GMartin

The Future of Symphonic Music

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I recently was told by a university music administrator that the symphony was dead. He meant that there is no market for new symphonic works. Do you believe this to be the case? Would it be possible for a Rachmaninov or a Tchaikovsky to become successful in today's culture? I recently read Rachmaninoff's Recollections by Oskar von Riesemann. According to this book, Rachmaninov's new works were eagerly awaited by the general listening public of the day and the concert halls were packed for performances of his new works and for his appearances as a conductor or pianist. He was dearly loved and often was cheered just for walking on stage.

Does the general public of today's culture have the capacity to appreciate a master like Rachmaninov, or are American Idol, ring-tones and worse the trend for the future of music? In art music, are there any new composers out there doing major work?

gmartin

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This is Stephen Siek's reply to the question posed by GMartin.

There are several elements to Glenn’s question, each of which could be answered with a dissertation, so I can only address these points in rough outline. It is certainly true that most of today’s seriously trained composers do not write in a romantic idiom, and they may prefer to avoid symphonic style for aesthetic reasons, but it’s not necessary to write symphonies to be a Romanticist. When Rachmaninoff was a boy, it was considered a rite of passage to attempt a symphony when you reached a certain level of achievement -- even though many composers didn’t feel comfortable with this genre, and were simply responding to social pressure. And some of the greatest Romantic composers -- Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt among them -- did not advance Romanticism primarily because of their contributions to symphonic writing, even though the contributions they did make were incalculable.

It goes without saying that today’s culture is far worse than that of the 1930s when people were cheering Rachmaninoff, but his music still speaks to audiences today, and it’s rare to find a major symphony that will let an entire season go by without performing even one of his works. This is true here, as well as in Europe. But it’s important to remember that little, if any, of Rachmaninoff’s income came from his Symphonies, and for 14 of his most productive years, most of Tchaikovsky’s income came from a wealthy patroness. So the standard you’re setting for today’s audiences when you ask whether they have the "capacity" to appreciate romantic symphonies may be unrealistic, if the expectation is that younger composers should achieve financial success by writing large symphonic works.

Moreover, it is not the case that Rachmaninoff’s larger works were always well accepted, even by his fans. His Fourth Concerto, first performed in Philadelphia in 1927, was so poorly received that he withdrew it from his catalogue and later made substantial cuts and revisions before performing it again, and when the Third Symphony was premiered in 1936, even some of his strongest supporters had their doubts. His concerts were well attended, but he was one of the greatest pianists of his time, and most often he appeared as a performer as well as a composer. On many occasions he also performed the music of other composers.

But there are practical barriers to writing symphonies today as well. I’m not very comfortable answering the professor’s claim that there’s “no market” for new symphonic works in the way it seems to be presented, because that’s a sweeping generalization that cannot be spoken to until it’s analyzed. Speaking purely from the standpoint of economics, there’s a sense in which he’s right. Very few serious musicians can make a living writing symphonies, operas, string quartets, or piano sonatas, and the vast majority of performers who can perform Beethoven superbly probably make less money through their concerts over the course of a year than the average club pianist.

Several years ago I was privileged to hear a wonderful performance of the Dvoràk Piano Concerto (a work rarely performed) by a very famous concert pianist. When we talked afterwards, I urged him to record it, and he told me he would love to, but he hadn’t made a recording in over three years (more like five, now). The classical music industry has been horribly hit in the last several years, and although there are many things entrepreneurs could do to improve matters, so far no one with adequate capital has chosen to make the necessary investments. In fact, there is no major classical label currently owned by U. S. interests. The large ones are all foreign owned, and the only American labels left are smaller, independent companies -- many of which come and go like the morning tide.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of serious -- i.e. non-pop -- musicians earn their living mostly through teaching, and even when they procure paid performance engagements, most can’t sustain themselves through performing alone. Even some younger, very successful competition winners find their careers lasting only a few seasons before they too begin to pursue tenured teaching posts. Most of the symphony orchestras and opera companies in this country are semi-professional, in that the wages they pay can only partially provide a livelihood for their members. And even those that are fully professional cannot pay their bills without an immense amount of largesse by government and private patrons, i.e. gate receipts alone can’t do it.

In the same respect, there are relatively few composers not attached to academic institutions who will undertake to compose symphonies and operas without grant money, and producing a symphony is especially expensive. One of the single biggest expenses is producing parts for all the players, which used to be a hand craft involving substantial capital-most often advanced by the composer himself. Today, software programs like Finale have created some marvelous advantages unknown a generation ago, but producing parts even with computers can still run into money. And no computer pays for the rehearsal time necessary before the work can be performed. I live in a very small Midwestern community, but even here the union scale is such that to hire our symphony for an evening rehearsal would run into thousands of dollars -- to say nothing of the fees tacked on by union stagehands, etc. So if the professor’s point was that there is little financial incentive for composers to attempt the larger mediums today, he’s often right.

I think the question that needs to be asked is whether or not Romanticism in music can survive, and of course that’s a bit like asking which way the culture will go. But I think it’s a major mistake to conclude that because something is economically unfeasible, there is no cultural appetite for it. At one time in this country, GM, Firestone, AT&T, and NBC all had major full-time symphony orchestras, and there is no question in my mind that if America’s corporations wanted to reinvest in such activities, audiences would swarm to their concerts. But today’s tax laws make such pursuits nearly impossible, and any business that attempted it would be denounced as greedy philistines trying to buy their way into a world that should be left to the "people," i.e. to government control.

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This is Stephen Siek's reply to the question posed by GMartin.

Thank you Dr. Siek, for your detailed and informative reply.

GMartin

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