The World and the Composer
What we do affects the way in which we are regarded, sight unseen and personality unknown, by our contemporaries. A person is (and probably always has been) known by the profession he keeps. Inviting oohs and ahs of deference and awe: doctors (especially with such specialties as brain surgery or organ transplants), judges of the higher benches, pioneers of outer space, sagaciously selected tycoons.
On a slightly lower notch, but still enviably close to the lofty aerie of the demigods above: scientists (especially inventors), statespersons (long-term politicians who have managed to remain untainted), industrialists (particularly those who have kept pace with technology and advertising), anyone having anything to do with the movies.
Next (downward) rung on the sociological ladder are the pragmatic pursuits: lawyers, dentists, accountants, journalists, business types, military officers.
Not to be forgotten by any means are those engaged in doing work nobody wants to do (because it pays poorly, or because it is so disagreeable that it pays well): teachers being an example of the former, garbage collectors of the latter.
And of course there are the myriad semiskilled or unskilled jobs which we keep finding minorities to perform.
And there are housewives, almost one-half of our work force with job descriptions so diffuse as to defy codification, who somehow keep our families, our society, more or less intact.
Where does the artist fit into the scheme of things? What has been his place in the past? And how does it differ in today's world?
The reply may have to do with the artist's medium, since the same answer does not necessarily apply to architect and dancer, writer and sculptor, painter and poet. It may have something to do with how the artist's contribution is recognized by the society which harbors and has spawned him. Does the artist, the world asks, create a product which is of interest to us, which we may wish to use? If the response is sufficiently affirmative, then it does not matter if an individual artist's name or work is identifiable by the world-at-large. Just as one need not be a cardiac patient to prize the work of the heart surgeon or a professional sportsman to admire superior athletic prowess, so one need not be an arts authority to cherish the work of the artist. All one needs is the conviction that his endeavor is a salutary contribution to the quality of life.
And, within the arts themselves, how about music, how about the composer? Music, it has often been observed, is the most abstract of the arts, perceivable entirely on its own terms, and based on no verbal or visually representational symbols. Surface statistics are trumpeted by arts organizations and public polls to support the notion that more people attend concerts than ever before, and the cult of the performer seems truly not to have diminished in zeal or number. But hold everything: do these promotional and public utterances really reflect the status of the composer in our world?
A long, hard look at the data may not be entirely comforting. Much of the hoopla from arts pundits and pollsters reflects music of bygone ages or performances by charismatic stars. While this would indicate a viable connection between a medium and a public, little interest is reserved for the living composer and his craft. Think of the followings, in number and critical perspicacity, enjoyed by our contemporary film makers, playwrights, novelists, and creative personalities in the visual arts. What composers of our time can bow to equivalent audiences, constantly growing in rank, involvement and enthusiasm?
The gulf between composer and lay public is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and hopefully a passing glitch in a continuing colloquy. The celebratory year 1985, highlighting the diversified worlds of Bach and Handel, illustrated beyond doubt the vast esteem in which these masters were
held by their contemporaries, made even more boundless by 300 years of continued use. Fifteen years earlier, this sociological assessment was equally apparent as Beethoven's 200th anniversary was observed. The entire history of the arts seems to attest to an ongoing symbiotic nourishment, the artist taking sustenance from the amorphous cultural mulch of his time, distilling it according to his own sensibilities, and offering it to a receptive public.
Consider the pivotal role of the performer in bringing music from the composers mind to people's consciousness. Without the dynamic, vital connection between music maker (composer-performer) and music user (performer-listener), our musical heritage would soon dry up or have to content itself with a retrospective of yesteryear. Composers have always found performers their natural emissaries and champions. Conductors, singers and instrumentalists, imbued with passionate conviction and commitment, have served composers as missionaries carrying
their creative gospel to an unpredictable world. The path was not always easy, the risk considerable, and the reception sometimes hostile and even vituperative. But performers played the new music and, if they felt strongly enough about it, they played it again and again.
It is perhaps because composers craved direct contact with people with a public from which they drew inspiration that so many of them became virtuoso performers in their own right. The ongoing, lively communication between composer and audience, with or without an intermediary performer, is in stark contrast to the composer of today who sequesters himself in arid corners, far removed from the societal mainstream, and who feigns indifference to acclaim.
Do composers wish to be regarded as a cherished resource by the world in which they live? They must first ask what that world wants from them, and then teach the world to want more.