WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: Why does one piece of music become popular and find a place in the repertoire and another doesn’t? It’s not a matter of quality. Music goes in and out of fashion. Composers go in and out of fashion. At one time, Bach’s music was forgotten. Gershwin wrote one of the most popular pieces in American music with his Rhapsody in Blue. His Second Rhapsody, which had many advantages in being introduced to the public, was forgotten. We’ve asked conductors, a composer, a critic, an artist manager, a PR maven and a singer if they know the secret sauce of popularity.
WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: If there were a recipe to make something popularity we’d all be making it. But even though artists know some formulas for what ought to be in music, they don’t always work to make music popular. Mozart was totally conscious of the marketplace and what could be popular. But even he in his latter days lost the ability to write something popular. Gershwin is another example. His Rhapsody in Blue was wildly popular, but when he went back to write a second rhapsody it didn’t become popular. But he was a very different composer at that point. He was trying to do something different. I don’t think that composers usually set out to be popular.
WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: There’s a certain branch of snobbism in classical music that thinks that something particularly obscure is of more value than those pieces that are popular. But taste changes. When you hear unfamiliar music you’re not sure what you should think. There’s a certain comfort in hearing something you know.
It’s easy to hear why Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is so popular. Aside from the distinctive flourishes – the opening clarinet glissando and the instantly recognizable tunes, its themes have been embedded in our popular culture. from countless quotes to its use as the United Airlines theme. Here’s a recording of Gershwin himself as piano soloist.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
The Second Rhapsody never found a place in the repertoire, despite a privileged birth. Is it because it’s a lesser piece? Its themes aren’t as distinctive? Or is it something else?
Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody
Why does one composer stay popular while another doesn’t? Why do we seek out even the most obscure scrap of music by Mozart, but ignore one of the most popular composers of his day – Salieri? Here are some excerpts from his Variations on La Follia di Spagna, a piece he wrote late in his career. It was an innovative work for its time in that it was a twist on the traditional variation form. Why is it not performed?
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/87878662″ params=”auto_play=false&show_artwork=false&color=5bb1f9″ width=”100%” height=”110″ iframe=”true” /]
Fashion of the Times
Composers go in and out of fashion all the time. JS Bach was the most famous composer of his day. But after he died, his music was neglected. It wasn’t until Mendelssohn organized a performance of the St. Matthew’s Passion that audiences rediscovered Bach’s work.
So how do you figure out what to listen to? For all we dismiss popularity, it is one way we establish value in our culture. It’s a way of sorting, of declaring that some things stand out above others. We live in the age of crowdsourcing, where everyone is a critic, where everyone has an opinion. Concurrently, we’re losing our professional critics who traditionally have helped us sort out value. Art doesn’t get power until an audience decides to do something with it. Is that “something” – the act of passing on what’s important, the new popularity?
WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: The pieces that are popular one place are not those that popular someplace else. Cultural context means a lot. When a piece of music gets associated with a cultural moment it becomes popular. Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one such piece. When pieces are used to sell underwear it helps too. Pieces are popular when they have a hook. There’s something about it that sounds unique; musically-identifiable traits stick in the mind.