The "more famous when dead" myth
Things that were considered unacceptable - in almost any facet of life - are today considered routine and ordinary. This is inclusive of music. You mentioned Schoenberg as a composer who has not found a general audience but you could have easily mentioned Mahler. Then again, you probably know that Mahler's music, once considered extreme, is now ever so popular. Would not have fit into your point, would it? Nor would the fact that it took around a 100 years too for Bach's music to become popular with the general public or 200 years for Pachelbel to find posthumous fame. Not exactly exclusive to the avantgarde now, is it?
Here we go again, with the composers who were underappreciated in their own time, only to come into their own decades or centuries after their death. It's one of the most appealing myths in classical music. Bach and Mahler (pictured above) are two of the usual suspects; I'll get to some others shortly. For now, I'll let the hero of yesterday's blog post, "WillDuff," do the refuting:
Mahler was popular in his day. And if he wasn't immediately loved and understood, he soon was. Bach was old-fashioned in his day, and thus it took time for him to become loved again. So massive difference to the modernists. Beethoven challenged his contemporaries, but you can be pretty sure that he wasn't still waiting around an audience in 1900. Schoenberg's atonal and 12-tone music was unpopular in its day and remains unpopular 100 years later. That is the difference. Do you understand?
My man WillDuff is spot on with Mahler, whose symphonies, thought not ubiquitous then as now, were well-received in his day. Never mind the egotistical Mahler's famous prediction "my time will come," which is as much a jibe at his frenemy Richard Strauss as anything else. WillDuff's also right on Bach, as far as he goes. Bach certainly never enjoyed the commercial success of his contemporary and friend Telemann, who composed far more trendy and marketable music. But Bach was extremely highly esteemed in his day as both composer and organist. He lived in a time when the music of the past was much more studied than performed; certainly, there was nothing then like today's classical-industrial complex. The idea of going to a concert to enjoy an hour of keyboard fugues or great church music didn't catch on until much later. So, Bach's music fell into the same obscurity as did that of every other Baroque composer save Handel, whose oratorios (e.g., Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus) have never dropped out of the repertoire. And Bach's music was revived more than a century before that of Telemann, Vivaldi and other near-household names of the Baroque. (By the way, crazyfatguy, Johann Pachelbel hasn't found posthumous fame; his Canon has. Could you tell me anything else about Pachelbel, or name another of his works? 'Nuff said.)
How about Mozart? After all, he died in poverty, after just scraping by in his last years. Yeah, he was broke all right, but not because he didnt't earn much. He earned plenty. Problem was, he spent it on high living and gambling. And he was widely regarded not just as one of top composers around, but as a genius to those in the know. Beethoven? No way. Sure, he was regarded as an anti-social eccentric, and maybe his late quartets were thought of as crazy. But he was the most celebrated composer of his day, with the only possible competition emerging in the person of his stylistic polar opposite, Rossini. Schubert? OK, I'll sorta kinda give you Schubert. But how 'bout the legion of "well-known in their day but obscure in ours" composers? Like, say, Ignaz Moscheles, Louis Spohr, Anton Rubinstein — I could go on and on. We mark the birthdays of one or more such composers practically every day on WFCR.
So here are my general rules: First, composers enjoy their greatest acclaim, however much or little that is, while they're alive. That's when they can fulfill commissions, attend premieres, and nudge colleagues to do their stuff. Or do their stuff themselves, if they're also performers. And unless they're among the immortals, their stock will immediately and permanently decline after their deaths. Sorry; that's show biz. Second, the composers of the past who we regard as immortals were very highly thought of in their day, too. There might be a very few exceptions, but they remain just that: exceptions.
What does that mean for Elliot Carter, the eminent 103-year old American who's the subject of the blog that sparked this whole discussion? I can confidently, if not happily, predict that performances of his work will decline after his death and a proper period of memorial. After that, I'm making no predictions. Posterity has a way of deciding such things for itself, with no regard for what its ancestors predicted.