Over many years, in the course of my work, I have investigated quite possibly more than a thousand pieces of music. I have done this for two reasons: in my various positions, I have recommended repertoire, and I am personally very curious.
One of the things I have always wondered about is why the history of Western Art Music consists of about 500 pieces by about 50 composers. Yes, there have been other works and other composers, but we no longer talk about them.
Part of me believes very simply that the music just isn't good enough. That's an important distinction: it isn't "good enough", it's not "bad".
Part of me suspects that there are more complex forces at work. The enemy of popularity is unfamiliarity, isn't it? Or is the real enemy of popularity a lack of quality? If that's the case, why did works like "The Dance of the Hours" by Ponchielli become so successful? It's pretty dreadful as music goes, although it does have a great tune. Admittedly, many of these once-popular pieces have faded with time, but there's no denying that they somehow achieved great popularity for many decades, even centuries.
Was there some kind of conspiracy involved? Were women composers from the 1800s discriminated against? Did Chopin's supporters set out to destroy the legacy of Moscheles, who was considered to be a better composer in his lifetime? Was William Sterndale Bennett shunted aside because he was an Englishman in a German musical world? Are Canadian composers ignored worldwide because we're Canadian?
Or is the music just not good enough?
I am certain of one thing: there are no, absolutely, without question, no undiscovered masterpieces out there. There are no undiscovered genius contemporary composers. There is a lot of music that's okay, even good. There's a lot of music that we could listen to once in while that certainly won't offend us.
But it isn't good enough.