Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dead Composers Society

Just now on Twitter someone raised that complaint you often hear, that so much of classical music is by dead composers. She is a musician whose posts I enjoy, and I had just poured my coffee and not quite gotten down to work. So I wrote (ahem):

"I think instead of worrying that the music we love is by dead composers, we should rejoice that it holds up so well."

That is what I believe!

You know what, no one fusses over that people still read books by dead people. No one thinks anything is unhealthy about a drama troupe performing a Shakespeare play for the thousandth millionth time. How did the classical music crowd get saddled with this guilt?

If people want to hear Mozart's 39th Symphony 221 years after it was written, I see that as a great thing. It shows how well Mozart conceived it and how much we share with the people who have gone before us. I see nothing wrong with that.

I cannot imagine discriminating against a composer just because he is dead.

"Well, people should listen to music by living composers." I get that all the time.

Then get living composers to write music people want to listen to, you know?

Ha, ha! There are a couple of groups out there called the Dead Composers Society. There is one in Minneapolis and one in Santa Barbara. Both groups look young and hip. Cheers to them!

One of the groups has this logo:

The thing is, we are living in a funny musical age. Performance standards and music scholarship are tremendously high and the entire history of music is at our fingertips. We can listen to anything we want, going back to the Middle Ages.

At the same time we live in this dark age of music composition. So much of what is being written is so arcane or inaccessible that it appeals only to a small niche audience. The rest of us should rejoice that faced with this situation, so much of the music of the past is so immediate and relevant!

And more readily accessible, once you get into the groove of it at least, than a Shakespeare play. A Shakespeare play you have to study and look up words. But think about a Tchaikovsky symphony. Here is a work written more than a century ago, by a Russian, for heaven's sake, and to appreciate it all you have to do is sit there. You do not need a translator and the language is not archaic and it appeals to your 21st century mind.

I do not see why that is anything to fret about.

I thank God for these dead composers.


  1. The great playwight and wit George S. Kaufman was once at work adapting Gilbert & Sullivan into a show he called Hollywood Pinafore (which flopped, by the way). During that time he ran into Irving Berlin, who asked him how the show was coming. Quoth Kaufman, "Great! It's just wonderful working with a dead composer."

    I don't buy the argument about unlistenable new music. Critics in the old master's days (from Beethoven forward) were constantly praising the dead and carping at the products of the living. Most critics are failed musicians and their egos are too big to admit it, so they happily snipe away in the press at their betters. Exceptions, off the top of my head, are Berlioz, Schumann and Virgil Thomson, who were themselves composers and knew how music was put together. Even composers can be stupidly wrong. Alban Berg once humiliated Hans Pfitzner in print by publishing an analysis of Schumann's Traumerei to demolish a complaint by Pfitzner that Berg couldn't write a simple melodic piece like Traumerei. Berg proved that the Schumann piece was by no mean simple, but melodically and harmonically sophisticated. A local composer once pointed out many radical harmonies in the music of Schubert, but said that the average moony music lover has no clue as to how professional and sophisticated Schubert's writing was. You'll have to argue better to convince this reader!

  2. One is put in mind of Victor Borge's comment about Bach--how he spent a lifetime composing, after which he started decomposing.