‘Most composers know they will never be heard’

‘Most composers know they will never be heard’


norman lebrecht

March 19, 2021

From a thoughtful essay by Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College:

Most composers and performers know they will never be heard. The sounds come together in their heads, are painfully transcribed onto sheets of paper, and are left in an undisturbed pile. Over days and years, scales are practiced and melodies sent soaring to the ceilings of small rooms, but they never roam outside. Most of these sounds will not reach the ears of audiences. That is how music and the public mix: in a few distillate droplets, which, through Fortune’s blessing, escape the current that sweeps all things downstream toward oblivion. We tend to judge this a horrible waste, the frightening abyss of stymied possibility. If music is a cherished mode of communication, someone must listen, we think, or else the world is diminished and everyone in it. In our individualist age, we generalize: The world must listen to me, or I am no longer what I was meant to be.

But is this the case?….

One of my closest friends was the late David Yeagley, a remarkable classical composer and piano performer whose artistic career was partially derailed by his unpalatable political views, which he disseminated on a variety of reviled blogs. Recovering from three bouts of cancer before finally succumbing, he was unremitting in his creative energies, supporting himself with odd jobs, working as a group-home assistant, and managing a few desultory adjunct teaching posts….

Yeagley died in a deteriorating house in Oklahoma City, surrounded by boxes and boxes of his manuscripts—­quartets, masses, piano music, symphonies. It was an astonishing production, one that no one had seen and no one will hear. Along with these works, however, were piles of notebooks—Bible studies, commentaries, devotions, prayers. He had worked on these as well, all his life, meticulously, quietly, fervently, all of them destined for Another Ear.



  • J Barcelo says:

    What a sad tale…and likely all too common. Add to it the vast number of works written over the centuries that will never be performed again, and the number of new, commissioned works that have had their one and only performance. It must be tough for a composer (or any creative artist for that matter) to realize that your voice will never be heard.

  • John Rice says:

    Beautiful essay. “The Daughter of Dawn” (the silent film Radner refers to) appears to be accessible (at least for the time being) at https://mymedia.ou.edu/media/Daughter+of+Dawn%2C+The/0_xmrl4sjw

  • Peter Bogaert says:

    Most artists will vanish like that… and still we have Pessoa.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Great original talent is scarse. But the small talents are necessary to create the cultural climate and often they have something of value to say.

  • JH says:

    There is a bit of a problem in that many composers also compose music no one wants to listen to. Often when I’ve been to contemporary music concerts for what is usually the first and last performance of a piece the small audience is made up of other composers and students. Composers could try writing a good time every now and then – in truth that tends to be the music that lasts, is played again and again and people want to hear and enjoy. There is real skill to writing a melody and even in the quest for new sound worlds undertaken by composers the emotional, intellectual and just plain enjoyable power of melody shouldn’t be forgotten. As it too often is so too are the works that didn’t consider it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Concepts like melody, expression, communication with an audience, have gone out of fashion with the new music establishment, due to intellectualisation and the general cultural 20C cultural erosion, and the wide-spread erosion of sensitivity.

      But there is an ‘underground’ of composers who kept the flame burning, and they are ignored not by audiences but by the establishments of orchestras, promotors, etc. – and denigrated by academia.


      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Yes, you are right, but I am not sure about using the term “intellectualisation” as a descriptive term of 20-21C avant-garde, and as a reason for alienating the audiences (it was surely true of Webbern, and Schönberg).

        • John Borstlap says:

          ‘Intellectualisation’ in the sense of making ideas central to writing, not a musical sensitivity or vision.

          And then, there were also COMPOSERS who rather avoided to hear their own music, like Schoenberg who complained in the thirties that hearing his own music made him depressed, and Sorabji who forbade performance of his scores.

  • Couperin says:

    Just for everyone’s enlightenment,
    here’s what the late Yeagley had to say about one of his heroes, terrorist Anders Breivik:
    “In Breivik’s passion one does hear the distant thunder of the great Norwegian warrior, Bodvar Bjarki. Ah, that was a day when war was honorable, when destroying the enemy was noble and heroic. Today, The white oedipal liberals in charge of the world teach that to resist the enemy is unkind and bad. In the instinct of latent homosexuality, the white leaders proclaim the darkies triumphant, and make every arrangement to allow them to bury all things white and descent–particularly Christianity. The whole ‘open door’ policy which allows murderous, barbarous Islam to enter and destroy any nation is the perfect expression of the “delusional” white liberals.”

    In addition to being a Islamophobe, he was also a good ol’ American racist too!

    Now, what does this have to do with his music? Absolutely nothing, but it might help explain why nobody cared about it and all nobody played it. Also, it’s not very interesting; check it out for yourself:
    It sounds like Dances with Wolves meets Bernstein’s flute concerto “Halil”.. which is actually really funny because I wonder if Yeagley hated them Jews too??

    • Larry D. says:

      Thank you for making it clear what vile stuff “unpalatable” above actually refers to. Sadly, I suspect that many posters on this site would not find it very unpalatable at all.

    • Patricia says:

      He has a point about murderers and thugs coming into one’s country. And it is possible that his music isn’t up to much.

    • V.Lind says:

      Thanks, Couperin. This guy was no hero. “The darkies?” Crikey. Heroising Anders Breivig for shooting up a group of of young people camping because of his “passion”? Twisted, man. I don’t care if his music was as good as Mozart’s.

    • AnnaT says:

      That is truly horrifying.

  • Tom Moore says:

    This is a gross exaggeration. Most composers write works knowing who will premiere them and when.

  • Terence says:

    The full article is well worth reading – very thoughtful.

  • Alexander T says:

    YouTube is changing all of this.

  • caranome says:

    I’m mystified by this: in this modern age the level n availability of professional training is at an all-time high, so are the people who engage in it ; the technology that provides creativity and access to all music is ubiquitous worldwide, n academic analysis n theory is more abundant than ever, n we have so much great music to set great examples, so why is 99% of “new music” unlistenable n doesn’t merit a hearing at all or after one performance?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Good points. I have wonderd that myself as well very often. Conclusion: it’s a cultural thing, not a matter of availability and accessibility. If you really want to know, read my book.

      But also: the spirit blows where it will and it doesn’t care a damn about technology, society, or the internet.

    • Inaustria says:

      I think because many composers think that it is a sign of the times to write dissonant, ugly music, that a beautiful melody is trite and
      and saccharine . A friend of mine summed it up when listening to a “modern” piece that I had been hired to record: “that music makes me itch!”

      • John Borstlap says:

        One of the problems is that there is a great difference between trite and sacharine melodic writing and a truly beautiful, pure melodic writing. To find the latter is not a matter of talent but of personality. Compare the theme of the slow movement of Brahms’ 2nd piano concerto (the famous cello solo) with the unbearable 2nd theme of the 1st mvt of Tchakovsky’s 6th symphony which destroys the incisive seriousness of the 1st theme.

        20C ‘dissonant composers’ did not react to the Brahms variety but to the Tchaikovsky type, which was felt as false sentimentality. But then, any melodiousness got suspect, and the very notion of beauty itself.

    • Adista says:

      It’s because they’re not writing for musicians or audiences, they’re writing for university committees that can give them jobs. Universities are the new patrons, and these composers write whatever they think will get employment and hopefully tenure. Whether that makes them sellouts is a question I’ll leave alone.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But what would happen if, say in a little fisher town like Houston, a talent like Beethoven would be born? When he would get – after great efforts and difficulties – into the local music faculty, he would have the choice: either follow the usual trajectory or be in the streets and find a ‘normal’ job. In the latter case, he would have to try – later in life – to interest performers on his own accord, without the conventional backing, and would fail because he would be seen as an ‘amateur’.

        • AnnaT says:

          Houston is the 4th-largest city in the US, with a truly fantastic arts scene, including plenty of ensembles that would be happy to commission and perform your imaginary latter-day Beethoven. Maybe stick to kvetching about the downfall of tonality.

  • fierywoman says:

    Could someone please at least put his music on IMSLP?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The act of creating, on whatever level and with whatever intention, is a thing in itself. People who are truly gifted to write music and want to be heard, necessarily spend 80% of the total efforts on things that have nothing to do with music. The dynamics that are in place in music life however, carefully select the nonsense that is brought to the attention of audiences.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I think the same applies to artists who paint pictures no-one will see and novelists who write books no-one will read. Only a fraction of arts find their way to general population.

  • JH says:

    A ‘good tune’ rather…

  • Jack says:

    It’s a good essay. Thanks for linking, Norman.

  • Alan says:

    Sadly not very much online and the Wikipedia link to his website fails.

  • Monty Earleman says:


  • Bass One says:

    hile the BBC Phil exists, much rubbish will receive at least one hearing.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It is interesting to read Arthur Honegger’s book “I am a Composer” because even then (1951) he was making the same dour statements about the fate of a composer and the chances of hearing his music played, or played and appreciated. And he had fewer reasons to complain than many.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The most important line:

      “It’s not that the entire generation wants to be famous, they think not being famous isn’t fair.”

  • Alexander T says:

    A crackpot who supported Anders Breivik and the killing of dozens of innocent Norwegians, and a composer whose music, based on what little is available, is nothing to write home about.
    Why is he even being mentioned?

  • Sharon says:

    One of my hobbies is reading biography and one of the things that I have come across again and again, whether the subject is in the arts, music, business or politics, that it’s not “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” but instead “It’s what you know AND who you know” that is the key to success.

    Again and again and again I’ve found that success and fame come to those who, at least throughout their youth and young adulthood, and frequently throughout their lives, stay very hard working AND VERY focused in their profession, and show up wherever they can. Eventually someone in a position of power and influence notices his/her worth and promotes or gives them access to positions where they can be heard and successful. That is, she/he “gets a break”.

    Will this inevitably happen to all hardworking talented people? Of course not. A lot of it IS just plain luck. It DOES help to start with at least some money and connections.

    I suspect that this is the hope of many teachers and mentors in many fields. Although the teacher may not have received the attention or recognition that he/she deserves, he/she may hope that the person who stands on his/her shoulders will be recognized and valued.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is much too easy. To begin with, biography does not mean very much in itself since historical environments change all the time. And then, there is a cultural paradigm in place, which also changes over time. And then, it is often the outsider, the man (sorry ladies) who distances himself from the current paradigm and follows his own intuition which appears to be the most talented, has the strongest impact, and unrelated to his wish to ‘get successful’. General ‘rules’ are impossible to draw from historical evidence. Look at Berlioz who tried fanatically to be heard in Paris, got heard through his own efforts, and was not accepted because being too odd in relation to the cultural climate at the place. Or Wagner’s later work from his isolated position in Zwitserland where he wrote Tristan which was seen as totally crazy until the end of the century. Or Debussy who never wanted the fame and controversies which came his way. On top of all of this, the 20th century shows a fundamentally different cultural climate where all dynamics from before 1900 ceased to operate.