September 18, 2011
Johann Pachelbel was a very successful, very popular composer in his time. He wrote a large body of music, but today, more than three hundred years after his death, he is best known for his Canon in D. He is, to many music lovers, something of a one-hit wonder. History is filled with one-hit wonders or composers who were wildly popular in their own time, but who have faded into obscurity.
There are various forces that determine how famous a composer remains after his or her death, and in turn, there are forces that might whittle a composer’s prolific output to a few well-known works (or just one). There are composers whose names we know but we may not necessarily know any of the masterpieces that won them fame and fortune in their prime. Antonio Salieri springs to mind. Most people know him as Mozart’s rival, as he was painted in Peter Schaffer’s play and Milos Forman’s film Amadeus. The film leads us to believe that Salieri was a B-lister, someone who didn’t enjoy the kinds of triumphs that Mozart had. In reality, Salieri was a very successful composer of opera, an influential figure, and a teacher of important pupils (Schubert and Liszt among them). Can you name one of his operas? Don’t feel bad if you can’t. If it wasn’t for his unflattering portrait in Amadeus, it’s unlikely we would know him very much at all.
Popularity in the present is no guarantee of longevity. Likewise, obscurity in one’s own time might not spell absence from the historical record. J.S. Bach gave little thought to his historical destiny, but he quietly influenced many composers, and his sons—especially C.P.E. Bach—found fame of their own. In the case of J.S. Bach, it took the actions of Felix Mendelssohn to bring Bach’s music to the attention of the larger musical public, but we haven’t forgotten him since then. Beethoven is the rare example of someone whose music was famous in his own time and whose works continue today to appear on concerts all over the world. In other words, once Beethoven came to the attention of the public, he never left. His status as the misanthropic mad genius composer remains unchanged.
Being a lasting presence in history might be determined by something as fickle as weather. If a flood or fire destroys a library, we might lose the surviving copies of a composer’s work. There is no telling how many masterpieces we lost not just in fires and floods, but in wars and political conflicts. On the other hand, a composer’s legacy might be helped by a well-written biography or a film portrait. Some modern musicians make their mark by becoming specialists in little-known composers, recording works that have never been recorded before.
There are many composers working today, and it’s not possible to say whose music will stand the test of time and continue to be popular. A composer who receives multiple commissions every year might be like Pachelbel: popular in his or her own time, but known by a single piece in the future. It’s far less likely nowadays that composers would fade because we don’t have copies of their music. Now that we store things electronically and have easy recording processes, pieces now will effectively last “forever” on YouTube videos and on composers’ official websites, but whether that translates into a Beethovenian destiny, is anyone’s guess.
The truth is, we won’t be able to know who’s going to end up with the fancy boxed set and who’s going end up in the bargain bin. We don’t have the vantage point that shows us the big picture. LACO’s upcoming concert features Mozart and Beethoven, but it also features the music of two living composers, Osvaldo Golijov and Derek Bermel. Will the works of either or both of these composers still be programmed two or three hundred years from now? It’s impossible to know. Time, as they say, will tell. By the time the answer is clear, we won’t be around to see it. The best we can do is enjoy the present.