Death at a Funeral March

We’ve all heard the stories, but how likely is an audience death during a concert?

Well, listen closely.

According to the UK Office for National Statistics the fashionable mortality rates (for 2010) are roughly as follows:

Although the number of deaths are well recorded, we do have to be selective and take into account the fact that only ‘sudden non-accidental deaths’ are likely to occur within the gentile confines of the concert hall; thus ruling out things like homicide and bear-maulings. Also nothing that would have prevented a person going from the concert hall in the first place.

With my decidedly non-medical opinion I made use of this handy mortality statistics graph to work out that there are around 133963 potentially ‘sudden non-accidental’ (hereafter referred to as ‘sudden’) deaths each year (well…2009 and in the UK). Thus accounting for about 27.264% of all deaths.

Next we have to make an assumption that these are spread evenly across all age groups because I am unashamedly lazy. Having achieved this, we can work out the probable numbers of sudden death for each age group. We get this:

Actual figures are a bit fuzzy for accurate age-demographics so let’s approximate and say it was equal (6264100 people each) except for the 80+ group which is significantly less – let’s guess half as populous (3132050 people each). Now we can say the average likelihood of someone dying in a given year:

…and in a given hour in that year:

(For example, if you have 47662 men over age 80 in a room for an hour, one of them will die of sudden causes.)

Now in terms of the average concert age there is obviously much variation, but generally there seems to be a vague consensus that the median age of classical concert audiences is over 50, with a 10-year study of classical radio showing listeners have a median age over 65. For this study I will assume that 60 is the average age and that half any given audience will be in these higher risk categories.

So in an audience of 1000 watching a concert of an hour, here are your mortality statistics (last table I promise!)

Ergo(!) there is 0.5349% chance (roughly one in 200) that for every thousand people per hour at a classical concert, there will be someone in the audience who does not applaud at the end.

I can see you there, you know

 

Thank you for bearing with me! Now for some fun facts 😀

  • If you assume that everyone at your concert is over 60 and half are over 80, there is a 2.6468% chance of fatality! (1 in 38 concerts).
  • If a 1000-people strong concert contained something appropriate like the Chopin Piano Sonata No.2 there is a 0.0007429% chance that someone will die in the 5 seconds of silence before the famous funeral march. (1 in 134607 concerts)
  • Similarly, the odds of that person being the pianist (if they are under 60) are 1 in 112.700 trillion.
  • Assuming the performers are under 60, the odds of any performer dying during a concert is roughly 1 in every 156.5 billion. Musicians dying on stage thusly has happened before; it’s not as unlikely as you might think given that there are now a lot of musicians in the world and each of them putting in a lot of performance hours.
  • In Pablo Casal’s questionable* autobiography he mentions an orchestra in the Caucasus Mountains in the Soviet Union made up ENTIRELY of male members over 100 years of age. In the UK over 90s are currently 11% of the over 80 population according to the Office for National Statistics. According to a very approximate regression from this data, it seems that over 100’s die at a rate of 10% a year (1 every 876.6 hours). Therefore, in this 70-piece, 100+ Aged orchestra, 1 in every 125 concerts would experience a musician fatality.
  • Alternately, in their rehearsals (if they were weekly and two hours long) it would happen about once a year.

So there you have it. Highly inaccurate statistics but at least you get a rough idea.

I salute your perseverance!

* I say questionable about Casals’ autobiography because, like Grizzly Man, you read/watch the story and end up liking him less and less, realising that here is a person who doesn’t realise that they are fundamentally unreasonable, and in this case, a massive diva. If you don’t believe me the whole thing is here. Or one particular excerpt where he refuses to play because the conductor doesn’t like the music and then drags Debussy into the argument and finds himself isolated in his opinion:

The conductor, Gabriel Pierne, and I had agreed some weeks previously that I would play the Dvorak concerto. Shortly before the rehearsal was to start, Pierne came to my dressing room to go over the score and discuss my approach to the work. Something in his manner struck me as odd-he seemed almost uninterested in what we were discussing, but I thought he was probably preoccupied with other matters. Then, all at once, he tossed the score down and exclaimed with a grimace, “What a ghastly piece of music!” I thought at first he was being facetious-I couldn’t imagine his really meaning such a thing. He was, after all, a composer himself who had studied under Massenet and Cesar Franck. But he added, “It’s hardly worth playing. It’s not really music at all.” He said it in such a way that there was no doubting he was serious.

I stared at him incredulously. “Are you out of your mind?” I said. “How can you talk that way about such a magnificent work?” Didn’t he know, I asked, that Brahms considered it a classic and said he himself would have composed a concerto for the cello if he’d known such effects were possible?

Pierne shrugged. “What of it? Was Brahms infallible? You’re enough of a musician to know how bad the music is.”

I was almost speechless with anger. “If that’s the way you feel about the work,” I said, “then you’re clearly not capable of conducting it. Since I happen to love the music, I couldn’t take part in its desecration. And I won’t. I refuse to play.”

Members of the orchestra began pressing around us. Someone said the hall was full, and it was time to go onstage. Pierne told me, “Well, we have no choice. You’ll have to play.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “I’m going home.”

Pierne rushed onstage. He stood there with his hands raised, his hair and beard disheveled. He declared dramatically, “Pablo Casals refuses to play for us today!”

A great commotion broke out in the hall. I wanted to explain what had happened, but I couldn’t make myself heard above the din. People started crowding onto the stage, arguing and protesting that they had paid for their tickets. I caught sight of the composer Claude Debussy standing nearby. I told him about the situation. “Ask Debussy,” I said to Pierne, “if he thinks any artist could perform under the circumstances.”

To my astonishment, Debussy shrugged and said, “If you really wanted to play, you could.”

I replied, “That may be your opinion, Monsieur Debussy, but I can tell you I haven’t the slightest intention of doing so.”

I got my things together and left the hall.

Profound.** Also, his highly unimaginative composition as a 20th century musician is of a level of classical inanity even Haydn would have turned his nose up at.

**I do not mean profound at all.

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On Listing Things except Sharks

Dear Reader,

I started this article quite some time ago but it got too ranty so I abandoned the idea and it joined the ranks of unpublished posts which tend to either be extremely short/blank or excessively long. Upon re-reading it recently I thought it did have a degree of merit, so attempted to streamline it to cater to your probably fickle attitudes and laughable attention spans. 😛

PART 1: The Survey

Detroit Apparently. Lions.

I should be off doing other things. Pressing things. But instead happened to happen upon this list. JUST CLICK ON THE DAMN LINK TO SEE WHAT IT IS I’M TALKING ABOUT, OH NEVER MIND YOU IGNORED IT ANYWAY. OK FINE. BUT YOU KNOW WORDPRESS RECORDS OUTBOUND LINKS SO IF YOU DO READ THIS POST AND YOU DON’T READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE I CAN TELL AND I DO IN FACT JUDGE YOU, THE READER. by Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times on the top 10 greatest classical composers of all time.

Upon reading I felt heavily depressed and refused to recycle for several days. They were:

  • Bach
  • Beethoven
  • Mozart
  • Schubert
  • Debussy
  • Stravinsky
  • Brahms
  • Verdi
  • Wagner
  • Bartok

It seems in choosing such a list Tommasini merely looked at whoever had the longest articles in any standard ‘Who’s Who of Composers’ book. His justifications are often misinformed and rather perversely he states:

“I think what I was up to was more precisely nailed by a reader who said that I placed a high value on ‘innovation.’ … Take Debussy, for example. He may not have written that many works, but he changed how music was thought of. He said, in effect, ‘Here is another way to organize time, to make harmony, to conceive color.'”

Well. While I address the manneristic Debussy later in this post, it seemed to me that the characteristic of innovation seemed to be consistently overlooked in the list. Choosing by ‘lasting greatness’ here is really another phrase for ‘popularity en masse because the music is nice, famous and classical sounding.’ True innovation is not necessarily ‘wildly popular’ in its day.

Even the reader’s comments were inane. Endless bickering about how criminal it was to leave out their Tchaikovsky and Haydn and Mahler and Chopin. The irony being they were so limited in their scope – and blatantly oblivious to other composers – that should this list be a top 25, it would pretty much cover 95% of composers mentioned in comments. Perhaps I will devise some sort of table for this study… T’would be worth it to get the actual percentage – yet I’m pressed for time, so might leave it for a couple of days… Ok, it’s later and I’ve gone and done it: The figure, based on 166 of the 866 comments is actually 78% (73% if you include random and obviously-intentionally-controversial-but-not-really-valid-one-off suggestions like John Lennon). In other words, adding an additional 15 composers would satisfy 78% of commenters! Still, I think that upholds my tossed-off guess quite well. Furthermore a top 30 list (five extra composers) would be 87% (81%).

What does this mean? Well it implies that basically thirty composers made 9/10ths of everything worth listening to.

PART 2: The List

Eye of the Tigre

The concept of Top Ten-ing most things, except sharks, is useless and subjective at best. So here’s my TOP SEVEN view and subsequent justifications. (Tommasini’s list only included dead composers – but I will not use that limitation should the need arise: A great composer is a great composer. I’m writing this as I go. PS: Having written it I didn’t end up using living composers anyway.) But I mean what is great anyway?

No.1: Charles Ives. With no doubt. Not only did he foreshadow a vast number of 20th Century innovations – including the ones attributed to others, he was an Insurance CEO (also making contributions recognised today) a millionaire in today’s currency, writing music in his spare time (as well as many philosophical writings), and made all of his achievements in relative isolation and amidst a cultural climate of complete resistance and disdain to his music (and it still generally is I could argue). Still, his music is possibly among the most stylistically diverse possible, ranging from extreme tonality to, Classicism, to radical experimentation as wild as anything today, and uniquely often combining this stylistic diversity within single works.

Additionally his energy and passion to art and life in general is staggering by human standards, and his aesthetics are of such complexity and depth that he was basically a school of thought in himself. Furthermore, his greatest works: the Fourth Symphony, as well as the Concord Sonata, transcend the scope and breadth of Beethoven in the 9th and the Hammerklavier respectively, an achievement that should by itself in theory place him among the greatest composers. Finally his compositional life ended gradually after a stroke around 1925 or so (Though he lived until 1954) so he had a life as a ‘composer’ for only 50 years. No other composer to my knowledge achieved so much with such a severe handicap – Beethoven comes close with the onset of deafness – but he worked as a composer, had patronage and a also modicum of audience appreciation.

No.2: Percy Grainger. The Australian version of Ives in many regards, and still more – again foreshadowing a vast number of 20th Century innovations (oddly enough, usually different ones to Ives) so that between the two, they pretty much account for most of the 20th Century. Perversely, they are both left out or at least marginalised, Ives not as much as Grainger. For example, while Anthony Tommasini waxes lyrical about Bartok being:

“an ethnomusicologist whose work has empowered generations of subsequent composers to incorporate folk music and classical traditions from whatever culture into their works, and as a formidable modernist who in the face of Schoenberg’s breathtaking formulations showed another way, forging a language that was an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales and atonal wanderings”

…his ignorance in forgetting that Grainger was roaming the English countryside similarly collecting folk songs BEFORE the ‘real’ composer Bartok, and integrating them into his music is palpable.
Grainger suffered from the curse of popularity, and also of notoriety. Being a famous concert pianist (like Ives a full-time non-compositional career) his popular fame today rests on a small number of folk-based minatures, leading performers and audiences alike to smile and say “Oh yes, Grainger. Nice light music. Not serious though” before proceeding to quoting the plethora of rumours (many distorted, or plainly untrue) about his character. It was true he was an eccentric, but much of his life was taken out of context, and other parts conveniently ignored – but that is an thesis worth of debate in itself. But musicians then totally disregard the remaining 98% (I will do a similar study for this) of his vast output – including ironically his large-scale and most innovative compositions.

Grainger not only employs folk music, a vast variety of world influences, atonality and his own “free music” (a life-time project as avant-garde as integral serialism, freeing music from notation), electronic experiments, aleatoric (chance) music (40 years before John Cage),  harmonic advances AHEAD of Tommasini’s Debussy (Grainger Quote on Debussy’s harmonies: “Just one of the trees in my forest.”) and then beyond, into worlds of atonality and incredible dissonance reconciled, like Bartok, with folk idioms, yet he did so in complete isolation, whilst being well aware of and documenting his advances against the slower Western Schools. Furthermore, he invented the modern concert orchestra – with an equal role for extended percussion, developed the role of the orchestral piano, the modern wind orchestra, and created innovative concepts such as elastic scoring. He also arranged a great number of his and other composer’s works.

One scholar, on comparing him to Ives, suggested that of the two, Grainger was the more artistic. And fundamentally this statement has substance – Grainger is unabashedly joyful, characterful, colourful and passionate, even accessible, but with integrity and sincerity. For a “Modernist” composer this is exceptionally rare, and makes it extremely difficult for musicians who don’t take it seriously to perform convincingly and subsequently come to love it. His style and manner disregard and questions many modern conventions and it is through such pioneering eccentrics that the world is truly shaped.

3: Ludwig Van Beethoven: No explanation really required. A Transcendentalist worthy of respect. And he is still not in short supply of it. Developed within himself a new era, and was the foundation for much of the Romantic period. Maybe take a look at his lieder repertoire though – it’s not done enough and Schubert is done too much.

4: J.S. Bach: I also agree. Bach has been a foundation for all the above composers. And they all demonstrate a thorough knowledge and usage of counterpoint. Bach, however, worked as a full time composer and had a relatively event-free life sitting around in Protestant Germany, hence the No.4 position. Were he deaf, working primarily as an accountant or court jester, and had his music publicly and ritually  jeered at by patronising masses, perhaps I’d rank him higher. Still. Respecting Bach.

5: John Cage: Like Grainger, suffering from the curse of notoriety in the form of 4’33”. Not many have bothered looking past it, unfortunately. One of the greatest innovative composers and aestheticians who not only questioned what music fundamentally is, but produced creative works encompassing a vast variety of elements and ideas. As a musical thinker and an ‘outsider’ to music he openly aimed to bring down the final barrier between music and sound, to liberate music from the keyboard via electronics and percussion, and he did it with practicality and a sense of humour. It’s curious how people reacted initially to his ideas as ‘not music’ and I can still hear the echoes from the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica.

6: Richard Wagner: Who else could single handedly and almost universally reform opera across the world? An unbelievably magnetic personality commanding almost unprecedented resources for a ‘musician’ and consistently creating some of the greatest and most feared operas from scratch and humble beginnings as a nobody. Not only that, but they went beyond operas towards ‘total works of art ‘- transcending Wagner from mere composer to who-knows-what. Even creating a new exclusive breed of operatic singer, with roles of such demanding calibre as to actually have killed them off occasionally. Although an egomaniac, I think Wagner’s case is unique in that his ego and self-belief was matched by his output. In other words, he delivered.

7: Leonard Bernstein: Very few composers matched Bernstein’s absolute excellence in all fields, although Grainger was similar in this regard. Still, how many great musical thinker-composers-conductors-pianists-musical educators (with fully fledged professional careers in each and every one of these fields) also produce musicals such as Westside Story? The theatrics and often advanced musical language of his major compositions and productions show an impressively talented “all-round” human being who outshines certain European composers who devoted their entire lives to one narrow branch of the arts.

Part 3: The End

and Bears.

So there it is. Seven composers I think stand beyond the rest. Not because we now hear their music most frequently on the radio (we generally don’t) but because their music is simultaneously more unique and yet universal. They excelled, they innovated, and I mean really innovated, often in spite of much public opposition and hostility, and they were a bunch of exiles, eccentrics and isolated, forgotten pioneers. I could go on at length about their achievements, but what collectively sets them apart from other composers, I think, is that with those sorts of minds and personalities had they been born in a different time or place they still would have found their way to greatness one way or another. As I said, unique yet universal.