Rock Me Amadeus

Yesterday, Randy Nordschow had a fine rant (that’s sincere, by the way; a good rant is not as easy as it looks) over at NewMusicBox about the relative pretentiousness of classical and rock music. Go read it; it’ll get you thinking about comparisons between the two genres. Of course, me being me, after a few hours, my brain settled on the most tangential comparison possible:

What’s the classical equivalent of a one-hit wonder?

Which is not as trivial a question as it might seem. Let’s define terms: I’m calling a one-hit wonder a singer/act/composer that comes up with one piece that makes a big enough splash to become part of the common culture, after which he/she/they never do much of anything again. We have to be careful: there are plenty of composers who are only remembered for one piece, but that doesn’t mean they were one-hit wonders in their own time: as a quick example, Fromental Halévy is known today solely for his opera La Juive, but the man actually had over 30 others staged in Paris. We won’t count composers who died young, and those cut down on the cusp of fame by madness (I’m thinking of Hans Rott and his amazing Symphony in e minor) rate only an honorable mention.

Which leaves—who? The only viable example I could come up with was Paul Dukas, who wrote one honest-to-god brilliant, astonishing, magical, all-time masterpiece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and only fourteen other published works, none of which gained any real foothold in the repertoire. (Apologies in advance to all the Ariane and La Péri fans out there, but in objective terms, it’s true.)

I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious candidates, but the point is, they’re comparatively rare. One reason springs to mind immediately: popular music is far more beholden to market forces than classical music, which means the business is far more cutthroat. A past hit isn’t going to get you very far with your record company if your current effort isn’t selling. And given the relatively low overhead for producing a single, there’s far more incentive to try somebody new. The pop music industry is based more around product than people: the personality of the artist may be a marketing tool, but the popularity of the song is the bottom line.

It’s easy to see why, at one time, the classical music industry would have been based more around the composer than the music itself. Before recordings, there was much more effort required to sample a composer’s wares. After an initial hit or two, the composer’s name would have functioned much like a brand, a signal to the concertgoer or music purchaser of a certain expectation of quality. The real question is, why has this system persisted?

Partially it’s because the classical/”new music” community is small and powered by personal relationships. Partially it’s because classical marketing departments have no idea how to market new music, so they market the composer instead (leading to a situation very similar to the old days). But one reason is not so obvious: the fact that most classical concerts are planned at least a year in advance, and usually much farther out than that. You need to pin down your conductor and your soloists, and you need to have the program decided in time to appeal to your subscribers. And I think that’s killing the market for classical one-hit wonders.

Let’s think about the Pulitzer prizes for a minute. Supposedly, it’s given to the best new piece of the year. In reality, that hardly ever happens; it’s much more of a distinguished career award. (Ned Rorem certainly deserves a Pulitzer, but does anybody ever play Air Music? Same thing with say, Harbison and The Flight Into Egypt.) Nevertheless, once a year, the Pulitzers are dished out, and, for a bit, a particular piece of contemporary classical music has some buzz attached to it. But by the time any classical organization gets around to fitting said piece into their schedule, that buzz is long gone. Neither Adams’ Transmigration of Souls nor Stucky’s Second Concerto have made it to Boston yet, and I would bet last year’s Boston-premiered winner (Wyner’s Chiavi in mano, which I missed, but which all the reviews made out to be that modern rarity, a highbrow crowd-pleaser) won’t show up anywhere else for two or three seasons. By that point, the buzz around the piece will be forgotten, which leaves the marketing department to fall back on their standby, promoting the composer.

I know that the idea of an apprenticeship is more important in the classical world, that you should build up a solid career bit by bit, rather than aim for sudden, one-time success. There’s something to that, but I think the lack of any possible flashes-in-the-pans does classical music a disservice. The great thing about one-hit wonders is their very unpredictability; think of all those killer singles by obscure bands that became everybody’s favorite song for a particular summer. Isn’t there some classical equivalent for that?

(P.S.: I thought this post up this morning while walking through the woods with critic-at-large Moe. We get back to the car, flip on the radio, and guess what’s playing? The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Freaky.)


  1. Leoncavallo is pretty close. His only other opera to have any traction(his La Boheme) was so obliterated by that other Scenes de la Vie Boheme opera that in the long run, he may as well have never written it at all.

  2. At least the fanfare from La Peri has a quasi-foothold. EVERY brass player has played it at some point or another, but we, of course, are a marginalized group within a marginalized group. If orchestras ever allowed the brass section to be featured alone (as happens more often with the strings and winds), everyone would be sick of the piece.

  3. Stefan’s right… hey, orchestras: give your brass some quality time! You could do a Hindemith <>Konzertmusik<> or the Harbison Concerto or some great Renaissance polyphonic brass choirs. (Or, indeed, the fanfare from “La Péri,” which, now that you mention it, will be stuck in my head the rest of the day.)

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