In search of an audience…


Sibelius started me thinking down this road.

For those of you who aren’t music geeks, or classical music geeks to be precise (although I think he defies category), I’m talking about Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer from the last century. I was recently listening to some of his piano music.

Sibelius is hardly obscure. But he’s known for his granite symphonies and colorful symphonic poems. Most classical music listeners probably don’t even know he wrote piano music, a ton of it, and surely not many have heard any of it.

And that’s too bad! It’s sublime. Some of the most brilliant, original miniatures of the last century. Much of it sounds contemporary today.

I guess Sibelius should be counted one of the lucky ones. His place in posterity is secure because of seven magnificent symphonies, a couple of which, it could be argued, are among the five best of the 20th century. (The Fourth and Seventh would be my candidates.) But still, listening to his Five Esquisses and Five Piano Pieces Op. 101, I couldn’t help think that it was tragic someone wrote music like this to have it go into the dustbin of history. Who was he writing for? Himself? There’s the school that says artists Do It All For Themselves and not for the fame and reward, and there’s something to be said for that. The Artist as Hero started with Beethoven—deaf, almost without companions near the end, turning out late-period masterpieces that the rest of us would not understand for about 75 years.

At the same time, what’s the point if art like this is consigned to obscurity? It’s not noble. Art is intended for an audience. When an artist talks to himself, it’s no different than when anyone else talks to himself. Doctors would probably say it’s not mentally healthy. It’s not artistically healthy either.

Many artists go on, driven by an internal need that doesn’t care about audience approval or even acknowledgment. And that’s great, if the artist means it. But one can’t also help but conclude their art has failed if it is ignored. The failure isn’t the creator’s fault necessarily, but it’s a failure nevertheless, because each creation is an idea that is supposed to go from someone to someone. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art that gets no response is a lot like the sound of one hand clapping.

What stops so much great art from succeeding—and more great art fails on this level than succeeds. To a large extent it’s an audience that wants comfort in the familiar. Real artists—as opposed to craftspeople—don’t do the same things over and over. That’s commerce. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But if you’re driven by that inner demon, you’re not going to want to do the same things over and over. No demon in that. The demon wants escape, wants surprise, wants a new reason to live.

But every artist has had to deal with an audience that wants the familiar, the tested. New things get through, of course, but, almost always, it’s an uphill fight, even though so often audiences say they’re tired of the same. Yet back they go, renting the next franchise movie (even though they hated the last three) or listening to the same music that appealed to their base instincts in high school. You really have to wonder why. Why are people oftentimes so lazy? Why do they say they don’t like something, and then ask for more?

Because of this, we have a surplus of great books hardly anyone has ever read, music almost no one has heard, and more importantly answers to questions no one will uncover, ways of thinking few people will ever know. It’s as if the answers to our problems are all there already. We don’t need to look any further. Rather, we need to sift through everything we’ve created already.

This Internet world we live in has tipped the balance even more against artists finding audiences. That may seem wrong; in the beginning, the promise of everyone being interconnected was that of new and better roads for art and artists. But the same Internet that makes us one big global village also lets us erect high walls and paint on them only the views we want ourselves to see.

Added to that is the problem has become that everyone wants to be a creator or performer; nobody wants to be in those red seats anymore—it’s almost déclassé. A young author who recently saw her first novel get published complained that more people today want to know how to write novels rather than how to read them, a skill she (and I) find sorely lacking. Just check out Amazon or Goodreads reviews! Yet she says when she asks aspiring writers what they read and why she often gets blank stares.

It wold do everyone good to step outside their comfort zone. We’d all be richer if the next time you went to a bookstore, you bought the sort of book you normally don’t read. My ears are better right now because Sibelius took the time to write about seven CDs worth of sublime piano music. I’m glad he did, but I do wonder what he got out of it. He’s been dead for well over half a century, and he wrote these works mostly in the early part of the 1900s, as he went silent after 1926. He felt he had nothing new to say for the last 31 years of his life. In fact, he probably destroyed an entire symphony he’d spent decades composing because of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction that he didn’t do something bold and new and original enough.

The audience didn’t even get a chance to discover that one.


4 responses

  1. Excellent points. Two words come to mind to describe our aesthetically bankrupt age: consumerism and self-promotion. I’ve known professional pianists who, believe it or not, scarcely know that Rachmaninoff was a great pianist in addition to being a composer and certainly have little acquaintance with his recordings, some of the most important of all time. Let alone a Friedman, Barere, or Saperton. So much of the “modern school” has retreated into solipsism, only interested in comparing themselves favorably with whatever Kissin or Yuja Wang clone is au courant.

    To your question of why people seem to want more of the familiar even when they’re ostensibly sick of it — a phenomenon I also frequently remark on — I would posit that fear is the principal reason. Why do people, for instance, like limp-noodle, unchallenging piano playing like Rubinstein’s? Because they feel comfortable with it. Or put another way, “mediocrities of a feather flock together.” Musically, Rubinstein represents more of what most people can see themselves doing. Listening to great, inspired playing is intimidating for herd followers, each of whom wants to believe that he himself has profound insight. Then when real insight comes along, it has to be trashed because it represents a threat to the person’s own ego. Anyway, your question may very well have been rhetorical, but just giving my two cents :)

    I must say, you’ve piqued my curiosity about Sibelius, and I must admit I know very little about his music, even his piano music. Though on your recommendation, I had listened to one of the symphonies (I believe the fourth) and was impressed particularly by the orchestral effects. (Liked it much more than one of the Nielsen symphonies I also listened to, which seemed annoyingly repetitive). I’ll have to get the Dover volume of Sibelius’s piano music and read through some of it soon.

    Regarding Sibelius’s current relative obscurity among audiences. It may just take more time for critical sifting, at least for the non-symphonic works. After all, he’s only been dead a little over 50 years. I’d say as a general rule, 100 to 150 years post-mortem is a ballpark estimate for the sifting process to complete. (Incidentally, I’m pleased that the bloated reputation of Citizen Kane seems to be have reached its peak and maybe even starting its critical downslide if recent surveys are any indication, and that’s only been around for 70). Look at how long it took many compositions of poor Schubert to be recognized — his piano sonatas, some of my all-time favorite pieces, weren’t performed much until practically the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, Rachmaninoff has been unjustly denigrated by pock-marked critics and wannabe intellectuals who seem to hate the beautiful who overemphasized the “structure” of Beethoven and Brahms — as wonderful as they are — at Rachy’s expense, or crowed about ugly blots on musical history like Hindemith and Schoenberg. But I think the tide’s beginning to change as people realize the harmonic sophistication, contrapuntal complexity, and depth of the lanky Russian’s music. Interesting, though, that more mainstream audiences seem to have always loved Rachmaninoff. Why? Because it’s undeniably tuneful and appealing.


    October 11, 2013 at 8:13 am

    • > So much of the “modern school” has retreated into
      > solipsism, only interested in comparing themselves
      > favorably with whatever Kissin or Yuja Wang
      > clone is au courant.

      Don’t forget Argerich or Pollini. ;-)

      At the same time, in all seriousness, this complaint is as old as the hills. It’s interesting to read some of the musical journalism in Rachmaninoff’s day. However, my point, which will be taken up on November 1st in a replay of another post I did a while ago about J.K. Rowling, is that so many people stick with the narrow and the familiar rather than exploring. Me, I’d rather explore.


      October 11, 2013 at 9:08 am

  2. John, I saved this post to read (via my email subscription) when I had the time and I’m so glad I did. While I probably don’t know as much as you do about classical music–even as a former music major in college–I know a well-written piece when I read it. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary on the times we live in and also appreciate your concerns. I think this “world” of ours is lucky to have you. Keep writing!


    October 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm

  3. Maureen Owen

    Yeah, and finish the novel already.


    October 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm

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