When it comes to music legacy, it is difficult to foresee the future. A few days ago, Jeff Slate declared for NBC News that Paul Simon will only be a footnote in music history and that ‘anyone but the Beatles and Bob Dylan will be worth more than a passing mention.’ I thought it was a completely aberrant thing to say, but we have to wonder, is history this forgetful? Can we predict music legacy based on what we have observed in the past?
This very exhaustive website lists more than 19 000 classical composers and I obviously don’t know half of them or even a hundredth of them, many names are part of popular culture. When it comes to classical music, the last centuries are filled with hundreds of composers who left a body of work but didn’t leave a legacy powerful enough to be remembered by common people.
For example, 182 composers are listed under the genre ‘classical’ (1730-1820), an era sandwiched between the baroque period and the romantic period, but out of this classic period, I can say that I only know 5 (2.7%) of them: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and maybe Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), but only because I saw the movie (Amadeus)
From the more ancient Baroque era (1600-1750), 228 composers are listed, and I would say that only 10 of them (4.4%) are familiar to various degrees: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), François Couperin (1668-1733), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751).
The 1800s, or the romantic period, was a very prolific one and 473 composers are listed, but I would say that only 31 of them (6.5%) made a name for themselves (to me): Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Gaetano Donizetti (177-1848), Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), Erik Satie (1866-1925), Charles Gounod (1818-1893), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), Clara Schumann (1819-1896).
This is somewhat subjective as someone with more knowledge in classical music will certainly recognizable many more names – you can try by yourself – but I am talking about the most popular musicians, the ones who made it in the popular culture, and I am not even sure all these names would qualify.
974 classical composers are listed for the 20th century era, and once again, I would only claim to know 21 of them (2.2%): Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Richard Strauss (1866-1949), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Hans Zimmer (1958-), Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Philip Glass (1937-), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Carl Orff (1895-1982), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).
Can we see a trend? Overall, 3.6% of all composers who have composed music between 1600 and the present times are household names and if I take the most successful period, the glorious 19th century, we would reach 6.5%, but this is still a very modest proportion, but not a negligible list.
This Wikipedia page gives a somewhat exhaustive list of all the singer-songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and you can once again recognize familiar names and less familiar names: there are 1010 of them. Thus, if history follows the same rule, can we expect that between 3% to 6% of them will still be well known in 2 centuries, so approximately between 30 and 60 of them. We are far from ‘anyone but the Beatles and Bob Dylan will be worth more than a passing mention.’ We can expect history to be much kinder than this.
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