Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Even Great Composers Can Write Flops

In an earlier blog that touched on the issue of fear of failure, I wrote that "all great composers have had bad reviews, been harshly received by members of the public and/or their family, and many have been told been told their music is unplayable.  In spite of this, they went on to greatness."

For today's blog, I decided to research the topic of compositional "flops," a term I define below.


Stephen Sondheim is, by any measure, one of the all-time great composers and lyricists of musical theatre, and yet Anyone Can Whistle (1964) closed after only 9 performances, and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), had only 16-performances.

Have you heard of Galt MacDermott? He is Canadian (b. 1928), and the composer of the wildly-successful, period-defining musical, Hair (1967). Another successful Broadway production of his was Two Gentlemen  of Verona (1971), which won the Tony award for best musical that year. He also did the music for Via Galactica (1973), which closed after seven performances.

The history of musical theatre includes many flops by otherwise successful composers. Rodgers and Hammerstein — creators of many of the most successful Broadway musicals, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and South Pacific — created Pipe Dream (1955), described as "a flop and a financial disaster" by Wikipedia, and others. It closed after 246 performances — which may seem like a pretty good run, except it was "the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and their only show to lose money and not go on tour." Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), by Bob Merrill and Edward Albee (both extremely successful), closed after only four previews, despite having a cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, and Sally Kellerman. The Rocky Horror Show (1975) closed after only 45 performances on Broadway (although it did well in London and other venues). The film adaptation (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) did poorly when it opened, but went on to become a cult classic.

A reversal of this last example is Disney's Newsies, a 1992 film described by the L. A. Times as "one of the year's biggest flops." The music was by Alan Menken, composer of some fairly successful (!) film musicals, such as Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin,  The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and many, many others. Menken won an Academy Award for Aladdin the same year (1992) as he won a Razzie for "worst song of the year" for Newsies. Ouch! When the movie was reworked into a Broadway musical twenty years later, with songs from the original movie as well as new numbers, all by Menken, it became a smash hit.

Beethoven is possibly the best-known classical composer that ever lived; surely he must not have written any flops! And yet, he worked on his Violin Concerto in C when he was a young man, and either never finished it, or did finish it, but it was never performed.
This brings up an important point: What exactly is a flop? If a composer fails to finish a work, does that make it a flop?  
I think of a flop as a completed work that was received badly by the public and/or critics, and, as a consequence, did not fare well, at least initially.
Let us set aside the Violin Concerto in C, and consider Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, which he did finish. Unfortunately, it got off to a bad start; according to Wikipedia, "the premiere was not a success, and the concerto was little performed in the following decades." Beethoven died thinking his Violin Concerto had been unsuccessful. It was revived seventeen years after his death in a performance by a 12-year old violinist, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, and went on to become a staple of the classical music repertoire.

Fidelio (1805), Beethoven's only opera, was also the largest work he had composed at the time. It suffered several delays during composition, one of which arose from objections raised by the Austrian censor, and finally premiered in November 1805 to houses that were nearly empty because of the French occupation of the city. Wikipedia tells us that, "in addition to being a financial failure, this version of Fidelio was also a critical failure, and Beethoven began revising it." The next revision (1806) was also unsuccessful, but the last one, in 1814, was finally well received.

The Paris version of Wagner's Tannhäuser (1861; original Dresden version completed in 1845) was an expensive flop, closing after three performances, this after 164 rehearsals. The performances were belligerently disrupted by members of a claque called The Jockey Club, which had unsuccessfully tried to extort Wagner into paying them off to prevent these disruptions. They were also displeased that it had a ballet in the first act, because they held the strong conviction that ballets in operas should only be in the second act, which allowed them to arrive late for shows and still catch the ballet, for them the highlight of any opera.

There are many more examples of compositions that did not fare well, at least initially, by highly-regarded composers, but there are also countless examples of people working in other fields who experienced failure in their lives, and yet managed to overcome it.
  • Vincent Van Gogh created 860 paintings, but only one was sold during his lifetime.
  • Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
  • Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was refused by "at least 20" publishers.
And then there are people who used failure to spur them onto success in other fields:
  • Vera Wang competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but failed to make the US Olympic team; she then switched careers and entered the fashion industry.
  • Steve Jobs was the cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. He was dismissed by Apple in 1985 following an unsuccessful power struggle with its board of directors; you can probably imagine how gutted he felt by this experience. He then went on to found a new computer company, NeXT, which made better computers than those being produced by Apple. NeXT was moderately successful, but caught the attention of Apple, and in 1996 Apple bought the NeXTSTEP platform and used it as the basis of its highly-successful OS X. This led to Jobs coming back to Apple as an advisor, and in 1998 he was once again given control of the company, bringing Apple back from near-bankruptcy to become the world's most valuable publicly-traded company in 2011.
  • And that is not all; after being fired by Apple, Jobs acquired Pixar for $10 million in 1986 and became its CEO. Pixar went on to produce some of the most commercially and critically successful animated films of all time, such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Wall-E. In 2006 Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.6 billion.


The point of all these stories is that almost everyone experiences failure on some level at various points in their lives, including highly-successful people. Setbacks are a normal part of life, and especially of the creative process; try to learn from them, and push past them, but never let them define you.

19 comments:

Sarah Bartlett said...

This raises so many good points! Success is so subjective. It depends on what a person considers success to be - many people put value of different aspects of life, and someone who sees themselves as successful due to their financial earnings may not be seen as successful by someone who highly values their emotional wellbeing. Just because someone doesn't make six figures or live in a large house doesn't mean they're not successful. We tend to make broad assumptions when someone does a project, writes a piece, or creates art that isn't well-received that they are a failure based on the negative reaction to that art. Just because someone writes one piece that isn't an instant hit doesn't mean that it was a waste of time, or that it's invaluable. As a musician I can testify that every hour practiced is valuable, even the ones when I feel like I'm just not getting something or not making improvements. I think composers get a lot of flak for pieces that don't immediately pick up, but those pieces help people realize what's working in their music and what to incorporate into later pieces. Every piece written is a step towards developing one's personal musical and compositional style, regardless of what critics say of the end product.

Timothy Brennan said...

This is a great post Dr. Ross! Like Sarah said, I also believe that just because a composition, piece of artwork, film or any other form of creative art is not well received initially, it does not mean that we should immediately label it as a failure and disregard its good qualities. While reading your post, I was reminded of another work, which I'm playing this year, that wasn't initially well received at its premiere: Saint-Saens' Second Piano Concerto. It was a last-minute composition written over a period of only two weeks for composer Anton Rubenstein's conducting debut in Paris. Saint-Saens himself was the soloist at the premiere and had little time to learn the solo part or rehearse with the orchestra. Consequently, the performance was not well received initially. However, it quickly gained notoriety and after a few more performances it was championed by many leading concert pianists, including Franz Liszt (who proclaimed it as a highly unique masterpiece). It is frequently performed today and critically lauded, despite the fact that at the time critics in Paris dismissed the piece as strange and unusual while it successful elsewhere. This also raises another important point, in my opinion. Different audiences will judge the same work in highly contrasting way due to many factors including age, gender, cultural background, personal experiences, etc. Everyone has opinions, and just because person dislikes a work, it does not mean that everyone will share that opinion. As composers, we can try to learn and grow by listening to others opinions, but we cannot take their opinions personally or to heart, especially negative ones.

Josh McCarthy said...

Success is relative. For today's composers that make hundreds of thousands of dollars, such as movie composers Hans Zimmer, and Henry Jackson, $500 is probably just a drop in the bucket for them, but for me, if I made $500 for something I wrote, I would literally just freak out and be extremely happy. And I'd say before they got to that point, they had a few "flops" along the way, and I say they are just learning experiences. For where you have bad judgement, you have a lesson well learned. And another point on writing a "flop" is tat maybe it was just written in the wrong time, people could hate your music at the time when you write it, but may learn to love it in the years to come. This is the same as a lot of artists I find, you mentioned Van Gogh in this aspect. I feel that if you write a "flop", just take it with a grain of salt and learn from it instead of thinking you are a bad composer.

Adrian Irvine said...

To my understanding if you want to find success in any avenue of life you must pursue it incessantly. It is incredibly rare for anyone to be able to produce masterful works of art by simply sitting down and attempting to do so. Flops are an incredibly important part of ones creative development, if you're constantly pumping out ideas you're bound to have some flops, but you're also bound to strike gold eventually! Unfortunately, flops are easier to come by... but if you know how to learn from them, they can be even more beneficial to your growth than successes.

Another point to consider is whether you want your work to resonate with people in the now? What if your vision is one that can't be understood in your time? The classical music community throughout history has been notorious for disregarding works when they were initially produced and lauding them a century later. In contrast, composers like George Onslow who was lauded as "the french Beethoven" during his life and was much sought after as a composer of chamber music (he wrote over 76 string quartets) has now fallen almost entirely by the wayside. None of his works are still being published and performances are extremely rare.
So, this raises another question: which would prefer, instant gratification, or a sort of immortality through your music?

Duane Andrews said...

I think most people would at least prefer for their musical endeavours to be considered a success but measuring success can become complex.
Perhaps it's easier to measure commercial success of things such as a Broadway musical as we can simply compare numbers but as the music becomes less commercially motivated the measurement for success becomes less tangible.
In any case I whole heartedly agree that failure is a good thing to have a healthy relationship with in general and having the tenacity to persevere in the light of failure and the ability to learn from failure is vital to anyone's development.

I also found the Claque phenomenon fascinating and it reinforces the importance of differentiating between public and personal success.

Anaïs Siosse said...

I guess flops/failures are part of the learning process. I also think that no matters what, an artist will never stop what he loves doing. I mean he might make a pause but he will always come back to its art at some point in his life, or he will think about it all the time. I feel that what is important in these moments are the people, friends and family which surround the artist. However, I feel that a failure can be dangerous, it can push someone to always go further, but I also feel that it can destroy someone, especially lonely artists who have no one who understand them on their side. I think that a lot of musicians have felt alone at some point… and this is a special/hard moment. For someone who fails and who have nobody to talk to, this most be the worst moment ever. Now I also think that there are different level of failure and different ways to interpret them. Depending on the sensitivity of the artist, a failure can be more or less strong. I guess we all have to accept that the word failure is part of our path as musicians, and that it can only make us stronger. There is a saying in french "Ce qui ne nous tue pas nous rend plus fort" which means: what does not kill us makes us stronger. When we love something, we should never stop doing it even if people don't like what we do…

Mitchel Fleming said...

This blog post is very close to my heart. Being an up-and-coming composer, I have had my share of disappointments when I would show a friend a piece and they would simply respond with "Eh..." The crushing disappointment when a piece that you thought was enjoyable was simply not enjoyed by the people you show it to. Even though this can be discouraging and can lead to temporary melancholy, it is important to pick yourself back up and figure out why your piece did not get the response that you desired. Now sometimes it happens to be that the person you showed it do does not happen to like the style of your piece and when you show someone else, they will enjoy it, but if not, then sit down, get creative, and keep composing! Ultimately though, you are the one that you needs to be happy with your compositions so if others do not particularly enjoy your piece, do not be too hard on yourself. Everyone writes flops, but it is how we recover from our flops that defines us as a composer and musician.

Robert Humber said...

I find it so baffling how some pieces could be considered bad in their day. It seemed that many composers had pretty big egos. I recall reading that Ravel had written his famous string quartet for a competition and had dedicated to his mentor, fellow composer Gabriel Faure. Faure was actually very displeased with the piece, calling it unbalanced and an overall failure. Can you imagine? The man wrote a piece for a guy he looked up to. The guy who it was written for immediately vocalized that he thought it sucked. It's the equivalent of a kid throwing a temper tantrum after receiving the wrong birthday present. Artists were definitely more open to mean comments about each other back in the day, and despite the hate on Ravel, we now have obviously a lot of respect for his music. A critic once said Tchaikovsky's music "stinks to the ears". I don't know what they were hearing/smelling!

A lot of the things mentioned in the article were flops at the time but not anymore so it's kind of comforting to know that potentially your work will catch on eventually. And besides, I feel that a piece is a failure only if it completely alienates all of its listeners and doesn't captivate anybody. All money aside, most of us play and write music to move an audience in some way so I think that if it does that it's not a flop.

Also, as Sarah said, even if a work is never played, there are still aspects of it that can be used in later pieces. I guess the point is, composing is fun. Everybody should compose. Yay.

Ben Taylor said...

I thoroughly agree with this post about how failure happens (especially in MacGumat). But even in a sea of failure, it is the persons choice to either push through this low and climb for the high or back out. Failure is something that is inevitable. As someone who has gotten his pilots licence at the age of 16, I failed 5 tests in my lectures before actually writing the Transport Canada exam, but with these failures I was able to sit down, learn from my mistakes and now I know the subjects I failed like the back of my hand. It's all about how one person deals with it. Beethoven had some bad times too but like Dr. Ross said he's one of the best recognized classical composers in history! To recap, failure is an option, it will always be an option, but will it be the thing that defines you as a person.

Julia Millett said...

Failure happens! I believe that as long as we understand how this failure occurred then it was a worthwhile endeavour. It is impossible to be on our top game constantly with everything we do in life. Sometimes because of failure we have our brightest moments as our goals and true desires become more apparent to us.

Robert Godin said...

This blog also reminded me of the Daring to dream big blog: http://www.clarkross.blogspot.ca/2015/03/daring-to-dream-big.html

Especially these parts: "Vincent Van Gogh created 860 paintings, but only one was sold during his lifetime.
Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was refused by "at least 20" publishers."

Those are obviously very bleak. But they still managed to push through. It's inspiring to see dedication against such set backs. Great post! Really makes you evaluate what your success might mean.

Marco C. de Bruin said...

Thanks, nice blog to read.
Of course I wrote several flops, and the best experience is when I wrote something small and not important and the people experienced as a great composition.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

It seems to me that I and my fellow composers often think that if a piece is a flop, people will forget all of our successes and remember only our failure. And yet, despite having significant flops, the individuals mentioned in this post are not only still considered great, but their successes continued to be lauded while their flops largely forgotten. I have to wonder whether the same holds true today, in a time when posthumous discovery seems rare and communications technology results in more instant and farther-reaching praise or condemnation of a work. I also must wonder whether the public and critics are more forgiving of an individual with a reputation of success rather than a newcomer. Regardless, this post proves that even the "greats" have produced flops, and so it seems that flops are simply a part of life for artists. In which case, there is little sense in worrying about composing a flop; if it happens, it happens, and we shouldn't be discouraged. All we can do is continue writing to the best of our ability.

Emery van de Wiel said...

As I perform flute, rather than compose, I believe that people will only notice the things I do wrong. Perhaps it's our new recording technology, but it's interesting that when you go on stage people expect you to be absolutely perfect because that's all people know. People seem to be listening for flops and I can't say that I am not one of those people that listen for flops because that's hearing something different than the recording you've heard 100 times and that will stand right out. But playing everything perfect is really hard! Back to composition, I don't yet feel the worry of composing flops. I understand that not many people will hear my flops, because they were flops. Perhaps if I ever build up a strong enough reputation I will be worried about the potential of flops. Also I didn't know that Steve Jobs owned Pixar.

Jack Etchegary said...

This post definitely provides some inspiring insights. When reflecting on composer flops, I immediately thought of how music as a whole is so subjective and the social opinions on style and genre change over time. I was reminded of how the music of Bach, for example, was used as kindling for fires after he died until someone decided to start keeping his music. Of course, Bach's music is highly regarded and intensely studied today - we definitely do not perceive much or any of his work as "flops". However, during that time, it's apparent that his music didn't have any value as people weren't hesitant to use it to heat churches following his passing. My point in saying all of this is that it is interesting how as a composer, one can be completely unknown and/or unappreciated during their life and then become highly regarded after they have passed away. It creates a question in my mind: what exactly constitutes something as a compositional flop, and can something originally regarded as a flop become appreciated later on? To me, the answer to the latter is yes. Not to say at all that Bach wrote any flops, but the very nature of how someone's compositions can go from nothing to something is pretty remarkable.

Pallas A said...

The role of the critic has always been an interesting one. This post highlights how some works that were seen as critical failures are now perceived as successes (or at the very least as "not failures"). It would be easy to brush off critical scrutiny because "art is subjective and everyone has different opinions, blah blah blah..." I do not mean to play devil's advocate, but critics are supposed to be experts in their respective fields; their judgments should ideally reflect those of someone who is knowledgeable and who is familiar with the conventions/trends of the time. The creative intention of the composer and the reception of the critic might not always align, and that can really suck, to say the least. But, most of the time, it's not like the critic is giving an uninformed and unfounded opinion. What I would be really interested in learning about are the works of music or art that were initially critical successes, but are now perceived as flops. We see this often with fashion trends, but I don't recall this happening often in music. On a different note, I like how this post stresses that a work being deemed a flop is not the end of world, but that the work in question can sometimes have a future chance at "success" if it is reworked or embraced by an audience that differs from its premiering audience.

Stephen Eckert said...

As artists, I think it is our duty to recognize and celebrate creation in all of its forms, whether that creation be considered a success by public, critics or even fellow musicians. Classical music specifically is one of the most subjective forms of creative art even during the most clear-cut circumstances. Personally, I believe that success is a measure of your own happiness with what you create. Others can certainly affect your own happiness with what you have created, but as long as this is constructive it can only better you. Honing skills in anything requires failure and the fear of failure is toxic to the development of your skills, it essentially narrows your perspective.

Erika Penney said...

Failure will always happen to everyone somewhere along the way. Not everyone will love your work but I believe the most important part is that you are happy with what you have created, and hopefully you can find that other someone that agrees. If you get caught up in too much critique and let it affect your own ability to create what you want, you will not succeed due to not being able to do your best. I agree that it is not the worst thing to happen if you have a piece that is a flop, it happens, and the best thing to do is to move on and keep trying.

Kristin Wills said...

It's reassuring to know that even great composers have pieces that they consider failures, I think sometimes I am too critical of my own pieces. I am often surprised when I show a piece to someone and they seem to really like it, even though I thought it was terrible. I think what happens sometimes is I spend a lot of time on a piece and just get sick of hearing it. This is why it's so important to show works in progress to people, to get an unbiased opinion. This way you know for sure whether the piece is going well or if it needs to be changed.
I have definitely written pieces that I consider failures, but I have realized it's better to look at them as learning experiences rather than setbacks.