A total of 13 respondents weighed in with opinions. And because this was an American quiz, the answers were weighted in favour of American composers.
A few, I must admit, were unknown to me. But with YouTube as my guide, I set out to make myself acquainted with all of them.
Based on what I found, I can only conclude that most of the respondents to the survey misheard (either deliberately or unconsciously) the question. Instead of addressing the question precisely as it was stated, they chose to re-interpret it as “What piece of music written in the last 25 years would you like to still be heard in 100 years?” In other words, the responses are basically just a list of personal druthers from a clutch of well-informed people who take pride in their rarefied tastes.
I arrived at this conclusion is because it’s the only way I can make much sense of the answers. It seems to me that if the question is strictly adhered to, most of the nominated composers are unlikely candidates for canonization.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I came across this little exercise, because it made me think about what it takes for a piece of music to survive and enjoy some kind of presence and value in the world 100 years after it was created.
In Western music, the idea that a musical work might have a life beyond its immediate era is only a few centuries old. If Claudio Monteverdi stepped through a time-machine into the present, he’d be astounded to learn that his Orfeo is still performed. No such likelihood would have occurred to him back in 1607, when he made his first contribution to the newborn genre of opera.
So now, after a few centuries of canon-building, what can be said about how this mysterious process works?
First, it’s an extremely rare and exceptional phenomenon. How many operas have been written since Orfeo? Perhaps 100,000 – or even more? And how many have found a place in the standard repertoire? A few hundred.
Second, a “critical mass” of support must be achieved. And the participants in this critical mass must love the music enough to pass their love on to the next generation, who in turn pass the love on to the next, and so on. (Please note that I speak of love, and not respect, admiration or esteem. Love – and nothing less – is the fuel that gives the canonic machine cultural traction.)
The required critical mass doesn’t have to exist on a grand scale. However, for a musical work to carve out a place in the canon, its fan-base must be fiercely committed. For example, after J.S. Bach’s death, his flame was successfully kept alive by a small circle of devotees for more than half a century (until Mendelssohn brought the music to a larger audience). A more recent example of a composer finding a small yet devoted following might be Alexander Scriabin. He certainly isn’t an “A list” canonic figure, like Beethoven – but enough people feel strongly enough about his music for it to retain a presence in the concert hall.
So who among the composers put forward by our distinguished panel will attract enough love to propel their music forward into the next generation – and into another, and another beyond that?
If I were a betting man, I’d lay odds on the two minimalists. John Adams already enjoys the love of the musical world, and Steve Reich also has a loyal following. Both have burst through the gates of the new-music ghetto to find a wider audience. That is promising – but ultimately, it’s up to future generations to decide which works will survive beyond their time of creation.
© Colin Eatock 2013