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Pondering a composer’s place

February 4, 2012

Well, how’s that for a provocative title?

I was sitting in a student’s recital pre-screening recently and a thought started to hit me while I was listening to her play (she did rather well, I might add). She played three pieces of contrasting style: one by a “Great Composer,” another by a supposedly “Great Composer” whose body of work rather irritates me, and then one by a relatively unknown composer.

Pondering further about the composer whose work, as I said, rather irritates me, I thought, “This composer is only really known for about five or six works, even though he wrote about 200 compositions.” Then I began to think that there are a lot of composers we could say the same about, my personal irritations notwithstanding.

Then I went further.

  • There are composers who are “one-hit wonders,” those who are associated with a single composition.
  • There are composers who wrote reams of music that almost no one performs, yet a few of their pieces are still performed regularly.
  • Some composers wrote a relatively tiny amount of music, but what’s there is pretty darn good.
  • And then, there are those who wrote a lot of music and almost all of it is good, if not great.
  • And, of course, in the spirit of being complete, there are the “no-hit wonders.” Composers who wrote a lot, and at one time got their music performed frequently, but have essentially disappeared from the present day orchestral repertoire.

The “one-hit wonder” topic, regarding classical composers, was introduced to me by Harold C. Schonberg’s book The Lives of the Great Composers when I was a college undergraduate. All it took was a photo and a caption to blow my mind:

File:Georges Bizet.jpg

Georges Bizet, almost a one-work man

(It’s on page 333 of my hardcover edition.)

I thought, “wow… just wow.” I remembered playing Carmen Suite in high school. I remembered the only opera my relatives knew anything about was Carmen. I also realized that I didn’t know another piece by him.  (Later I managed to conduct the Symphony in C and the L’Arlesienne Suites, but the damage had been done.)

The next category pertains to composers who wrote plenty of music, but at present we only program a small sample.  When’s the last time you heard Prokofiev’s second, third, fourth, sixth, or even seventh symphony live? Sure, you’ve heard/performed/conducted the mighty fifth or the Classical Symphony, Peter and the Wolf, the Third Piano Concerto and maybe even his First Piano Concerto, or either of his violin concertos or music from Romeo and Juliet.  But, how about all that other stuff? Even he thought the 4th Symphony must have been worth “saving” since it has two opus numbers. But, let’s face it, if  you are a major/middle/minor/community/college orchestra are you going to put the time/effort/money/listener’s patience on the line to learn Prokofiev’s Second Symphony when you could program Romeo and Juliet Suite(s)? Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I agree with this point of view, I am just saying it’s out there.  

Another example that leaps to mind is Max Bruch. How many folks out there, who aren’t Max Bruch Scholars, know more of his work than the Violin Concerto in g minor? What was really frustrating to Max was that he had written a second violin concerto, in D Major, that he firmly believed was a better composition. No one really wanted to hear it or perform it. When he got letters regarding his g minor concerto, he would often send a simple missive in return, “My second violin concerto is much better. Won’t you give it a try?” Few, if any, did.

I also wrote three symphonies that are almost never performed.

Entering into the world of composers who didn’t write a lot, but what they did write is pretty good, two instantly leap to my mind: Gabriel Faure and Alexander Borodin.  Their music is tuneful with (often) solid ideas and (often) beautiful harmonies. Their sense of orchestration is unique (ok, so Borodin had lots of “assistance”) and colorful.  If you don’t know that much music by either of them, don’t worry, you are not alone.  Borodin has three symphonies, but only the second, if any,  is performed along with the Polovetsian Dances from his magnum opus, the opera Prince Igor. Faure is largely known for a small smattering of orchestral & choral works, even though he did write a fair amount of chamber music.

The Most Interesting Faure says, “I don’t often write music. But, when I do, I hold a Dos Equiis.”

I was reported to be a chemist and a feminist. Take that, Interesting Man Faure.

Then we come to the composers who wrote a lot of music and most all of it is good, if not great.  Sure, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn have “lesser” works.  Not everything is Wellington’s Victory (ok, I know that piece comes in for a lot of abuse these days), but their “great” works so outweigh their “lesser” works it isn’t funny. And remember, they were human. They had to learn, develop, and grow just like the rest of us. Naturally they were going to have bumps along the way. And, in the case of Haydn, his work load required such output that I cannot believe how good almost all of it is.

 No, I didn’t forget to mention him. Johann Sebastian Bach.  There. I said it.     

No, angels didn’t write this. An exceptional human did.

Regarding the “no hit wonders,” as I called them earlier…  I am not here to point any fingers about that. I think it is very interesting to look over programs from major orchestras. Many libraries (remember those?) have bound copies of concert programs from major orchestras from 30, 40, 50, 100 years ago. (Sure… some of that is available online. But, there’s nothing like holding the old program book in your hands.) Mahler conducted and performed the music of… Mahler and Strauss. A concert of only contemporary music? With a major orchestra? And it was sold out? Think forward from Mahler’s time. Bernstein has been credited with “rediscovering” Mahler. Did Mahler’s music really disappear? Or was it that Lenny “popularized” Mahler?

Certainly you have some thoughts about this. We’d love to hear your comments!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2012 5:41 pm

    What a phenomenal essay Mr. Jacob— and so many good thoughts ( I often went down this essay saying.. I wonder if he will mention blah blah.. and you always did !! hehe ) — one minor nitpick.. Bruch VC 2 is actually in D MINOR. 🙂 — And it’s a wonderful piece that I actually have conducted twice !! Bruch also wrote a huge amount of big choral church pieces that are NEVER done–and poor Bizet I think wrote at least 5 ( completed????) other operas and none of them seem to EVER be done except The Pearl Fishers here and there. Something that ALWAYS sticks out on this subject of people superfamous for their time and now dorkazoids who love this stuff like me are the only people who know their names– Did you know that Mahler lost a competition or two to RAFF? RAFF!!! Boy Howdy, we just have a rash of Raff performances and festivals these days, do we not? 🙂 ( Also I am dying to know — you can fbook me.. who your well known but irritating composer was on X recital– we all have these standard people that we in our own opinions for whatever reason loathe— I happen to be a huge Saint Saens ( save for a few things ) and Copland ( save for a few mostly unknown things– I know heresy for an American living composer ) despiser, to coin a word, myself. 🙂 — PKW

    • February 4, 2012 8:28 pm

      Hello PKW,

      I (Brian St. John) actually wrote that post, and in addition to initially forgetting to name myself, I did, indeed, forget that the Bruch is in d minor, not major. Thanks for catching that!

      A RaffFest sounds like a great alternative to a MahlerFest. Any “word” that can use the letter F three times in a row is a good word, if you ask me.

      While I like Copland, I have met many musicians who don’t feel the same. I think Saint Saens is one of those composers you can make a joke like this about:

      Q. How many symphonies did Saint-Saens write?
      A. One. The Third.


      Thanks for reading! ~ Brian St. John

  2. February 5, 2012 2:20 am

    I’ve been listening to a number of composers that don’t often get performances in the West from former satellite Soviet countries (particular in Central Asia). Usually names we never get to hear, but are standard fare or considered national treasures in their respective countries.

    One of the biggest difficulties is the idiosyncratic nature of style and instrumentation of these composers works–how many Opera companies are prepared to hire prepared to hire Mugam vocalists, Tar and kamanche virtuosi, and ethnic percussionists to supplement typical Western orchestration to perform the Azeri Mugam Operas of Fikret Amirov or Uzeyir Hajibeyov? Or how many ballet companies (those that still use live musicians) have a duduk section and the specialist choreographers necessary to put on productions that are standard fare in the Georgian National Ballet?

    In some ways, I think it’s sad that more American Orchestras aren’t in the business of supporting and developing a uniquely American symphonic sound, or just generally supporting contemporary American composers in lieu of favoring the European (and some Soviet) masters.

  3. Christopher Koch permalink
    February 6, 2012 5:40 pm

    It’s ironic to note that in the days of the masters we now program almost exclusively, most if not all of the average concert program was devoted to music of the time.

    Historically, people wanted to hear what was new–and even today, this passion remains as strong as ever in the world of popular music. Why is orchestral music (and really, art music in general) now the exception, and what does this say about the relationship between orchestral music and the culture in which we live?

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