Hallelujah is one of the most popular songs in recent times, with 1500 artists recording their own renditions. Leonard Cohen spent over a decade writing and rewriting the verses (over 180). Yet, Columbia Records president, Walter Yetnikoff, hated the album so much that he quashed its release in the United States.
Why did the powerful Columbia Records president hate it? His reasons are known only to himself, but to be fair, Leonard Cohen has a voice that only Bob Dylan could appreciate.
Over time, well-known musicians picked up the song, including Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Gradually, the song began to enter the mainstream. But it took a famous movie (Shrek) twenty years after the song’s “non-release” to make it available to all audiences.
Today, this song is played at weddings, in movie and television soundtracks, churches, funerals, television shows, and concerts. If not for artists and their quest for outstanding music, this iconic song would never have made it into popular culture.
It seems hard to believe, but it is not remarkable in the arts or sciences.
Here are a few of the many examples.
The Beatles were rejected by the British label Decca records.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is often considered the most underrated composer. Even those unfamiliar to classical music would recognize his organ symphony from the song and score of the movie, Babe. (After he completed this symphony, he said, “that is the best that I can do.”) Anyone who has heard it can appreciate its greatness.
Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in obscurity. Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime and those were altered to fit the conventional poetic rules of the day. It was not until her death that her sister Lavinia discovered her collection of poems. They were published in 1890, to initial criticism (of course).
The great works by Claude Monet were initially deemed to be “formless, unfinished and ugly.” As a result, Monet and his family lived in poverty. His seminal work “Impression, Sunrise” eventually gave the school of painting its name, Impressionism, but it was not until the 1880s that his works began selling.
Similarly, Van Gogh produced over 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, which weren’t recognized or appreciated during his lifetime. Struggling with mental illness throughout much of his life, Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide at 37.
During Bach’s lifetime he was only regarded as a successful organist. His compositions were ignored. It was not until the early 19th Century that his musical compositions were finally introduced.
Kafka died at 40, without a single work published, and if it weren’t for a friend, Max Brod, his novels would never have become the classics that they are today. Dying of starvation brought on by tuberculosis, Kafka requested Brod burn all of his works after he died. Instead, Brod made it his goal to get Kafka’s works published.
Henry David Thoreau was virtually ignored in his lifetime. His focus on nature and his social activism made him an outsider. Thoreau died having only published two of his works, which had not been well-received.
John Kennedy Toole is the author of one of my favorite novels, A Confederacy of Dunces. Yet Toole’s novels weren’t accepted into publication during his lifetime. Without his mother’s perseverance, we would never have read the manuscript that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
In science, these misses have been more impactful.
Gregor Mendel’s work on genetic inheritance wasn’t accepted or understood by scientists of the day (despite his extensive efforts). His work was only appreciated in 1900, 16 years after his death, and 34 years after he first published it. Curiously, Charles Darwin had a copy of Mendel’s paper, but he apparently didn’t read it until after his seminal work on The Origin of Species.
One refusal to implement a significant scientific discovery resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and even cost us a United States president. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician working in the mid-1800s in Austria, observed that his hospital had a very high death rate, especially in childbirth and infant mortality. At the time physicians would deliver a baby directly after performing an autopsy without washing their hands. He suspected that this death toll could be lowered by surgeons washing their hands between patients. But he was mocked by his colleagues. Despite demonstrating that hand washing significantly reduced the death rate, it was never accepted. His own hospital abandoned the practice after he died, and its death toll increased six-fold. Twenty years and many deaths later, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of germs proved Semmelweis right.
President James Garfield suffered horribly and died unnecessarily after an assassination attempt because his physician refused to wash his hands or maintain cleanly standards.
A number of scientists and philosophers recognized that the earth revolves around the sun, including Aristarchus (310BC to c. 230 BC), Copernicus (1473 to 1543), Johannes Kepler (1571 to 1630) and most famously Galileo (1564-1642). But the church and other scientists refused to accept their conclusions.
Einstein was unable to get a job, and only his father’s connections allowed him to land a job as a patent clerk. His early work on relativity was ignored or dismissed by many scientists because it challenged the scientific theory of ether. Einstein recognized that space and time were bound together and combined it with gravity in his theory of general relativity of 1915. Despite early ridicule and disbelief, the complicated theory was ultimately recognized as a paradigm shift in physics.
These are just some of many examples of talented artists and scientists whose work was ignored, despite their importance.
Yet, most of these individuals had some form of privilege that allowed them to create and continue their work. Cohen, for example, came from a wealthy Canadian family and was allowed to do this art without commercial success. Even Van Gogh came from a privileged upbringing.
I often ponder how many geniuses were prevented from using their intellectual and artistic talents due to gender, location, status, wealth, culture, religion, race, and circumstances.
I am convinced that our society has suffered from ignoring obscure, unsupported geniuses who did not have the opportunity to help or change humanity…if only.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
Letters to Editor
Michael Davis says
Thanks, Angela. There is a lot of interesting stuff here. You could add Herman Melville whose book “Moby Dick,” was a complete failure. He did not live to see any success from what is now considered a classic of American literature.
I find it interesting that Hallelujah is performed in churches. It is not a religious song. People don’t pay attention to the lyrics. I love the song; it is beautiful. k.d. lang and many other singers do wonderful versions of it. Cohen was a Buddist monk. Maybe not Buddist, but some Asian mystic religion. Certainly not Christian. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen wrote some songs with lyrics that cannot be explained.
Angela Rieck says
I had heard that about Melville…interesting. I am not that knowledgeable about Cohen, just saw his biography. He was described as a Jewish mystic practicing, Kabbalah. Apparently he was deeply religious and, as a Jew, we can see his knowledge of the Torah in some of his lyrics. Thank you for writing, I loving learning new things.
Lyn Banghart says
A great article, Angela. I wouldn’t put Leonard Cohen in the same category of the others you mentioned. But I do see your point. I am a musician and there were so many great composers that were rejected, booed and ridiculed. I have never liked the song “Hallelujah”. But I believe I am in a minority when it comes to that!
Thank you for your interesting writing!
Angela Rieck says
I know so little about music, it is somewhat embarrassing. So I admire people who can appreciate and know about music. Thank you for your comments, you must know so much more about those who have been permanently suppressed.