Why composers get silenced when they die

Why composers get silenced when they die


norman lebrecht

July 10, 2020

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

It is a grim fact of musical life that, when a composer dies, his music goes into limbo for at least ten years. In that time, music directors and programmers shove the complete oeuvre into a drawer and wait, they say, for the reputation to settle. For a few lucky composers, a decade passes and there is a revival. For the others, just silence.

The French composer Henri Dutilleux died in May 2013 at the age of 97. All his life Dutilleux struggled to make himself heard …

Read on here.

And here.

And here (in Czech)

And in Spanish


  • Fenway says:

    I sincerely hope the music of Christopher Rouse is continued to be performed as soon as performing is actually possible.

  • Bill Ecker says:

    I am deeply involved in this area as a specialist in the appraisal of composer’s estates and consultant afterwards in perpetuating their legacies. Sometimes composers are forgotten and sometimes not. Without naming names, I can think of multiple instances where the composers music was heard more readily after their deaths than for the year leading up to their deaths, first with memorial concerts and then continued performances after that. In many cases composers who were older were not pushing their works, had let go of their publicists, their family did not care and their champions who had pushed their works in their lifetimes had either died or were quite old at the time. Sometimes their music has gone out of fashion. The composers who continue to be heard after their deaths are the ones who find younger champions to perform their work and properly arrange their estates to perpetuate their legacies. Many do not have the foresight of the drive to think of this in advance.

    I also work with estates on resurrecting composers after their death and have been successful in multiple instances. As I said in the first paragraph a composer always has to have champions to perpetuate their work. Sometimes it takes awhile when the family doesn’t step up to see to their legacy and that involves relationships which many do not have. Did they hire a firm to perpetuate their legacy if they are incapable of doing it themselves? Most family members are happy to take the cash that is there and run and do not look for continued royalties through performances and recordings. Later when they see the royalties trickle in, they suddenly wake up. Charles Ives is an example of a composer who was not well performed in his lifetime, found champions later on and today is well performed. Gustav Mahler’s music suffered during two World Wars, but found champions in Mitropoulos and Bernstein first and they helped their music to spread. Expecting a composers work to be performed after their death without help is a pipe dream and rarely happens.

    Stating that in every or even most instances that is the case, is incorrect for the reasons I state above.

    • hermannzegerman says:

      This must be fascinating work, would love to hear more.

      • Bill Ecker says:

        Unfortunately due to the sensitivity of what I do, I can’t publish names. I literally could write a rather thick book and I trust me, I have amazing stories. The coolest thing is holding in my hands the manuscripts of works we all know and seeing the fine details, edits and changes. But better yet are insurance appraisals to safeguard their archives when the composers are alive and having the opportunity to actually work with them on their own libraries. But nothing gives me more satisfaction than to help a family continue the composer’s legacy, which is why I thought it important to write the few paragraphs above. It should not be up to the musicologists to dig out neglected works a decade after they are gone. This can be avoided entirely. I work with one of the top music intellectual property attorneys in the world on many of the appraisals I write. He and I were planning a lecture series around the country to help composers plan their estates so things are easier for the family after their demise and so that their legacies are perpetuated. Then came covid, so we will be doing those I hope as soon as it is feasible and safe to do so.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      That obviously costs a lot of money, and what composers have that? Who has a publicist? I’m sure you’re not a volunteer.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is the performers who keep music alive, during or after a composer’s death, and not family, or specialists in composers’ estates, or agencies, or state subsidy programs, or musicologists’ efforts. Many careers of composers who appear to do well during their life time, are kept on the rails artificially, and/or by circumstance or fahion. But such factors can never compensate for lack of musical content, and they are quickly forgotten. Occasionally their work is dug-up again, but it has to offer enough meaning to stand comparison with the best – at least to some extent – to get a second survival chance (Salieri, Raff, Scriabine).

      To take a striking 20C example – the period of heavy state-supported and artificial modernism indoctrination: why had Arvo Pärt become so popular, in spite of his music being so ‘awkward’ and ‘crazy’ in the context of the seventies and eighties? Because the music was discovered, by chance, by performers, who stuck-out their neck. They sensed there was ‘something’ in these almost empty scores, and they were right, it has musical meaning. It was not fashion, estate specialists, or state subsidy programs which made Pärt’s career, but the input of performers and a direct response by audiences. The rest followed naturally from all of that.

      • Bill Ecker says:

        John, you are exactly wrong. Part, by the way is still with us, so using him as an example is premature. Why don’t you read through what I had to say again. I deal with this regularly and the facts are the facts. Not a lot of gray area. As I clearly said, it generally boils down to how the composer sets up his estate and typically it is the family whether blood, or married into, who perpetuate the legacy. They are the ones who generally earn the royalties for several generations after they are gone. I can think of one major American composer who left his estate to his partner who proceeded to screw it up via greed and his works are currently not performed as he holds the intellectual property. As I also clearly said in answer to your point earlier, it depends upon whether the composer finds younger performers to perpetuate their works as well. Many older composers lose their performers to retirement and death and by the time they leave this world. Also, if the composer is not constantly in the younger performers ear and keeping their music new and fresh, the younger performers in most cases move on. It’s a rare young performer who keeps a modern work in their repertoire their entire performing career, though occasionally it happens.

        Also, when an archive is also left to an institution along with the intellectual property it generally is the kiss of death. At that point it does become a musicologist’s responsibility to re-examine a composer’s work if they are lucky.

        In answer to another post, well known composers are not as poor as you think. Certainly some are, but many are not starving artists. I’ve seen some who in addition to their music invest well, their spouse may have done well. Many conduct, or perform, so they have multiple revenue streams. That said, not all composers estates are taxable. Not all composer’s estates are valuable. There of course are lots of variables. If a family chooses to donate the archive to an institution and take a tax write-off, there has to be an appraisal and there are very few in this country who can do it, it is a niche specialty. I turn down estates regularly if it is not a win-win, but this is my profession and like you who are in your own professions you earn a living. I also regularly do insurance appraisals as I stated before for valuable composer archives, so if there is a fire, flood, or other natural disaster, or theft, they are covered. Insurance companies need an accurate appraisal of what they will be insuring. An original working manuscript and working edits for later editions is worth far more than a fair copy in the marketplace and can never be replaced.

        So as I said from the outset, it is generally interested family that own the intellectual property who perpetuate the legacy, whether is it a spouse, partner, children, or grandchildren. Without them, the music in most cases dies along with the composer. Counting on performers to perpetuate the legacy is a pipe dream.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Bypassing the music itself through artifical means is, I think, in the long run, the real pipe dream here. So much effort is invested in music which does not quite deserve it, also while the composer is still alive and kicking. And then: considering what happened in the field in the last century – does that not count? The art form (in terms of new music) saw the greatest upheavel and disruption ever, from which it will be difficult to recover, and combined with the coronian disruption of concert life today its future is fragile, to say the least.

          In other words: underneath appearances there is an artistic crisis going-on already for decennia which has more impact than the mentioned efforts concerning estates.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        There’s more than one route to posthumous fame, and to fame while still alive (your Pärt example). The existence of one doesn’t make another route impossible or invalid.

    • John McLaughlin Williams says:

      I have some experience in this as well and you’ve described it very well. A composer who hasn’t fared so well is Vittorio Giannini; his family put almost everything in a bank vault from which it is difficult to obtain the material. Only the works that had good publishers have survived to be performed with some frequency, such as the Symphony No.3 for Band. Bill, maybe there’s a job for you here.

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      This is a true testament of the post-life of a composer’s legacy.

  • hermannzegerman says:

    NL tries to make it sound like Ainsi was has hardly been recorded, but look at the evidence across major and smaller labels, the vast majority before Dut died. If you don’t reference the catalogue accurately in reviews, how can you place the recording at hand in the context of its rivals?

    Via Nova Quartet– Erato Records (1982)
    Sine Nomine Quartet– Erato (1991)
    Ludwig Quartet– Timpani (1991)
    Juilliard String Quartet – Sony (1992)
    Arditti String Quartet – Naive (1993)
    Petersen Quartett – Capriccio (1994)
    Ortys Quartet – Mis (1999)
    Belcea Quartet – EMI Classics (2000)
    Rosamonde Quartet – Arion (2005)
    Orpheus String Quartet – Channel Classics (2007)
    Arcanto Quartet – Harmonia Mundi (2010)
    Quatuor Hermes – La Dolce Volta (2018)

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I make no such suggestion. I wrote that since he died the music has gone silent.

        • Bill Ecker says:

          You just did something very smart. Most major music publishers have a performance database for their works. Boosey and Music Sales can be spotty on older performances, but recent performances of the composers within their stables are generally quite up to date. Future performances are also logged, but right now with covid, some planned performances obviously will not be taking place.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Indeed. Hermannzegerman’s list rather reinforces your argument, with recordings coming at a brisk pace during Dutillieux’s life, and then an eight-year caesura spanning his very last years and the half-decade since his passing.

        However, the mentions of live concerts others have linked to suggests that his music hasn’t really been consigned to temporary oblivion. It would be interesting to compile more complete statistics, for a number of composers, to see if the impression of a postmortem period of neglect is accurate or not.

      • Anarhimik says:

        Not in the Netherlands where he is a frequent guest! Just this season I’ve heard both concertos, Metaboles, The Shadows of Time. Also his early ballet Le Loup was scheduled before Corona put an end to the concert life. In the next season, we have both his Second symphony and Correspondances. I’d say not too bad!

      • Just saying says:

        Absolutes make for catchy headers, but in reality he turns up fairly often in live performance. As noted above, his 2016 centenary brought a number of homages that season. Métaboles, Correspondances, Ainsi la nuit, and Tout un monde lointain appear pretty regularly on concert programs (I can think of at least a dozen cellists who have that last piece in their repertoire). It might be unusual to hear a work other than those four, but that’s skew, not silence.

    • Montebello says:

      Schoenberg Quartet- Koch Schwann 1994/ Etcetera 2009

  • John Borstlap says:

    A fine review and an assessment of Dutilleux with which I wholeheartedly agree. Most of his music is simply beautiful, and very personal.

    “Dutilleux’s music, while modern in its disavowal of melody, is rooted in organic reality in ways that Boulez could not achieve and Messiaen merely simulated. There is a case to be made that Dutilleux is the most important French composer of the second half of the 20th century – there, I’ve said it.”

    I’m convinced that is true, but why is that so? Dutilleux never gave-up the dynamics of tonality, however indirectly treated. There is continuity in his music, and a musical narrative, there are structural articulation points, in short: the music ‘travels’ from one perspective to the next, using the relationships between the notes. On the surface it is all colourful and dissonant and ‘strange’, but under the surface a traditional mind is at work: therefore, listeners developed upon classical, tonal music feel the connections and can ‘follow’ the narrative and feel the expressive intent. Covered by a modern-sounding surface, he continued the French musical tradition, where Messiaen and Boulez left it and created something different.

    It must be said however that Messiaen created a wonderful oeuvre for the organ in the interbellum, also still within the French tradition. After WW II, being broken by his internment in a German camp and the insanity of his first wife, he went to the birds, which offered him a mental space far removed from a disappointing and threatening humanity.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    In French, this is called “purgatoire”: a lull in popularity after an artist’s death. It doesn’t always happen. Shostakovich
    doesn’t seem to have experienced this fate. Nor Britten. This “purgatory” implies a possible renewed popularity in the future. Dutilleux is a fine composer, but his music is maybe not as distinctive as, say, Messiaen.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    I’m still saddened at the relative lack of any coverage/mention for the death of Kapustin. :/

  • RW2013 says:

    Tout un monde lointain…has had it’s share of outings over the years by my various local orchestras.

  • MacroV says:

    Dutilleux seems to have fared better than others. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony released 5-6 years ago several terrific recordings his works, including Tout un Monde, l”Arbe, Shadows of Time, the two symphonies, and other pieces. Tout un Monde is pretty much standard cello rep now. I love his music, too. Or admire it, at least.

  • Grittenhouse says:

    Dutilleux, for some reason, got picked up by major American Symphony Orchestras, despite the lack of appeal in much of his music.
    In the case of Nicolai Berezowsky, who was very successful and popular in his lifetime, once he died, Aaron Copland and his cohort prevented any more performances of his music because he wasn’t a native-born American. And so his music disappeared from concerts, nearly completely, despite being of fine quality. In other words, politics. If you don’t have a publisher, widow or society that will preserve your legacy, you are toast.

  • Philip says:

    One significant exception to the usual rule was Shostakovich. The publication in 1979, just four years after his death, of the disputed Volkov book ‘Testimony’ and the ensuing controversy, ensured a surge of performances and recordings of Shostakovich’s music that shows no signs of abating even now.

  • Glen Wilson says:

    At least he had plenty of commissions. When he praised my work after a performance of one of his pieces, I got up my moxie and asked if he would write a work for solo harpsichord for me. He said he was sorry, but he had too many commitments waiting already.

  • PHF says:

    If a composer is concerned to get listened, should go commercial.

  • fflambeau says:

    I like the introductory comments. I know nothing about this composer.

  • Graham says:

    I am going to be even more audacious. I think Dutilleux is the greatest ever French composer.

  • Novagerio says:

    Métaboles, Timbres – espace – mouvement aswell as his Concertos L’arbre des songes and Tout un monde lointain and the Shadows of Time are certainly an immortal part of the concert repertoire within the Classics of Modernism, and they are well-documented on various recordings.
    Dutilleux forgotten? André Jolivet, Jean Françaix and Charles Koechlin seem far more “forgotten” to me…

    • Peter San Diego says:

      And Roussel, and…

      • Novagerio says:

        As Mr.Broucek points out, Naxos has fabulous Roussel stuff in terrific sound from Atlanta, aswell as most of Dutilleux’ classics with different orchestras.

    • MacroV says:

      You may be right. I certainly don’t understand about Francaix; his music always delightful. Though pieces for winds, especially his wind quintets (the first one certainly), are standard rep, and his clarinet concerto – which I never heard growing up – has a lot of recordings, and lots of performances on Youtube.

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    I would suggest a pretty steady stream of recent recordings of his music – especially the lovely Cello Concerto. And a fantastic set of all his orchestral works from the Seattle Symphony. You can even get both of his symphonies on Naxos!

  • James says:

    Some composers are silenced when they live

  • Lachera says:

    Obviously dead composers can no more promote their music; the music has to walk on its own legs, so to say. Good pieces will stay, pieces written only to match commissions are more likely to get lost.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What are these legs? Inner substance instead of the wrapping. But much 20C music is wrapping.

  • William Safford says:

    It can be problematic when the composer disowns his own works, for example the Sarabande et Cortege.