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To be a composer

RON BIERMAN met and talked to Benjamin Lees


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Why isn't classical music more popular? Reduced government funding and changing educational priorities have hurt. So has the short attention span induced by modern media. Radio stations once attracted listeners with complete Mahler symphonies. They wouldn't go over as well on MTV.

But I think Benjamin Lees accurately described the root problem, 'I remember when you would look at a score and tell a composer ... not many people are going to understand this. The reply was, "I don't care." They were basically writing either for themselves or their colleagues.' A public audience became irrelevant, with predictable results.

Critics, composers and teachers have all contributed to declining popularity. Lees said, 'I know that for many years following the death of Bartók, critics were terrified of finding themselves on the wrong side of an issue, or on the wrong side of a composer because it wasn't until, what, three weeks, four weeks after Bartók's death when suddenly the musical world was pronouncing [him] a genius. ... Why not in his lifetime? So [after that] whenever a composer would come along with a new work and it was very far out -- in those days far out meant twelve-tone or serial -- the critics were always saying, "Oh, yes, yes, this breaks new ground!" They did not want to be caught again ... and they kept this going.'

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Copyright © 3 August 2003 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


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