The Classical Music Thread.

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The Classical Music Thread.

Post by pmp »

There has been more interest in classical music than I expected in the "What are you Listening to" thread in AllElvis, and so I thought it might be an idea to make a separate all-purpose topic on the subject. Whether it's favourite composers, performers, concert memories, or simply what you've been listening to. And I start it today, because I've just made a blog post that I thought might work well and be of interest as an opening post...


"Where has all the music gone?" The Narrowing of the Classical Repertoire.

It’s fair to say that I have always liked oddities and rarities when it comes to music. I’m very keen to pick up forgotten albums by well-known jazz musicians, or even albums by forgotten jazz musicians. I feel the same with regards to classical music, too. I’m always intrigued as to why some composers are household names and others have been forgotten.

I think there’s a reason for my interest in this. When I went to high school at the age of eleven, we had classroom music lessons for the first time. Not learning instruments, but learning about pieces and their composers. It opened up a whole new world to me. Sure, Mum had a few classical-lite albums, but for the most part I knew nothing about composers and their music beyond a few Hollywood biopics that might have been shown on Channel 4 on a wet afternoon during a summer holiday.

I quickly became hooked, but as a family we had little money, and so I couldn’t go out and buy albums in order to expand my knowledge. So, instead, I turned to Norwich library, where I could borrow an LP for something like 50 pence for two weeks. But there was an issue: I knew virtually nothing about the records I was looking through. I had no idea with regards to what was a famous piece and what was an obscure one. In short, I didn’t know my Schubert from my Schoenberg.

And so, as an example, my first encounter with Verdi was through a little-known opera called Alzira rather than something more famous like Rigoletto. I had no idea it was an obscurity, and I loved Alzira. It ran ninety minutes, and was full of rousing choruses and relatively short arias. It was perfect for me as an introduction to opera aged eleven or twelve. I had no idea that Verdi himself had something of a dismissive view of it, and probably didn’t care.
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Likewise, I borrowed works by composers that I’d never heard of, without any knowledge that they were obscure or largely forgotten. How else would I have got to hear Thea Musgrave’s opera of A Christmas Carol? In fact, the very act of borrowing vinyl from a library often inadvertently led to obscure works – these records were less likely to have been taken out as often, and therefore less likely to look as if they had been used as frisbees in the past!

It was only as a I got older and (supposedly) wiser that I found out that I had unintentionally been exploring classical music with none of the usual prejudices towards certain works or composers. And that was a blessing. I didn’t prejudge anything during those years. If I liked what I heard, so be it. I didn’t care whether anyone else liked it or not.

For better or worse, this interest in the obscure and forgotten has carried on into middle-age. Only a week or two ago, I picked up a collection of classical albums in a job lot on eBay because there was a substantial portion dedicated to composers of the classical and romantic eras that I so far owned no or little music by. Listening to them, one has to wonder why the music by the likes of Spohr, Raff, Gade, Rubinstein, Fuchs and Fibich isn’t heard any more.

The BBC website dedicated to detailing all Prom concerts from 1895 to the present day demonstrates how certain composers have gone out of fashion – and I use the Proms in this article simply because the information on what was performed and when is both complete and accurate. For example, the Danish composer Gade (who appeared in my job lot purchase) had five works performed at the Proms between 1895 and 1912. And then only once in 1992 since then. Why? Having died in 1890, it appears that it took twenty years or so for his work to be forgotten (in the UK, at least). Despite this, the Marco Polo label releases of some of his orchestral music show it to be perfectly good and enjoyable, and certainly no worse than some of his contemporaries whose music is much better known.

I knew the name of Spohr through a line in The Mikado (of all things), which we performed at school. The Mikado himself sings of “Bach interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven,” which suggests that Spohr was a household name in 1885, more than twenty-five years after his death. And yet, once again, the Proms archive site shows us that his music faded into obscurity around the same time as Gade’s – somewhere around the beginning of World War One.

It's not just certain composers that get forgotten, but well-known works by still-famous composers eventually get side-lined, too. Take, for example, Liszt’s tone poem, Les Preludes, which was performed at the Proms some 52 times between 1896 and 1963. And, since 1963, just once. And yet Les Preludes is one of the most famous tone poems ever written. And it’s still recorded from time to time, although nothing like as much as during the early-LP era. So, why has it left the concert stage (if we use the Proms website as something of a gauge in such matters)?

I think there is little doubt that the shortening of classical concerts in recent years has something to do with it in the case of a piece like Les Preludes. There seems to be little room these days for the mid-length pieces such as this. Our concerts have become set in the overture-concerto-interval-symphony format, thus leaving no space for the likes of tone poems or rhapsodies. Some still manage to sneak in, like Rhapsody in Blue does quite regularly, but they are the exception and not the rule. The programme to a Prom I went to a few years ago tells of how the orchestral versions of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies hadn’t been performed there since the 1970s.

But there is something more going on than this. As we have seen already, some composers simply seem to go out of fashion for no obvious reason. Perhaps part of it is to do with commercial concerns when it comes to recorded music – but the music has to have gone out of fashion FIRST for the commercial concerns to come into play. It seems a great shame, I think, that the repertoire has shrunk so much, particularly since the end of World War Two.

Certainly, with regards to live performances, there is little reason why seasons such as the Proms can’t be used as a way of reviving forgotten composers and pieces. After all, they are a champion of new works by living composers, and so it’s not like audiences are unwilling to hear something they don’t know. And they have helped to bring to public attention works by the likes of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price in recent years, but is it too little too late to save the works of these composers for the ages? Bear in mind that Coleridge-Taylor was performed at dozens of Prom concerts through to the late 1950s, before being dropped completely.

What is most concerning is that major labels and major concerts tend to be narrowing the classical repertoire rather than widening it. I’m not sure the world needs another recording of Mozart’s Requiem right now – or Verdi’s, come to that. And surely there are enough versions of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to keep us going for a little while, too? Even within the legacy of these composers who are household names, there are many works that are rarely performed (if performed at all) – and presumably this is due in many cases to the tastes and reviews of audiences and critics of a hundred or more years ago.

I’m all for dusting off forgotten works, for there are many gems among them. Let’s not forget that much of Vivaldi’s work was lost and forgotten for nearly two hundred years, and The Four Seasons didn’t get its first commercial recording until the early 1940s. And even more recent “finds” can create waves. Who can forget Cecilia Bartoli’s 1999 album of arias from Vivaldi operas that not only resulted in a revival of the works that the arias came from, but also of baroque opera as a whole?

But I’m not just talking of the baroque era. Thankfully, labels such as Hyperion, CPO, Chandos, and Naxos are still willing to record obscurities – even if the independent nature of these labels mean they inevitably don’t reach as wide an audience as those from Decca, Deutsche Grammophon etc. Also, some of our best young classical musicians such as Edgar Moreau and Isata Kanneh-Mason (to name just two) seem keen on exploring forgotten works and forgotten composers (such as the Offenbach cello concerto and the Clara Schumann piano concerto respectively), but presumably they can do so because the performer’s names are commercial enough to allow this to happen and guarantee sales. And it’s worth saying that we are living in a golden era when it comes to young classical musicians, with not just Edgar Moreau and Isata Kanneh-Mason, but also Sheku Kanneh-Mason (so famous right now that he is recognisable through his first name alone), Jan Lisiecki, Pavel Kolesnikov, Daniil Trifonov, Daniel Lozakovich, and Vikingur Olaffsson, among others.

It is ultimately up to them, their labels, and concert organisers to make sure that we don’t lose for good many of the neglected great works that are out there. Luckily, during the age of the blu-ray, film studios and independent distribution labels have resurrected many films that haven’t been seen for decades (and they continue to do so). One can only hope that the same can be done for the “lost” classical music which has, for whatever reason, had a fall from grace and is quietly being forgotten, perhaps for good.

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