(cover image by Freddie Marriage)
Unfortunately, no one can know all there is about everything.
I’m at least a little ashamed to admit the degree of my unfamiliarity with, say, most of the symphonies and string quartets of Haydn, or Mozart (but to a lesser degree) after having written a blog like this for more than four years, of over a million words. Granted, four years isn’t a very long time overall, but I seem to give the impression that I know a thing or two about music, but it’s really only some music.
To be honest, I’ve decided that I’ll leave pretty much all things Haydn to my friend Mike. That’s his area of expertise, and while it certainly won’t prevent me from listening to and enjoying Haydn’s work, I have not felt compelled enough to try to write anything to the degree that he has.
But it did get me to thinking about having some kind of ‘expertise’ or pet project, so I thought about a series where I’ll feature works with a more confined set of criteria in an ongoing project to get to know some composers better, and present some of what I think is really worth getting to know.
This is kind of inspired by Beethoven. While anyone who’s talked with me in any detail about music knows my love of Mahler’s symphonies, I think that it’s likely Beethoven who I’d consider to be the consummate composer. He wrote one of the greatest everything in every genre: symphony, string quartet, piano concerto, violin sonata, violin concerto, piano sonata, and on and on. The only single major area where he didn’t excel like the others is opera, but his lone Fidelio is a very nice work.
So anyway, what a composer he was, to have composed such monumental, landmark works across those genres, but also to straddle the Classical and Romantic eras like he did, to accept and master one language and era, but also be one of the first to knock on the door of the Romantic era. Regardless of what date you give the Romantic earliest beginnings, Beethoven was there. Who do we have like that in the 20th century, who is still working with that centuries-old tradition in memorable, inventive, and perhaps very new ways?
As an amateur writer and rather obsessive listener, I have come across some music that has inspired and excited me. There’s Beethoven and Mahler, and a long list of most of the people that most people know. More casual music lovers may very well know and enjoy, say, the Chopin piano concertos (ugh!) or any in a long list of the most famous, commonly performed and recorded works in the repertoire. Those willing to dig a little deeper might find people just behind that most famous tier of classical music, and begin to enjoy stuff from those composers who were considered famous for a time but who’ve since disappeared (Glazunov, anyone? Myaskovsky? Joachim Raff, etc.) And then there are the really obscure folks, composers whose name even actual music professionals (of some kind or other) may not know, but whose fans are aggressively supportive, even dogmatic about the undeserved neglect of the composer(s) whose music they cherish so greatly.
And I want to have a few of my own of those composers, people whose work (maybe not all of it, at least at first) I’ve come to know and maybe even love, who I can focus on as pet projects, at the very least, and begin to feature on the blog. I spent quite some time thinking and researching and reading and listening, and I’ve come up with something, in the spirit of Beethoven.
The criteria for the composers are quite specific, and even then I have quite a lot of choice. I want:
- Composers whose work dates (at least mostly) from the 20th century, so as inclined as I was to feature Glazunov, he’s out, as are many others for now.
- I specifically want composers who’ve written a cycle of symphonies and string quartets. They’re some of the two most longstanding forms in all of classical music, and I’m curious to see how that’s being handled and approached in the modern era. So that’s kind of two criteria: symphonies and quartets. I’d say a ‘cycle’ would consist of at least five of each, preferably. Minimum 4, maybe with some other chamber works.
- In this list I compiled, I didn’t want to double up too much on composers from any one place, and the German-speaking composer was actually one of the last on the list. First to be chosen were English and Danish speaking composers.
- Also, obviously, I wanted them to be slightly more obscure. You won’t be seeing Sibelius (or even Rautavaara) here, nor Shostakovich (although he’s kind of the perfect model for a 20th-century output of symphonies and quartets). They’ll all be, to some degree or other, off the beaten path. To the shut-in, album-collecting, Ph.d-holding concert-obsessed crowd, no, these may not be obscure to you, but I guarantee many people could go their whole lives in a city with a nice symphony orchestra and never hear a work from most of these folks.
- And lastly, it has to be music I’m interested in learning about, something that catches my ear, inspires or interests me in some way, that just maybe their 15 minutes (or hopefully much more) has yet to come and they’ll be the next great symphonist to be discovered.
- Oh! And also, they must have been featured on the blog before. Their first appearance cannot have been as a featured composer, and there’s at least one (I think) who I’ll sneak in to meet that criterium.
So… more obscure 20th century composers from various places with notable outputs of both symphonies and quartets whose music convinces me it’s worth lots of time on the blog. I’d love to feature them quite regularly, maybe one of them every few weeks or something, which might get in the way of any larger series, but they could be put on hold if I do one of those. So… what do you think? I have a pretty definite list so far, and another three or four spots that might be filled, which is more than I’d like to pick out as pet projects, but not all of them will last through to the end. It just gives me a chance to have composers from various parts of the world, and pick the ones who impress me the most. So… any suggestions? I have five-ish that are 100% confirmed chosen composers, at least for the time being, and am collecting their stuff. There’s another who’s likely the chosen composer for his country of origin, and I already have all of his works in both genres, but there are candidates for others.
If I hadn’t decided to focus on 20th century folks, I’d certainly have included Glazunov, Spohr, Raff, and others, like Gade, but they’ll have to wait. Since this is kind of inspired by Beethoven, we’ll be bookending stretches of these featured composers with works from Beethoven, and not necessarily (in fact in most cases not) symphonies and string quartets (although we have much farther to go on the latter than the former), so look out for much more Beethoven in 2018, as well as a list of composers I’m interested in focusing on in the coming months and years. We’ll also see more than just symphonies and quartets, as many of these folks also have other chamber and symphonic works, and delightfully even some concertos, for our enjoyment. Stay tuned for that, and see you soon.