Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Classical music goes up, classical music goes down

I've been messing about with the big database (well, spreadsheet) of composers that I first started to keep about a quarter-century ago. Turns out it really needed updating... Joaquin Rodrigo's death in 1999 hadn't been noted, for example!
A more recent addition to the spreadsheet was a column for the number of recordings of each composer's music on Arkiv. I've found this to be a handy pointer as to a composer's "significance" (maybe someday I'll write a proper post on my thoughts regarding "great composers" and popularity). It's not a perfect measure, because of course it depends on the number of recordings in stock at Arkiv at a given moment, not to mention on Arkiv's ability to tag everything correctly, and the fact that browsing versus searching can give slightly different results. But anyway, on a broad level it works fine.
So then it occurred to me, why not see who are the most-recorded composers of a given birth cohort, let's say each decade, which was a matter of a few minutes' work. Interesting results, if you're interested in ranked lists of similarly aged composers, but could they be used to tell a bigger picture? The graph above says yes. (Double-click to enlarge it)
Let's look at the blue line first, which uses the left-hand y axis. What I've done here is looked at the 10 most-recorded composers born in each decade, added up all their recordings, and divided by 10 (i.e., it's the average number of recordings for those 10 composers). You can see it bobs up and down a bit, and when you know when the best-known composers were born it starts to make a lot of sense. The huge peak for the 1680s corresponds to Bach and Handel (and Telemann and D Scarlatti); the 1750s and 1770s peaks are due to Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, the 1790s are Schubert and Rossini, and the even huger peak for the 1810s is for Verdi, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Wagner (in that order). It bounces a bit, more, then after the 1870s (Ravel and Rachmaninoff) it drops again but this time doesn't really recover; the 1920s represents the lowest point since the 1760s. Who are the two most-recorded composers born in the 1760s? Cherubini and Danzi. And the 1920s? Piazzolla and Ligeti (if you don't wan't to include Piazzolla because tangos aren't classical enough, then it's Ligeti and Malcolm Arnold). And the decline continues, with the most-recorded composers born in the 1960s being about as well-recorded as those born three or four centuries earlier. 
(Caveat, though I don't think it's significant enough to affect the general picture: the closer we get to the present day, the less likely it is that my composers database reflects the overall state of classical music; for instance, most of the 1980s-born composers in the database are those I'm interested in. The reason I don't think this is a problematic issue is that my data-gathering involved finding "significant" composers via Arkiv, so while I may have omitted hundreds of worthy contemporary composers, they're not people with a large number of recordings. Obviously, that number of recordings is an acceptable proxy is something we're taking as read, but it's not unreasonable to say that for younger composers it's not as relevant).
But the red line on the graph adds more depth to the picture. This one, which uses the right-hand y axis, is simply a count of the number of composers who have 30 or more recordings listed on Arkiv. The 30 is somewhat arbitrary, I grant, but there's no particular "correct" number, so let's go with that. It corresponds to over 700 composers, so it covers a lot of ground. For instance, the composers born in the 1500s who fall in that group are Tallis, Luis da Milan, Luis de Narvaez, Gombert, Morales, Tye, and Arcadelt (but not Juan Vasquez, Hans Neusiedler, or Girolamo Cavazzoni) - comprehensive enough, I think.
So what are the results here? A quite differently shaped graph. Aside from the peak in the 1680s (which includes, it must be noted, such non-household names as Loeillet and Heinichen), the graph trends upwards from the beginning of the 19th century all the way to the generation of the 1890s (from Prokofiev down to Leifs and Sorabji) and despite a drop holds itself steady up to and including the generation of the 1930s (from Pärt to the geographically coincident Tormis)... and then it drops, then drops again.
What's happening here is that, whereas the blue line shows that the top composers active from the beginning of the 20th century have been less well-recorded than their 19th-century predecessors, the red line shows that many more composers active in the 20th century have been recorded compared with the 19th century. Not too surprising, I hope: the "great" composers of the past loom large, and resemble the true planets as defined by the IAU in as much as they've cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit, whereas there still hasn't been a full reckoning of the composers of the recent past, and as for today's composers - who knows?
But is that the sole reason for the drop over the course of the 20th century? The decline is rather swift, after all. If we reconvene in 100 years time, how will the graph have changed? Will the 20th century now show a similar pattern to previous centuries, with a greater focus on a smaller number of composers? Or will the thing people call "classical music" still refer to the period between Bach and Shostakovich, with the rest as interesting but relatively unpopular outliers? Depends on how optimistic or pessimistic you are, or for that matter how much you care for (or about) new music.

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