What makes for a successful piece of music?

After reading Paul Hindemith's A Composer's World I came to believe that the composer's customer is the musician, and the musician's customer is the audience.

Since we may assume that the composer is herself first and foremost a musician, we can assume that she should know when a piece is in some way satisfying to play. The appropriate audience picks up on that, and the enterprise succeeds.

If she wants mostly to create something satisfying to play, she will keep at it until it is no matter how long it takes. If she mostly wants approval, then she may rush through writing the piece and having it come out half-baked. If she mostly wants to prove a point, then she risks being rejected and/or ignored.

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  • I think the key word in Spencer's premise is "successful", which of course will have as many different meanings as there are composers!   To me, a piece is successful if I enjoyed writing it, I'm not embarrassed by it years later, and performers I admire are eager to perform it.  Audience tastes are fickle and inexplicable, and I've seen too many audiences prefer Kenny G to Stravinsky to put too much faith in them. 

    I most enjoy writing music that other people love to play - so I guess my favorite audience is indeed the performers, which agrees with Spencer's belief.  I've written a bunch of pieces that audiences love, even decades later, but which I dearly wish I had written under a pseudonym.  Those pieces, which brought me money, adulation and continued audience approval are not what I personally consider successful.  I'd never post them here, for example, although many CF folks would probably like them better than the music I have posted! 

    I now love writing for very discerning musicians who have what I consider to be impeccable taste.  Since it is the performers who will bring the music to life, they really are the bridge between the score and the audience.  The performers must love the music in order for the audience to love it ....

    I've also found my best "customers" to be other musicians.  Invariably the best commissions come from performers who want to add to their repertoire.  I'd so much rather work with them, even if it means turning down more lucrative but less inspiring work.

  • My customer is the audience. Being thought well of by musicians and composers is nice too, but not as important to me.

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