Entertainment Music

The Last Great Composer?

Well whose fault is that? A fine review of Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971 (see also the petulant rebuttal by Robert Craft) closes with the thought, “The composer George Perle observed when Stravinsky died that the world was without a great composer for the first time in six hundred years. It still is.”

I have to disagree with Perle’s remark. Olivier Messiaen and especially Elliott Carter certainly figure as geat composers. Probably Samuel Barber as well.

But for a particular reason, consider Shostakovich, who outlived Stravinsky for several years. I recall when he died my mother had noticed it in the paper before I did, and pointed it out to me. I expressed surprise that she knew who he was (she was just an Ohio housewife, after all, and I was a perfectly arrogant high school musician). She said, “you don’t have to be a musician to know who Shostakovich is!”

Whatever else you think of his music, status as a “great composer” usually goes with being a household name. No one has to explain to you, after all, who Beethoven was.

There was a time during the mass media age, extending even into the 1960s, when serious composers were well known to the general public. The barriers that exist today between high culture and popular culture were far lower. Schoenberg used to play tennis with Gershwin. Sinatra walked across a crowded room to get Stravinsky’s autograph. Maybe the fact that there are no “great composers” anymore has less to do with the composers than with the fragmented state of the mass media. With hundreds of channels to choose from, no one has to bother their little heads with anything they don’t already know.

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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