Thirty people, randomly selected, were stopped in the street and asked to name three composers of classical music. The three names which were most commonly suggested were Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss (which one was not specified). Another thirty people, randomly selected - possibly in a different street - were then given these three names and asked what they meant to the interviewees. The responses were, in order, a dog, a kind of chocolate and a brand of jeans.
Whether that story is apocryphal or actually true (I heard it related during a discussion among concert promoters) is beside the point; it seems entirely credible. We live in a society where fame is measured in monetary wealth and press coverage, not in individual achievement or enduring legacy. Composers may be famous names among music lovers, but unless their names are associated with individuals or products which have made lots of money and receive regular column inches in the popular press, they are ignored by the vast mass of population. Ask thirty people in the street who Englebert Humperdinck is, for example, and few will suggest the orchestrator of Parsifal or the composer of Hansel und Gretel. Instead they will refer to an aging crooner, who earns a lot of money and can afford his own personal PR consultant.
Mozart, for all the familiarity of his name, will never be famous in the minds of contemporary society not only because he is dead but, more particularly, because he was famously not rich. His claim to contemporary fame is further diminished by the fact that the PR people have mercilessly promoted a brand of chocolate which bears his name and has become a must-have souvenir for those who visit Salzburg. (As for the city of Mozart’s birth, this too has been taken over by the PR people to the extent that when I used to drive coach parties to Salzburg, the buzz was “This is where they filmed The Sound of Music”, rather than “This is the place where one of the greatest composers of all time was born”.)
It was the movie PR people who also hi-jacked Beethoven’s name, giving it to an utterly unbelievable fictional dog immortalised on a series of mind-numbingly banal films. The trouble is a dog is more media-friendly than a dead, deaf and demented composer. And the fact that one Strauss was, for a time, associated with Hitler and Nazi Party and another part of such a huge family that few can tell one from another, the name lacks the kind of bland accessibility it gets when it is stitched on to an elaborate leather label proudly displayed (along with waist and inside leg measurements) on a brand of jeans which happily avoids any hint of anti-Semitism by linking Strauss with an archetypically Jewish name.
Composers of classical music have rarely been wealthy and, even when they were (think Mendelssohn) lacked either the ability or the desire to manipulate the media to suit their own ends. They are, at best, peripheral figures, slightly weird in the minds of contemporary society in that they pursue careers which do not bring vast wealth and they pay no heed to their image. But there was one composer who bucked this stereotype. He was not only one of the richest men in Europe, but he also was an absolute master in manipulating the press. He it was, in the words of his biographer, who invented “the modern press conference with refreshments”. (As a journalist I’ve been to plenty of press conferences with refreshments and can tell you, they invariably work, leaving the assembled hacks feeling deeply enamoured of whoever has lavished such fine hospitality on them.) So who was this early model for the likes of, say, Richard Branson? The name was Jakob Beer.
How many readers of this blog will have heard of a German composer called Jakob Beer? Perhaps if I point out that he moved to Italy where, in a remarkably media-savvy bid to ingratiate himself with the Italian public , he changed his forename to Giacomo, some will hear bells ringing in their heads. And when I recount how he linked the last two of his names together and settled in Paris, then quite a few will recognise Giacomo Meyerbeer as a vaguely familiar name in the annals of opera. Organists will know of him only because Liszt used a melody from one of his operas in his greatest organ work, the Fantasia & Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, but I doubt whether concert-goers will know a note of his music.
So what went wrong? Why has a man, who by all the standards of contemporary society should be among the most famous composers of them all, been all but forgotten by all except a handful of aficionados of Grand Opera?
|The Most Famous Composer of All Time?|
Might there be some lesson to be learnt from Meyerbeer’s sorry demise?