Music by numbers: The Met and American Orchestras

A couple of superb visualizations of classical music data have been posted in the last couple of weeks. The first, Orchestra Season by the Numbers by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, looks at upcoming performances by major U.S. orchestras. The second, 10 Graphs To Explain The Metropolitan Opera, by Suby Raman, looks at the history of the New York Met. Both are excellent, and worth your time. 

Some interesting parallels between the two studies.

Age of composition

The BSO’s Ricky O’Bannon writes:

The average date of composition of a piece performed during the year is 1886.

And Raman:

If we look at the median year of composition, we can see that it has barely budged in the last century. You’re more or less going to see an opera written around 1870 if you randomly drop by the Met.1

In other words, as Raman points out, the longer the Met has been in existence, the further from contemporary the average opera performance has been.

The way I see it, there’s a divide in classical music listeners today.2 Some people want mainly to listen to the old masters—composers of the 18th and 19th centuries—to familiar works, or at least familiar harmonic landscapes. That’s a wonderful thing, and although those audiences may be small, they’re reliable, and they’re the best people to advise you, say, on which recording of Prokofiev’s toccata to get.3

But how much can that audience grow?

The second group are more interested in music by living composers. There are probably more composers living and working now than at any other time in history. Very few of them are guaranteed money spinners on a par with Beethoven or Mozart, but where there is risk there is often also reward. Fans and composers of contemporary music are underserved by establishments like the Met, and contemporary music has the most potential to grow audiences for art music generally. And while contemporary music can be challenging, it can also be surprising.4

Female composers

From the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the bad:

Female composers account for only 1.8% of the works performed.

From the Met, the very bad:

[T]he Met has produced one opera by a female composer: Dame Ethel Smythe’s Der Wald, performed twice in 1903.

The Met hasn’t produced any works by a female composer for a hundred and twelve years. Out of around 24,000 performances, two have been of works by women. Raman’s graph is a flatline.5

Again, though, this problem could be addressed by shifting the balance to more contemporary work. O’Bannon highlights this:

When only looking at works from living composers, [women] account for 14.8%[.]

So it wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it would address it.

Equally, it seems extraordinary that—of all nationalities—American companies spend so much time and energy on non-American productions. O’Bannon’s numbers for upcoming orchestral performances of American composers is just 11% of all works performed, but 54% of works by living composers.6

As a lover of contemporary music, nothing would give me more joy than to see a major, established orchestra take on, say, a full season of concerts focussing mainly on living composers. There will always be an audience for Beethoven, just as there will always be an audience for Shakespeare; just as people will always enter the Louvre and beeline straight for the Mona Lisa. But I’d like to see new music for new audiences. The fact that it would have positive side-effects on diversity is just a bonus.

1 Interestingly, both the high and low points on that graph, 1849 and 1888, have occurred in the last 30 years.

2 There’s an enormous overlap too—I’m deliberately oversimplifying.

3 Argerich’s, on her Début Recital. No contest.

4 A few years ago, after a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland of a gorgeous piece by Rautavaara, an audience member turned to me and said, “Well, that was an unexpected treat.”

5 Apologies for the repetition, but I really find this astonishing.

6 To save grief for American readers, I won’t mention the Met’s numbers. They’re on Raman’s page, should you wish to see them.

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