Nicolas Slonimsky famously posits there is a forty year lag between a composer making an outlandish musical statement and acceptance of his crazy idea as a masterpiece. This number seems arbitrary and historically inaccurate to me. Looking at music history, one will see there is not a single “hidden gem” composer. Every composer considered great in our current times was a working, accepted musician during his or her lifetime (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Beach).
It’s ridiculous to assert that time alone brings about acceptance. Yes, the Eiffel Tower was first reviled and then became a beloved landmark, but Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was hated and removed. Even in popular music, Van Halen was more popular than Patti Smith and remains so. I can think of no example of a dusty foot locker of music being found in a barn from whence was pulled a trove of near miraculous symphonies.
Time can and does change what the listeners hail a masterpiece. If you are in the know, Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory is an insignificant trifle, barely worth the listen – low entertainment – unplayed by the modern orchestra. It was wildly popular in his day. Contemporary tastes toward Beethoven may change, however. We could find his C Minor Mass in every other action movie instead of his 9th Symphony. Let’s not forget to mention embarrassingly popular music from other well known composers such as Mozart’s Wind Serenades and Aaron Copland’s movie music.
Let’s take a trip forty years back to 1974. Where are the shocking, neglected, large-scale, or difficult works from that glittery era that are played by professional symphonies and chamber groups across the land? Sweeney Todd? Something by William Bolcolm? Shostakovich String Quartet #15? If the forty year prophecy is correct, then we should be happily hearing Berio with our Beethoven, smug and comfortable that the past audience (or our younger selves) were simply ignorant and wrong.