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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Composers fall off the radar

By Norman Lebrecht / June 26, 2002

I was due to have breakfast the other morning with Daniel Libeskind. No need to append an adjective to the dropped name. Every half-awake homeowner on the Clapham omnibus can list the top five architects of the moment, and Libeskind is right up there with Gehry, Foster, Rogers and sundry fifth-spot contenders.

The same goes for artists. In this summer of Lucian Freud, tens of thousands of tourists will be drawn to London, Los Angeles and Barcelona by the magnetic force of a painter's fame. Nor does Freud bask alone. David Hockney, his present sitter, has equal pulling power. Close behind are Kitaj, Auerbach and Hodgkin. As for the Britpack, they are so big that Damian and Tracey are known across the civilised world by forename alone.

Playwrights like David Mamet and Tom Stoppard get stopped in the street for their autographs. Major novelists employ personal minders. It's a good time to be a serious artist, revelling in mass recognition.

There is, however, one group of creators that has seriously lost out. Name me, if you can, five living composers. And if you happen to be a devotee of Boulez, Birtwistle, Ligeti, Henze or Gubaidulina I'll ask you to name five composers under the age of 50. There, that's stumped you.

For one reason or other, composers in this celebrity era have fallen off the face of the globe. While paint splashers live like kings and Sunday scribblers walk out with film stars on their arms, men and (increasingly) women who spend arid days hunched over giant staves struggling to resolve a stubborn chord are no longer part of the cultured person's conversational portfolio.

Even in Germany, where composers are fed full-fat subsidies from kindergarten up, the name of Hans-Werner Henze - his 10th symphony is coming out this summer - rings only with cognoscenti, while Wolfgang Rihm, who tossed off his 150th opus on turning 50 this year, turns no heads in Berlin restaurants. The one German composer who can still twitch a public eyebrow is the seriously wacky Karlheinz Stockhausen who has written nothing noteworthy for decades, but managed to get himself briefly banned last year for likening 11 September to something in one of his esoteric operas.

A composer who hungers for limelight can still grab a shaft on Broadway where the sub-genre of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schoenberg has sustained its grip. Composing for Hollywood is not the same thing. Apart from John Williams, Spielberg's tunesmith of choice, and Philip Glass who has enhanced several cult films, no movie composer crosses the threshold of renown.

When Michael Kamen, Hollywood's second busiest, popped up to conduct at the Queen's jubilee, he was no more familiar to the 100-million TV audience than the second doublebass in the Royal Academy students' orchestra.

Desperate for movie glamour, Placido Domingo has commissioned John Williams to write an opera for Los Angeles, while Covent Garden is staging a Sophie's Choice remake with music by Nicholas Maw. Never heard of him? He's Simon Rattle's favourite symphonist. The much-awaited new opera will, if successful, earn Maw a name-check with perhaps 10,000 new admirers. Fame, in the Madonna era, starts at 10 million. A fat tenor can amass more fans in a night in the park than every composer alive.

Being wired to hot topics hardly helps. Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote a brilliant opera, The Silver Tassie, which returns to the Coliseum tonight. It is themed around Irish rebellion and a game of football. Its first night in February 2000 was the most exhilarating in British opera since Britten's Peter Grimes in 1945.

Yet the triumph made no smidgen of difference to Turnage's newsworthiness. He remains a fringe figure in a parlously marginalised art form. Igor Stravinsky, throughout his long life, was a household name on four continents. Thirty years after his death, no composer can claim more than a shadow of his eminence.

The causes of this recession are rooted in the art's development. The atonality advanced by Arnold Schoenberg and enforced by postwar ascetics bred alienation among audiences. Music lovers were not going to applaud composers who hurt their ears, nor would they remember their names. But the oblivion has persisted long after serious music turned simple in the minimalist 1980s and melodic in the postmodern 1990s. The gulf between composers and other creators continues to grow.

An absence of towering personalities is sometimes blamed, but the true reason lies in the craft itself. Other arts can get away with grand gestures. Libeskind became famous for building an empty museum extension, Hirst for pickling a shark. Whether one is technically equipped to design a safe skyscraper and the other to paint a portrait in oils is immaterial to their success. In architecture and art, the idea is all. In plays and novels, too, directors and editors cover up the author's frequent shortcomings.

In music, however, there is no alternative to small print and hard grind. The more those 12 notes get played, the more ingenious a composer must be to devise new combinations. I have watched Birtwistle wrestle for days with a 30-second snatch of music that gets him no further than the bottom of the page. Music is the last art that is honestly labour intensive. Hard labour, however, leaves little spare energy for shaping one's eyelashes and strutting in ads.

Libeskind, as it happens, failed to show for breakfast, excusing himself with a touch of jet-lag and "a hard night". Such are the fickle privileges of celebrity. Personally, I'd rather break bread with a good composer - not that the name will mean much to anyone.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001