Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Avoiding the hazard of reputation inflation


Galloping reputation inflation is devaluing the currency of classical music. In the Weimar Republic you needed millions of Mark notes to buy a loaf. In today's overcrowded music marketplace a composer, other than Haydn, Handel and the other birthday boys, is unlikely to get performances unless they are "an unrecognised, exiled, neglected, died early, persecuted, sub-30 year old, shunned by the musical establishment, genius with an anniversary who wrote overlooked masterpieces which swam against the tide and are featured on Composer of the Week". Similarly if you are a performer you will not be getting many gigs unless you are "the youngest ever, YouTube showcased, critically acclaimed, sometimes busking, multi-media fluent, cross-over centric, Twittering, award winning, TV featured, up-town based, New Generation Artist". Which leaves the problem of how to write about the French composer André Jolivet, who lived somewhat unremarkably from 1905 to 1974.

The more reliable measures send conflicting signals about Jolivet's reputation. His name is missing entirely from Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, Paul Griffiths' A Concise History of Western Music, and Nicholas Kenyon's history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But a search on 'André Jolivet' on amazon.co.uk returns 220 results, YouTube has 128 videos linked to his name, and champions of his music include flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, trumpeter Maurice André and conductor Alain Lombard. In 1966 Jolivet's Second Cello Concerto was commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, no musical fool, who premiered the work at the Soviet Composers Union in Moscow and went on to record it with the composer conducting. Musicologist Dr. Caroline Rae veers perilously close to reputation inflation when she describes the concerto:
This work, together with the concertos of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux and Shostakovich should rank among the panoply of great cello concertos of the second half of the twentieth century.

Strong praise indeed, so why is André Jolivet's music so little-known today? Is it because he was, as the photo above shows, a pipe smoking Frenchman who lived comfortably in Paris with his wife for most of his life? Or is it because he has been conveniently labelled an enemy of the avant-garde, as this quote from Joan Peyser's less-than-objective Boulez, Composer, Conductor, Enigma shows:
Some journalists attributed Boulez's failure with Malraux [to be appointed to the post of musical director in the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs] to the efforts of André Jolivet and Henri Sauguet, "neoclassic" composers and long-standing enemies of Boulez.
That label "neoclassic composer" is a wonderful example of another hazard of classical music - reputation deflation. André Jolivet was influenced by Schoenberg, founded the La Jeune France in 1936 with Messiaen, and was the only European student of Edgard Varèse, in homage to who he composed his 1968 Cérémonial for six percussionsists. Jolivet's compositions during the 1930s showed a pre-occupation with the distinctly non-classical phenomena of magic, fetishes, ancient mythologies, cosmic forces and ritualism.

The rift between Boulez and Jolivet was doubtless due to the latter's shift away from atonality towards a more lyrical and transcedental style during the Second World War. This was triggered by the distress that Jolivet felt at the horrors of war, and by his need to write music that was accessible and would provide spiritual comfort in those difficult times. But to classify Jolivet's later music as reactionary is wrong. His 1947 Concerto for ondes Martenot and Orchestra was one of the first written for the electronic instrument. He retained his pre-occupation with rhythm throughout his life, and from 1960 onwards percussion became a central ingredient of his sound palette, as in the 1966 Suite for flute and percussion which Caroline Rae describes as '... a dramatic investigation of textural interaction and confrontation.'

Thankfully the hazard of reputation inflation can be avoided by letting you judge for yourself the merits of André Jolivet's music. There is an excellent English-language website devoted to him. As mentioned above he is well served on YouTube, and I have embedded an excellent 10 minute video of the piano version of his 1948 Concertino for Trumpet below. The iTunes download of Erato's 4 CD overview of his music is one of life's great bargains at 0.79p per track, or just £10.99 for more than four hours of refreshingly reputation inflation-free music in first class sound. It includes both the Cello Concertos with the second played by Rostropovich, the ondes Martenot and flute and percussion concertos, and much other fine music. If like me you want Caroline Rae's superb biographical essay available alongside the music, the CD set, which is seen in my header scan, is available for little more than the download - around £12.00. This invaluable 4 CD Jolivet box is in the same Warner Classics series as another set featuring a composer who has appeared here several times recently. But I am not going to mention their name to avoid the hazard of reputation inflation.



The 4 CD set André Jolivet - Les enregistrements Erato was bought by me at the full retail price. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

2 comments:

Pliable said...

Interesting, the Erato Jolivet box was in stock at amazon.co.uk, to which I linked, when I uploaded this article an hour ago.

It is now out of stock.

Shows that reputation inflation is not the only way to promote classical music.

Justin said...

I live in the US, and it's very frustrating to me that none of Erato's CDs are available for MP3 download outside of Great Britain. I would dearly love to hear this Jolivet set and Erato's other set by Ohana.

Thanks for this excellent post.