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The history of music is littered with composers respected in their day but consigned to the rubbish bin after death thanks to the harsh judgement of narrow-minded critics or the timidity of concert programmers. Some, of course, might just deserve it – there are plenty who weighed in to relegate Meyerbeer to the long list of also-rans. But many others appear genuinely underappreciated or underrated.
So, what is the difference between an underrated composer and an underplayed composer? West Australian Symphony Orchestra maestro Asher Fisch offered this helpful definition: “I think Hindemith is not underrated, but he is underplayed, and that is maybe because his music doesn’t speak to a lot of people,” he explained. “I understand that. People who seek for intellect in music will like Hindemith, while people who don’t won’t, but he is not underrated. I think Busoni is underrated, because he is appreciated by neither group, though he definitely falls into the category of intellectual music.”
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s David Robertson offered this reflection on the familiar fate of many: “Essentially, the moment that a composer is no longer alive,” he remarked, “unless they have people who are willing to stand up and say I really like this piece and I want to do it because it is an irreplaceable part of our rich musical heritage that deserves to be heard, the works fall by the wayside and that’s sad.”
Of course, there are composers whose reputation has been saved by a baton-wielding knight in shining armour – think of Delius defended by Sir Thomas Beecham, Honegger or Frank Martin championed by Ansernmet, or the advocacy of a Vernon Handley for Arnold Bax. But it can also be the case that once the maestro passes, so too does his enthusiasms, and what was once buoyed up sinks back beneath the waves of musical time.
Nevertheless, the world is full of the musically curious, and so to assist Limelight readers keen to forage further afield, we asked seven leading conductors who they would love to see back at the top of the bill.
Principal Conductor, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Hugo Wolf (1860 – 1903)
Wolf is perhaps not so underrated among singers, but in the pantheon of composers his is not a name that crops up anywhere near as often as it should. He wrote one or two orchestral pieces and two operas – although they’re never ever performed! – so perhaps he was most comfortable in the smaller, more personal world of the Lied. Schubert and Schumann were also able to write symphonies and chamber music, hence their rightly deserved fame. But still, Wolf’s flagrant genius deserves to be universally appreciated.
Back when I was studying voice and piano at Melbourne University, I was interested in the great Lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and, of course, Wolf. His songs have the proportions of Schubert and Schumann, but are harmonically far more ‘technicoloured’. Wolf was a real enfant terrible, vehemently opposed to traditionalists like Brahms. He was a great fan of Wagner, of course, and was even encouraged by Wagner himself to continue composing.
Wolf was the ultimate manic-depressive Romantic, similar in a sense to Schumann. His great skill as composer and musical poet was to distil the essence of a poem by Eichendorff or Goethe or Mörike and reveal the quintessence of its meaning in a musical style. That’s what always attracted me to his music. It’s so poignant, so deep. It’s pithy and yet it’s like this beautiful, pristine flower, where for just four minutes you’re exposed to this blaze of genius and then the song stops.
The songs I am most drawn to are the Mörike Lieder, his cycle on poems by Eduard Mörike. There is the spectacularly beautiful Gebet (Prayer), but also Der Feuerreiter (The Fire Rider), which is a demonic, almost apocalyptic representation of this fire demon. It’s quite extraordinary music for just one voice and one piano, and even though it only lasts a few minutes, it is operatic in its proportions.
Chief Conductor, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)
Charles Ives was a very original and unusual American composer. He died in 1954 but most of his major music was written in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two and a half of the 20th century. After that he suffered a composing block that he never really got over. Ives is sometimes more talked and written about than performed but I’ve always been passionate about his music.
Ives first became famous in America about a year before he died, when Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic that was broadcast live all over the country.
He grew up in a small town in Connecticut where his father was the local bandmaster. George Ives used to do things like play a scale in C Major on the piano and make his son sing D Flat Major, to toughen up his ears. So both were committed to getting away from soft, gentle Victorian salon music. Throughout his career Charles Ives gradually made his music more complex and dissonant – for instance, in the four symphonies – and I believe the Fourth Symphony is one of the greatest works of the 20th century. It’s a huge piece with a huge piano part. It has a short introduction in which the chorus sings: “Watchman, tell us of the night, what its signs of promise are,” and he replies, “Traveller! o’er yon mountain’s height, see that glory-beaming star!” The rest of the symphony is a quest for this star, this unattainable metaphysical goal.
A few Ives pieces appear sometimes on concert programmes – one I do myself a lot is Decoration Day from the Holiday Symphony. Ives was very dismissive of composers like Debussy, who he thought was just all too pretty. I think for a long time Ives’ music was just considered too tricky – but people actually didn’t try! In America, finally, more people are playing his music.
Principal Conductor, West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924)
When I came to Berlin in 1992, Daniel Barenboim demanded that one of the productions in his second year at the Staatsoper would be Busoni’s Die Brautwahl. Everybody went, “What? Why?” But then we did this opera and I had a blast of a time. That’s how I became a fan.
Busoni was a cultured man who broke the pattern of the day. In musical history, Germans like everybody in northern Europe were fascinated by the Italians, but I don’t know any Italians fascinated by the Germans except Busoni. One of the reasons he never became very famous as a composer was that for the Italians, who didn’t understand his aesthetics, he was nobody, and for the Germans he was a virtuoso from Italy, so they couldn’t care less about his music. That’s probably why he ended up falling between the cracks.
I cannot compare Busoni’s musical language to anybody else. Of course there are Baroque and Bach influences, but though it’s modern, it’s not futuristic. It’s a very personal harmonic and there is something of Hindemith in it, I find, which is a juxtaposition of unrelated harmonies. Perhaps Busoni wasn’t particularly talented when it came to melodic invention, but if you’re inside the music – like in his opera Doktor Faust – it really works. It’s magical, it’s spellbinding and it’s very, very good.
There aren’t symphonic works, but there’s a piano concerto and I know the Bach arrangements for piano, which are a must to hear. He also made Wagner transcriptions – there’s an incredible Götterdämmerung transcription – and then there are the operas: Die Brautwahl, Turandot and Arlecchino.
For me, Doktor Faust is the pinnacle. Die Brautwahl is fascinating, but it’s his first opera and it has corners where people are going to turn off. But Faust is definitely a work one can listen to – or better still watch a DVD!
Principal Guest Conductor, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
Max Reger (1873 – 1916)
Reger – born in Brand, Bavaria, died in Leipzig – was a contemporary of Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Sibelius, Lehár, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Holst and Ravel. Reger wrote music for almost all genres except opera. He was a pianist and organist himself and is foremost famous for his compositions for organ. He also wrote choral music, chamber music for all sorts of instruments, and orchestral pieces. He is clearly in the line of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and pushes the chromatic/harmonic boundaries of Romantic music to the limits, similar to Schoenberg.
Reger’s music is deeply rooted in the tradition of counterpoint, but he explores this art in combination within a most exiting harmonic language. If he had lived longer, I believe he would have become a twelve tone composer like his contemporaries of the Second Viennese school. Reger is not the only one of his generation to disappear from concert programmes. Where are composers like Zemlinsky, Korngold, Schreker, Schoeck, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Webern?
Maybe orchestras nowadays are too cautious to programme lesser-known composers? We have Beethoven and Mahler cycles everywhere but miss out on so much wonderful music.
I love Reger’s works for organ as well as his choral music, but as a conductor, my favorite piece is his monumental Variations and Fugue on a theme by Mozart. In my opinion it’s a work of genius. He takes the lovely little theme from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A and turns it into a wonderful, complex world of orchestral music. It is marvelous in every respect – the variations, the instrumentation, the orchestral colours. It is one of the pinnacles of late-Romantic orchestral music, continuing the art of “variations” from Bach’s Goldbergs, Beethoven’s Diabelli and Brahms’ Haydn Variations. And listen to the fugue at the end of the piece – just great!
Chief Conductor, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Associate Conductor, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957)
Erich Korngold was born in 1897, the year Brahms died and Mahler took over the Imperial Opera in Vienna. A true child of the 20th century, he was a contemporary of Stravinsky, Copland, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Walton, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman.
Korngold’s music spans a range of styles from his operas and instrumental and chamber music to his acclaimed film scores (Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk etc). Above all, he is a theatrical composer whose film music might be described as the cinematic equivalent of the tone poems of Strauss and Liszt. His lasting influence as a composer of high quality music for films forms part of his rich legacy.
I really appreciate Korngold’s capacity to write music that is richly melodic and intensely romantic, whilst also being harmonically and contrapuntally complex and original. I find his music an almost perfect hybrid of the ‘popular’ and the ‘art-music’ styles of the first half of the 20th century. There is a perception that some of his richly melodic and romantic non-film music was old fashioned, even when it was first performed, and particularly when viewed through the prism of the musical revolution occurring at the time. Nowadays it’s a different world, but back then, the stigma of being perceived as primarily a composer of film music was clearly a factor.
Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) is possibly the most brilliantly orchestrated and soaringly melodic opera ever written. It’s one of my favourites. His Symphony in F Sharp is highly dramatic with clear cinematic influences. But my pick as his masterpiece would have to be his extraordinary 1945 Violin Concerto – a perfect combination of his old world European heritage and the new world of his legendary Hollywood career.
Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Albert Roussel (1869 – 1937)
There are plenty of people who I find really fascinating, but where it’s hard to convince organisations to perform their works. One in particular that I think listeners deserve to be better acquainted with is the French composer Albert Roussel. He was of the same generation as Debussy, but started as a midshipman in the navy and only came to music as an adult. Satie, Varèse and Martinu° were all his students. It’s hard to figure out how you would connect those three composers, but in fact you can do it through their teacher.
It was a high school friend told me about Le Festin de l’Araignée or The Spider’s Feast. It’s this ballet in which there’s a spider that eats other insects, and something about this really appealed to the teenager in me. Like most composers at the time, Roussel absorbed the main influences of the day. His is clearly impressionistic music, but there’s no way you could mistake it for Debussy or Ravel.
What I find fascinating is Roussel’s way of thinking of music in terms of blocks. He was very interested in mathematics – that was what he originally studied before he went into the navy – and I would be willing to bet that he was fascinated by the theory of sets because he tends to manipulate a lot of his material in that way. He was influenced by the beauties and orchestral potentials inherent in Impressionism, but he had a very individual sense of harmony and melody and how you can put those together in contrapuntal textures in a way that maintains the richness of the harmony that the Impressionists unleashed.
I think Roussel’s real masterpieces are works like The Spider’s Feast, and then something like the Suite in F, the Third Symphony and probably Bacchus and Ariadne. I also have a great warmth for his ballet Aeneas. I think any of those works would win over pretty much anyone.
Guest Conductor, Australian World Orchestra
Franz Schmidt (1874 – 1939)
Franz Schmidt is hardly known at all in Australia – even in Germany he’s not that well known – but I first became aware of his significance when I came to Austria. He was born in Pozsony, right on the border of Hungary but then his family moved to Vienna where his theory teacher was Anton Bruckner.
Schmidt’s is a small output in orchestral terms. There are four symphonies, two operas, of which I’ve only ever seen the one that’s better known: Notre Dame, based on the Victor Hugo novel. One of the reasons maybe that Schmidt was ignored was a question mark over whether he was a Nazi sympathiser. However, he was commissioned to write an oratorio based on a Nazi text, which he abandoned, and that would seem to indicate he really wasn’t involved in the political machine.
Even though Schmidt was writing well into the 20th century, his musical language is still very tonal. For me, he falls into the Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Hindemith line, with Wagner in there as well. Of the four symphonies, the best known is the final one. It’s probably the most complex, and it’s going to be the first that I tackle in about 18 months time. I’m going to slowly work my way through all the works, even the second opera, which is based on the story of Fredegunda, a very early Frankish ruler, even though I don’t know what shape the score’s in.
But his real masterpiece, and my particular interest in this composer, is a piece called Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals). It’s an amazing oratorio that he wrote towards the end of his life in the mid 30s – an extraordinary piece for a massive choir, a big post-Romantic orchestra and four soloists, of whom the bass is the most significant because he’s also the voice of God. It’s the sort of piece that people get really obsessive about, and I am now one of them.