Classical Composers Can't Get No Respect!

By , Columnist

No one ever said the life of a classical composer was easy. The hours are long, the pay is meager to nonexistent, and you're likely to be misunderstood or ignored during your lifetime. (It's a depressing reality of the artistic genius biz that one of the best career-advancing moves you can make is kicking the bucket!)

Often you encounter resistance even from your fellow musicians who you hope to have perform your masterpieces, as this video dramatization demonstrates:

This video was made by actual contemporary composer Christopher Adler, who obviously has a great sense of self-deprecating humor about the whole enterprise. (I wonder how much of the dialog between these cuddly animals is autobiographical?)

Of course, resistance to a composer's artistic vision, both from performers and listeners, is nothing new, and many works that are now staples of the classical repertoire were not well-received when they were first heard. Sometimes reactions can even be violent, as we saw last week!

js-bach-caption.jpgJ.S. Bach is now universally recognized as one of the greatest composers of all time; in fact, New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini ranked him as the greatest on his top ten list. But during his own lifetime, Bach wasn't considered to be the greatest composer; he was a highly respected organist who made his living as a church musician.

It wasn't until nearly 80 years after his death that his music began to garner the acclaim it deserves, thanks to the efforts of another composer, Felix Mendelssohn. Fortunately for music history, Mendelssohn's grandmother gave him the score to Bach's now-legendary work, the St Matthew Passion, instead of, say, a sweater or something.

If you've seen the movie Amadeus, you may remember Mozart's patron, Emperor Joseph II, criticizing his music as having "too many notes." The anecdote may well be apocryphal, but I don't doubt that if someone had said it to Mozart, he would have replied just as he was fabled to - that there were just the right amount of notes!

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is widely performed and recorded, but his friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, declared it "unplayable" when Tchaikovsky first showed it to him. Fortunately for their friendship as well as for the music itself, he later changed his mind. When Arnold Schoenberg, known for writing music that still greatly challenges performers and listeners, was told that his violin concerto required a violinist with six fingers, he replied, "I can wait."

It's a great thing for music that generations of composers have been willing to ignore the naysayers and follow their own vision; we wouldn't have the treasury of amazing music we enjoy today if its creators hadn't been willing to take the heat. Of course, this risky strategy doesn't always succeed. I think Schoenberg, bless his soul, is still waiting, somewhere in his composition studio in the great beyond!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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