new classical music, especially by older composers) just doesn’t do. I think that’s more radical, in the classical music world today, than taking any kind of stand.

    Of course it’s true that social commentary art might have an implicit “use by” date. Though not always! Guernica, Picasso’s painting, would be an example. Painted to protest an atrocity during the Spanish Civil War, but now it’s a classic. It would be easy to find other examples. I’d say composers should do what they like, and let the future decide how lasting it is. The only thing that might worry me is composers taking a stand on something, and then taking themselves way, way too seriously. That’s almost always a recipe for failure, both now and for any hope of the work being heard 50 years from now.

  3. says

    As a composer, the problem is getting pieces performed. An orchestra will have their programmes in place at least a year in advance (if not two), so a recently composed piece has to wait for a couple of years before it can possibly be heard. Which then means, if it strikes a chord with other composers and audiences, it will be another couple of years before any more music will be available for public consumption.

    Add to this problem the idea that one orchesta is not interested in performing a work another orchestra has (or is going to) premiere. If the orchestra can’t be the first, they really aren’t interested in being at all – and so the exposure is limited to one audience in one city; hardly a way to get wide acceptance.

    If you’re a composer who has the attention of someone (Greenberg at Juilliard is making waves) you’ll not only get a contract for several recordings, you’ll have orchestras clammering for your music. But, you have to get the attention of someone. If you’re not a wunderkind (aka Greenberg), there isn’t anything to make you (and therefore your music) special.

    Commissions help composers get their works performed, but again, to a very limited audience. Agents aren’t interested in you (as a composer) unless you’re already too busy fending off future contracts that you need a agent just to handle the numerous details. Self-promotion is expensive as hiring an orchestra, a hall, publicity, etc. is out of the question unless you’re pretty well off. Universities play compositions from university composers, but that dries up the moment you finish your degree – so either drag it out as long as you can afford to continue the educational process (and someone notices you) or give up on getting university exposure.

    All in all, the reasons classical music today doesn’t do what theatre did in the late 50’s is down to the marketing machine of music. Marketing needs to make money and new music just isn’t where the money is. Unless you already have a name, or you’re willing to look like a sex kitten (ref: several posts on my blog about all female string quartets), you’re just not marketable.

    Interesting, Chip. Very much worth saying. I do think, though, that if classical music institutions programmed a lot more new music — if, let’s say, half their offerings were by living composers (if not more) — then we wouldn’t see the problems you describe. Not that it would be easy for composers to make careers, any more than it’s easy for filmmakers, despite the huge market for movies. But the problems you describe might not be there.

    Marketing, for me, is only a small part of the answer. You need to have something to market, and you need receptive people to market it to. In my John Osborne example, theater was all at once speaking in ways younger British people in 1956 wanted to hear. So the play could be marketed. The big problem classical music faces is that so much of it, even new pieces, doesn’t speak the languages of contemporary culture. If that changes, many of the problems we’re concerned about might go away.