Composer Was A Rock Star Of Their Day? Rock Stars Aren’t Even The Rock Stars Of Today

I often read about classical music composers being the rock star of their day, but don’t often get a lot of detail about what that meant. I just happened upon an article in Lapham’s Quarterly about Franz Liszt which pretty much shows that fans haven’t changed much since the 19th century when people collected his discarded cigar butts, silk gloves and broken piano strings.

Before a concert Liszt mingled with the audience, charming them with his witty remarks. He had a semicircle of chairs placed around the piano on stage so that illustrious guests could sit near him and converse with him between pieces…He brought his silk gloves on stage and threw them down to be fought over by audience members. Women were said to carry his discarded cigar butts in their cleavages. When he broke piano strings, as he often did in his performances, people collected the broken strings and had them made into bracelets. There was even a phase where Liszt invited listeners to write a question for him (on any topic) on a slip of paper and put it into a hat, from which questions would be drawn out for the great man to answer from the stage.

The article says Liszt was the first to organize a program where he was the headlining soloist versus a night which included performances by different people. And some contemporaries regarded his early work as “sheer racket” so there are numerous parallels with rock music and stardom.

Though, as I am sure many before me have pointed out, while there are claims about composers being the rock stars of their day, audiences today aren’t permitted to have the same relationship with the composer as the audiences of their day.

One of the most obvious counters to claims that 200 year old music should be viewed as relevant today because it was the pop music of 200 years ago is that music styles falls out of favor over time. I mean heck, saying someone was the rock star of their day itself is arguably a dated reference since rock isn’t really a mainstream music genre anymore.

So if an appeal is made to potential audiences to view a composers music as the equivalent of current pop music because the composer was the celebrity of their day, people should at least be given the opportunity to freely react and interact as they would to a pop idol.

I have mentioned this basic idea before in a post about a Utah Symphony Orchestra’s (USO) advertising campaign where they had musicians made up as members of the band KISS and had a tagline about their musicians being rock stars. I was concerned people would be disappointed by the difference in energy between a KISS concert and a USO concert, not because orchestra music isn’t as hard driving as rock, the same audience members can equally experience a frisson listening to both, but because they wouldn’t be able to express their appreciation as frehley. (homophonic pun intended obviously)


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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