2022/2023 Season Post V: Works by Living Composers

[This year I collected and analyzed the subscription concert programming for 51 orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. This is a pretty big expansion from my effort last year when I just looked at the ‘top’ 19 orchestras in the U.S. You can see last year’s posts here and here.]

Recently in the Twitterverse I got into a couple of different discussions with people who were opining about the dearth of works by living composers in orchestral programming. In each case I did some quick number crunching and presented some numbers that gave all of us pause. When I count strictly the number of works being performed, living composers make up almost 25% of all works programmed. That seems kind of promising, but there is at least one huge caveat.

Length does matter

The length of the pieces being programmed leans heavily in favor of the dead guys. In a typical North American configuration, most concerts programmed look like this:

Opener – c. 3 to 15 minutes
Concerto – c. 15 to 35 minutes
Symphony – c. 30 to 60 minutes

This is one of the reasons why I keep track of program order. It serves as a proxy for length of a piece. (I should note that two days ago, on a long walk through my parents’ neighborhood, in the blistering heat, at six in the morning, I thought, hey, why not just look up the durations for all 2,236 works in my data set, how long can that take? I got as far as Beethoven when I decided to stop. Finding durations for works by living composers was really time consuming and in some cases impossible.) So anyhoo, program order matters. Grabbing a shot of four orchestras on a given weekend in Sept/Oct we see the following that illustrates what is typical:

You will notice that none of the living composers make it into the coveted third position, three of them are relegated to the opening spot, and one of them makes it into the concerto slot. Of course this isn’t always the case, but it is pretty typical.

Out of the works by living composers, over 53% are in the number one spot, with 30% in the second spot, and 12% in the third spot. And for those of you who know math, that leaves 5% in the 4th or 5th position which tend to drop down in duration to the 15-20 minute category. (And I swear, concerts with four or more pieces always seem to include Bolero or some such.)

The Deads

Given the vast difference in stage time between the living and dead its almost useless to continue to count number of pieces, but that won’t stop me. If we look at that total number of pieces by living composers, 543, it only takes the top six deads to total more than all the living composers combined.

Mozart 124
Beethoven 114
Tchaikovsky 84
Rachmaninoff 82
Ravel 82
Brahms 79
TOTAL 565 pieces

And before someone out there starts to say that I’m trying to cancel Beethoven, piss off, no one is saying that. Now Mozart? I wouldn’t mind cancelling him. ;)

One thought on “2022/2023 Season Post V: Works by Living Composers

  1. Liz Dexter September 12, 2022 / 3:59 pm

    Such hard work, I do admire you! How are you doing?


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