Thursday, January 16, 2014
Why not play the premier league composers more often?
Much has been written about classical music's unhealthy obsession with composer anniversaries. So it is time to turn attention to the equally unhealthy obsession with music written in the twelve decades between 1854 (Wagner composed Das Reingold) and 1971 (Shostakovich composed his 15th Symphony). In fact the obsession with composer anniversaries and the obsession with music from those decades has created a perfect storm, with anniversaries for Mahler, Wagner, Verdi and Britten followed by Richard Strauss this year and, wait for it, Sibelius and Nielsen in 2015. In fact a newcomer to classical music looking at concert programmes, listening to the radio or scanning CD release schedules, could be forgiven for thinking that the music written before Wagner is of little consequence. Which is, of course, terribly and dangerously wrong.
There are a number of reasons for this unhealthy obsession. Musicians themselves are partly to blame: specialisation means that the pre-1854 repertoire has become the province of specialist ensembles and specialist conductors, with the result that Mozart and Mahler now rarely meet on the concert platform. Which is a nonsensical state of affairs, as Bruno Walter and other past giants of the podium proved. Compounding this is the politically correct view that a modern symphony orchestra cannot and should not play Bach and his contemporaries, more nonsense which is exposed by Sir Adrian Boult's recordings of the Brandenburgs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a condescending assumption that because audiences like Mahler, they will only like music that sounds like Mahler. Which, again, is nonsense: audiences like Mahler because it is good music, and audiences also like good music from before 1854. Of course Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and their peers are first division composers. But above them is a premiere league populated by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Classical music wants to expand its audience. So why not play the music of the premier league composers more often?
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