Donald Clarke responds to me:
>> I guess, for me, the notion of a "hit" equates to popularity and that
>> within the context of popularity, the more popular a piece is, the better
>> it is. Does that make sense?
>>Not to me. What does 'within the context of popularity' mean?
>>I have often read that more of Holst's music deserved to be heard;
>>the popularity of The Planets is due to the fact that when a record
>>company executive or orchestra manager hears 'Holst' he thinks
>>'Planets'. If it hadn't been for Disney, most of us might never
>>have heard The Sorcerer's Appentice; the March from Prokofiev's
>>Love for 3 Oranges is very famous because it was used as the theme
>>of a radio drama series about the FBI. None of this has much to
>>do with the relative merits of the pieces involved.
Context of popularity...humm...well what I meant was how often it is
programmed and how often it is recorded=popularity. I suppose I could
add how much revenue it generates.
I would not disagree with the notion that Holst wrote plenty of fine
music that is overlooked. With Dukas, we are left with only the few
pieces he let survive. I find Prokofieff's Third Symphony and the Second
Piano Concerto to be amongst his best works, but they are not his "hits."
Typing this I am reminded of so many things...one is a conversation a
group of us young composers were having with Copland. One of us asked
Copland why he didn't write more "hits" like Billy the Kid. The question
implied that works like Connotations would not likely be "hits," and why
he had changed his style. Copland replied saying something like, "one
can never know what will or will not be a success with the public."
In retrospect, it seems to me that question and answer were such an odd
combination of notions at cross purposes. It has been suggested that
Copland wrote in a more advanced style because he felt he was irrelevant
to the younger generation, and might have wanted to be a "hit" (or
relevant) to that generation. Others suggest that he turned to serialism
because he felt he had run out of material. Whatever the reason, he
didn't seem to excite the younger group of composers and he certainly
was not a hit with the "it isn't even music" crowd. Inscape, and
Connotations are my favorite Copland, but I know my opinion is in the
However, I remember at that time, as a young composer, I had never
considered whether or not anyone would like my music or not, but it did
get me to thinking about those pieces that were "hits." It seemed to me,
at least at that time, that the classical music hits had some common
threads...well at least most of those I could think of did. It was a
combination of things. One was, it told a story. The story could be a
picture, or a narrative, like the Mussorgsky Pictures, or something that
had a story like the Dukas. The "story" could also have been imposed
after the fact, like fate knocking on the door (Beethoven's Fifth). No
doubt Beethoven's Fifth was a hit before some music appreciation teacher
came up with the idea of "fate knocking" or "V for Victory" association.
Would Honegger's Pacific 231 have had as much success if it was titled
Then there was the notion of the exotic. When you look at the history
of recorded sound, it is interesting to note how early on there were
records of Hawaiian music. Even Mozart wrote his "Turkish" music. So
we have some "exotic" hits like Scheherazade...but then is it a "hit"
because of the exoticism or because it has great tunes which happen to
sound exotic. Would Martin Denny have been such a success without the
bird calls...but I digress.
Another aspect found in many of the "greatest hits" was that of reaching
for the profound and, of course, ending on a tonic triad. Of course
ending on a big C major triad didn't help Penderecki's Polymorphia...a
bit of esoteric humor for the avant garde lovers out there...assuming
we still use the term "avant garde" and that there are any besides myself
who still listen to some of those works....In this context, I thought
about works like the Hindemith Symphony Mathis der Maler. I wonder if
it would have had such a success without that wonderful chorale at the
end. Which reminds me, Hindemith did have some great endings, the
Nobilissima Visione and the Symphonic Dances come to mind.
Then, there was "the tune." It seemed to me that the use of folk music
was a plus it you wanted a hit. Folk music is the sort of stuff that is
easy to sing...memorable. Of course, I am talking about "Western Art"
music. The tunes most often kept within the range of the octave and
relied on the interval of the 5th.
Another consideration was predictability without monotony. That would
apply to the notion of easily recognizable, as well as the patterns to
be found in some of the Baroque.
And, on the subject of the Baroque, I recall the many hours we students
would study in great detail the music of Bach. We would take a fugue
subject and try our own hand with it and then compare our work with the
"master." And indeed, I never recall any of us coming up with such perfect
solutions...but on the other hand, to this day, while I could still
probably do an analysis of one of his fugues that "understanding" does
not translate into real time listening understanding. I wonder how many
can listen and understand at that level, yet on our own level we can
still take such delight in what he wrote.
On the other hand, Bach had only a few "hits." The Toccata and Fugue in
d minor was a hit before Disney. Does anyone know when it was first
used in a horror film?
So, for those of you who haven't trashed this already long note...do you
have any suggestions as to what makes for a hit?
As for Donald's and mine mutual friend, Mr. A, in talking with him, it
all comes down to chugging basses, cymbal crashes, hemiola, and great
tunes and, from time to time, an unexpected harmonic rhythm...
All of the above being a preface to what has interested me most in the
thread of collection niches; the interest in the Goldberg variations.
To my ears, it does not easily fall into any of the categories of those
obvious considerations that make for great hits. It is a work of such
great humanity and I would think it too profound for the rank and file
of those who value classical music. I guess it isn't "hit" like the
Holst Planets. But it would appear it is a "hit" for many. A comforting
thought to me.
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