Art vs. Life

or, even more controversial, ‘nature vs. nurture’, or slightly less controversial (and actually applicable) ‘the principles of natural selection as applied to art vs. who you know and how life treats you’
I’ve been exploring the Interwebs lately and looking for new and interesting music to experience and/or enjoy, (recently as in the past year, more as a diversion from finally breaking down and getting familiar with all the works of Mozart and Bach), and it’s led to an interesting question, one which has been posed many a time before. And since I don’t have a nice succinct way to pose it the way it’s said in my mind, I didn’t attach it to the end of that sentence with a colon. It goes something like this, and bear with me. I’m not here to challenge the ideals and tenets of the classical world or anything.
Generally speaking, there are a few names in classical music that many people will agree are/were instrumental (pun definitely intended), fundamental, critical to the development of classical music as we know it today. Whether or not you like their music is a different story. Many people, whether or not they cherish the sounds of one composer or the other, can often still appreciate his (or her!) genius or significance in classical music history or the repertoire. Names like (in an extremely rough chronological order) Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Mahler, Schoenberg, and so on (with a few dozen others that could just as easily be mentioned alongside them, granted maybe with slightly less widespread acclaim) although their works span the gamut of genres, styles, forms, instrumentations, locations and emotions, still hold fast to their places in classical music. But how did they get there?
Before we answer that question, let’s ask and answer another: are there people who don’t like one or more of the aforementioned composers?
Ab-so-lute-ly.
Truth be told, I have hardly touched Bach. I was serious about an ordered study of Mozart’s symphonies for a while, but I barely got through his childhood symphonies (about 15 or so, as I recall) (at only one a week) before I needed a break. I do find some of his music wonderfully beautiful, and all of it to be at least pleasant, but I have a coworker who is a clarinetist, and mentioned that (as one would guess) his clarinet concerto appears in every audition everywhere, so I went to listen to it. Had I not been at work doing other things, I may have otherwise just fallen asleep. It was pretty, for sure, but it rather bored me. Haydn, though, I kind of love. I’m starting to have a better relationship with Beethoven, and I have a longstanding love of both Chopin and Liszt. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler? Amazing symphonies. Scriabin’s piano sonatas, some of my favorites. Schoenberg is pushing it. Anyway, (oh, I didn’t mention Brahms. He’s a great composer but I feel he was a jerk later in his life. Look up Hans Rott). What I mean to say is that everyone has their preferences, obviously, and people shouldn’t judge you if you say you don’t like Mozart or Bach or Chopin, but will at least tolerate you if you say something to the effect that you can appreciate their genius.
But, here we are back at the first question about how these mainstays, these pillars of the classical music world, got to where they are. I said I wasn’t questioning the validity of their place there, but hypothetically, let’s just consider two separate reasons they ARE there (and by the same token, reasons that many others AREN’T):
  1. The true beauty and genius of the work they did (or the lack thereof, in the case of the latter)- this is the standard, traditional view, the one that says these men are the ones who had the talent or the vision or the genius or the artistry to create music that would move people and change lives and make history (or in the case of the latter the people who just couldn’t quite put something together that caught people’s attention)… OR
  2. The twists and turns of life- You had a good teacher, a privileged upbringing, the right circumstances, made really valuable connections in university, got a good break to get that position, etc (or the opposite and got nothing but the short end of the stick or died way too early and never got your big break).
The first of those is the ‘natural selection’ idea, the one that says that the greatest, most enduring works will stand the test of time, rise to the top, weather the storm, or whatever other cliche you wish to use because of their inherent goodness, and that the pieces that remain undiscovered and unsung and underperformed or unpublished are that way for a reason: they are inferior or subpar or lack in some way.
The second point is to say that, to some degree or other, the success you enjoy is due to more than just your pure genius, but that you were given especially good lessons from a genius (or perhaps overbearing) teacher that put you ahead of someone else (and perhaps even squashed the opportunities of fellow students), stole the spotlight in your age, were in the right place at the right time, and on and on, and that your success is NOT due solely to the inherent artistry and enduring nature of your works.
Now, for the most part, in most cases, these two options are not mutually exclusive. What I’m really questioning is not the validity of the works of composers whom we already know, but the apparent ‘inferiority’ of works that haven’t lasted to be as popularly recorded or performed or studied or learned as the three Bs.
There are two ways to look at this question:
  1. Are there composers/works that were unpopular upon their premiere or publishing that in later years (often after the composer’s death) grew to become more famous than during the composer’s lifetime?
  2. Is the opposite true? Are there composers/works that were hugely successful during their premieres that later died off and were forgotten?
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. For the first, names like Schubert and Mahler come to mind, perhaps for different reasons. Schubert was so destitute for most of his life that he only heard one or two of his symphonies ever played in his lifetime, and it was only after his discovery by Schumann and others that his works became as important as they are today. Mahler, too, was unpopular, more because of idiosyncrasy than poverty, but one Leonard Bernstein had quite a large hand in changing all that, and look where they sit today.
On the other hand are people like Hans Rott and Giovanni Sgambati, whose first symphonies (linked there) were each huge successes and warmly welcomed (at least by some) at the time, but later just forgotten. Joachim Raff also comes to mind in that regard. As for those poor souls whose lives were just cut too short, there are Julius Reubke and Alexei Stanchinsky, who died at 24 (of tuberculosis) and 26 (of unknown reasons), respectively. I do not have a particular love of Stanchinsky’s work (a piano sonata of his here, which I am listening to for the first time and enjoying more than his first or second piano sonatas in F and G, respectively. I don’t know which number this one is, but I am enjoying it), but he was very influential to people like Scriabin, Medtner, Prokofiev, etc. Reubke was one of Liszt’s students, and his piano sonata has to be one of the most beautiful things ever written for the instrument.
So I guess you could put it this way: if there were such thing as an artistic vacuum, where the opinions of critics and denouncements of those with political agendas and all of that nonsense (like the death knell that Brahms rang for Rott) held no sway, would the “best” works of classical music still rise to the top? Are unknown symphonies like those you find in ‘rare symphonies’ collections and playlists there for an artistic reason or a political one? Is there some identifiable quality in Cyril Scott’s first symphony that marks it as destined to be forgotten? Will Bortkiewicz’s symphonies forever be underplayed and barely programmed because of some inherent defect in their musicality? Will Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and Beethoven’s nine symphonies and Bruckner (who I have tried and failed to appreciate thus far, but have not given up) and all of them continue to monopolize the classical music world at the expense of more inferior, lesser-known pieces? Or will another composer who died a century ago finally get his big break and get credit for the blood sweat and tears he put on paper and be redeemed for his yet-undiscovered genius?
There are those that argue that the ‘unpopular’ or less traditional symphonies hold their low position in the repertoire for a reason, that had they been ‘great’, we would have known of them by now, which attributes some intelligent self-checking to the system, the process of natural selection. I, however, tend to fall slightly more toward the side that there are a lot more factors that play into each piece’s lot in the great wheel of fortune in classical music, and that these, to some degree or other, are affected (at least long-term if not) eternally affected by these other factors (opinions, biases, politics, etc), and that they have become an inherent part of the opinion of that composer or work, and that just maybe, if we could be more neutral and distance ourselves from some of that less positive ‘tradition’, we might be able to appreciate (or at least come to know of) the lesser-known works, whether or not they have already had their heyday.
All that having been said, one also must ask: was ever there written a crappy symphony? I’m sure the answer is yes. However, while people will feel confident in marking a math problem or chemical formula as wrong, it’s far less straightforward to call art ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, because, as is inherent to the process, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
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