Classical Commentary: “Rethinking the Repertoire” — An Introduction

I’ve often wondered just what an expanded orchestral repertoire might look like, one that doesn’t just focus on contemporary (or even just 20th-century) music, but one that takes into account the 19th century after Beethoven.

Virgil Thomson --

Composer/critic Virgil Thomson — we have an unhealthy devotion to the idea of “the masterpiece.”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

It’s one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This is especially true when considering the symphonic canon and, apparently, it’s been that way for a while. “A strange thing this symphonic repertory,” Virgil Thomson noted in 1939. “From Tokyo to Lisbon, from Tel-Aviv to Seattle, ninety percent of it is the same fifty pieces. The other ten is usually devoted to good-will performances of works by local celebrities. All the rest is standardized.” And so it still is, perhaps more now than ever.

Why? Well, one of the reasons, at least philosophically, stems from an unhealthy devotion to the idea of “the masterpiece.” Thomson, as usual, had thoughts on this phenomenon and they’re worth quoting here at some length:

The enjoyment and understanding of music are dominated in a most curious way by the prestige of the masterpiece. Neither the theatre nor the cinema nor poetry nor narrative fiction pays allegiance to its ideal of excellence in the tyrannical way that music does. They recognize no unbridgeable chasm between “great work” and the rest of production…But music…seems to be committed to the idea that first-class work in composition is separable from the rest of music-writing by a distinction as radical as that recognized in theology between the elect and the damned…This snobbish definition of excellence…reposes…on the theocratic idea that inspiration is less a privilege of the private citizen than of the ordained prophet. Its weakness lies in the fact that music, though it serves most becomingly as religion’s handmaiden, is not a religion. Music does not deal in general ideas of morality or salvation. It is an art. It expresses private sentiments through skill and sincerity, both of which last are a privilege, a duty, indeed, of the private citizen, and no monopoly of the prophetically inclined.

There are other reasons, too, ranging from the general conservatism of orchestral institutions themselves and the lack of desire for musical adventure of their audiences to the sad state of musical education and literacy in the West and much in between. Together, these factors combine to paint a picture of safe, bleak redundancy.

Of course the current way wasn’t always how things were done: if you were to travel back in time two-and-a-half centuries, you would find audiences generally clamoring for new and fresh music. Mozart’s piano concertos, for instance, were like sophisticated, thirty-minute-long pop albums, written to feed a popular craze for the genre. That’s one reason why there are so many of them and such variety between the twenty-seven.

Then as now, audiences didn’t always “get” new music. On the contrary, at the time, they were baffled by plenty of what makes up the standard canon: a reviewer in 1826 wrote that Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was “incomprehensible, like Chinese.” Granted, that fugue remains something of a tough nut to crack, but what do we make of the Berlin critic writing about “the ear-rending dissonances, torturous transitions, sharp modulations, repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm” of…Chopin? Or the Boston wit who, in 1885, described Brahms as “an incomprehensible terror”? Fellow composers sometimes weren’t much help, either: Tchaikovsky likened the experience of hearing the last bars of Götterdämmerung to being let out of prison. (As for taking sides in the Brahms-Wagner skirmishes of the day, Tchaikovsky was an equal-opportunity offender, describing Brahms at one point as “a giftless bastard.”)

But there was a curiosity and an engagement, nonetheless: the audience at the premiere of Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 in Munich in 1910 reads like a who’s-who of early-20th-century musical and literary culture, including Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Alexander Zemlinsky, Anton Webern, Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Siegfried Wagner, Paul Dukas, Camille Saint-Saëns, Bruno Walter, Franz Schalk, and Leopold Stokowski. And then there were 3000 other people in the hall, who, presumably, hailed from sundry walks of life and tiers of society.

Obviously, much has changed since 1910 in terms of musical taste, styles, and the ways in which society views orchestral music. That said, the responses of orchestras to the changing times has for the most part been reflexive rather than proactive, retreating to safe programming of those fifty or so repertoire cornerstones. Today, new orchestral music, if it’s played at all, usually gets short shrift on major orchestral programs or is relegated to a handful of ensembles that are devoted exclusively to contemporary music (like the Boston Modern Orchestra Project). But what’s even more lamentable is the fact that, owing to this timidity, so much excellent music from the past and near present has fallen by the wayside.

A couple of years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) embarked on one of their most satisfying seasons, programmatically, presenting a series of unfamiliar pieces by well-known composers like Ravel, Stravinsky, Britten, Bernstein, and others. I thought it resulted not only in great, thought-provoking evenings at Symphony Hall, but also in some of the BSO’s consistently finest playing in recent memory: it challenged the orchestra and its audience in many of the right ways.

It’s a pity that the successes of that season, chief among them its willingness to take risks, aren’t emulated more widely and often. True, some orchestras do this sort of thing more regularly than others: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Albany Symphony, the Alan Gilbert-led New York Philharmonic, and, of course, the daring Los Angeles Philharmonic, embrace, to varying degrees, the new and unusual; and period ensembles, generally, tend to be far more enterprising in their concert offerings than non-period orchestras. But many ensembles don’t.

The fact is, if music is a living, breathing art form, one that fills a vital human need, it can’t thrive or grow on a paltry diet. Rather, it needs to consistently reflect a diversity of voices. In the hermetically sealed world of classical music this is as true now as it’s ever been. I’m not saying that we should jettison or forget the core pieces or composers: like it or not, they’re here to stay. But we can – and need to – proactively add to their number and build around them.

I’ve often wondered just what an expanded orchestral repertoire might look like, one that doesn’t just focus on contemporary (or even just 20th-century) music, but one that takes into account the 19th century after Beethoven. What music and composers are realistic candidates for addition to the orchestral canon? What has kept these pieces out the repertoire thus far? Why should we care about them now?

These questions (and others that arise) are some of the ones that I intend to explore in “Rethinking the Repertoire,” a multi-part series that will be appearing in the Arts Fuse over the next several months. For the sake of this experiment/exploration, I’ve compiled a list of twenty-five composers and chosen one orchestral piece by each for inclusion. This isn’t a scientific survey. On the contrary, it’s highly subjective: my primary criterion was that each of these pieces has something to say that I, at least, find worth hearing. It’s not egalitarian, either. The majority of the composers are men and all on the list hail from the West.

Having said that, I’ve tried to cast a wide net. There’s new music, for sure, but the selections include a fair number of 19th- and 20th-century works that, for whatever reason(s), have gathered some dust. The earliest composer on my list, Felix Mendelssohn, was born in 1809, the most recent, Anna Clyne, in 1980. Between the twenty-five, they cover nearly two centuries of musical creativity, from 1831 to 2013. Stylistically there are no common threads, aside from the use of the orchestra with or without instrumental and vocal soloists and/or chorus. There’s tonal music here, atonal pieces, works that use Serialism, post-Minimalist scores, and polystylistic compositions, among others. In each installment, I’ll provide a brief discussion of the composer and a general, not-too-technical analysis of the chosen piece.

Naturally, any project like this will omit any number of worthy composers and works. It isn’t comprehensive or conclusive and that’s part of the point. The takeaway here is that there’s a tremendous amount of great music being (and already) written that’s well worth discovering. It is my hope that this series will remind you of that fact and that it might bring to light some music you either don’t know or haven’t thought about for a long time. As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.

So, with that out of the way, let’s begin…

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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