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Mar. 28 2012

Pity the Contemporary Composer

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | No Comments

This past Friday and Monday I received telephone calls from two different WBJC listeners whose opinions could not have been more opposite, and as such highlight a controversy in classical music that has been going on since before I was born. In a nutshell, the man who called Friday night wanted to hear more challenging modern classical music on the radio and in concert halls, while the woman who phoned on Monday thought that Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” was too far out for her tastes.

Now we all have our personal likes and dislikes, and as a classical music programmer I feel I have heard them all. I had a friend once who disliked high-pitched violin (“Especially as I’ve gotten older,” he said). Organ music, harpsichord, period instruments all have their detractors. Occasionally someone voices the long outdated opinion that George Gershwin is not classical music. Some people think Mozart and Baroque music are boring. Others either want more Strauss waltzes or none at all. Years ago a listener told me he called chamber music “practice music” (and decades ago many people thought it was, that is when they weren’t calling it “long hair music”).

But by far the two biggest bones of contention among classical music afficionados are: “Why don’t you play more vocal music?” and “Why do you bother to play any modern music? No one wants to hear it.” Perhaps I will address the former question one day, but for now it is the latter that concerns me.

Returning to my two recent callers, let me say at the outset that they were both very cordial, even jovial, as are most of the calls I receive at WBJC. The lady who balked at “The Firebird” Monday even mentioned “calling to rib us now and then”. We parted friends.

The Friday night call came during my weekly request show. A listener had requested Concerto Grosso No. 5 for Violin, Prepared (off-stage) Piano, and Orchestra by the late twentieth century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. Upon previewing the work before broadcast, I must admit it gave me pause. Let’s say when it is not searching around for notes in something approaching silence it is crescendoing into a cacophonous screech. This is certainly not something I would choose to play on my regular program, but I have to admit I like it (especially that off-stage, prepared piano; real spooky!). Request night I let listeners push the envelope a bit; it’s their show after all. But I save the weird pieces for late.

A man who had not phoned earlier called to thank me for playing the Schnittke. He said he was a big fan of the composer, whom he described as a good transition for listeners from the more conservative style of Shostakovich to the “real way out avant garde”. Now I am second to none in my love of Shostakovich, whom I would place among my ten favorite composers (although I am beginning to wonder whether I should not return that spot to Bartok, at least when talking about the ten greatest composers). But I daresay most classical music listeners find Shostakovich to be a difficult modern composer. For me, he is about as “way out” as I will go in my own radio programming. Yet here was a listener who finds Shostakovich’s style conservative, and I thoroughly understand, because I once did too.  And not only that, but in his view Alfred Schnittke, whose music is far more discordant than Shostakovich, is more accessible than the “real way out avant garde”.

At this point, I think that he (as well as myself) are putting ourselves into a very tiny minority of classical music listeners who, through our own desire for adventurous listening, have acquired a taste for music which most listeners find awful. And after years of having to program music for a radio audience, I have lost much of my love for the “real way out avant garde” that I tried to appreciate when I was young. Why does music in order to be progressive have to sound like a train wreck? (But, ah, I was still mesmerized when I finally heard the restored version of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mecanique” a few years ago; now that’s one gorgeous train wreck! Just don’t expect me to play it on WBJC.) Suffice it to say, my Friday caller wishes that radio stations but, in particular, symphony orchestras and other classical ensembles would program more composers like Alfred Schnittke. He is getting bored with “Swan Lake” and the other endlessly recycled classical favorites, and I can certainly sympathize.

When I was younger, let’s say before about the mid 1980′s, I like many people thought it was only a matter of time before listeners came to love modern classical music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner were all progressive composers who at first had trouble gaining acceptance. Great art is always progressive and eventually gains the audience it merits, so why should twentieth century music be any different? After all, we true believers had listened to modern music enough to acquire a taste for it, so it stood to reason that everyone else would do the same. And in particular once the younger generation came of age they would undoubtably embrace modern music as their own.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, the composers began to change, writing in a more tonal, melodic style. The minimalist movement of the late twentieth century even reduced the complexity of classical music to its barest essentials. And composers of the early twentieth century who once were sneered at by academics began to gain their rightful place as great masters of the age: Richard Strauss, Elgar, Mahler, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Korngold, Samuel Barber, and – yes – Shostakovich. Tonight as I write WBJC is broadcasting the Chicago Symphony in concert performing Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, another work that was once looked down upon by academics as populist pandering but is now viewed as a masterpiece.

Which brings me to the lady who called on Monday. We were in the midst of a complete performance of  Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird”, and after a self-deprecatingly good humored introduction, she commented, “Is there anyone who wants to hear this music? There is no melody anywhere. It just goes on and on.” I countered that it was, in fact, Stravinsky’s most popular work, and if one listened closely, there were elements of Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy in the piece. Indeed, it is one of only a handful of twentieth century works that the WBJC staff has flagged as a “classical favorite”, which means it gets played more often than most other pieces. But finally we had to agree to disagree, reaching accord when I, stating the obvious, said “Everyone has different tastes.” And I mentioned in passing my Friday night caller who found Shostakovich conservative. “He’s probably very happy you’re playing this,” she remarked. I replied, “He probably thinks ‘The Firebird’ is tame.”

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Reed Hessler

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Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

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