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First Class Second Class Composers

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I remember fondly the BBC producing a series under this heading many years ago which highlighted works of great merit by lesser-known composers. Their craftsmanship, ideas and structure were in no way inferior to the works of the big names, but they simply didn’t make it to the forefront, possibly because they didn’t have the volume of output, or that they weren’t the big hitters like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, et al.

This is especially noticeable in the field of chamber music, where works by Spohr, Berwald, Hummel and many others stand comparison with any of the big names.

My post title is of course a quote from Richard Strauss, who saw himself thus. On another occasion he said “I know more about music than Sibelius, but he is the better composer”. I think that is a profoundly truthful remark.

Other composers in this category I would list as Ravel, E. J. Moeran, Dutilleux, Massenet and Gounod.

If my memory serves me right, F.C.S.C.C. had its heyday before the advent of round-the-clock Radio 3 and after the primitive days of the Third Programme, which started at 6.00 p.m. then shut down four hours later.


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Some examples of attractive and enjoyable works that might be more popular if they had less forbidding titles:

Edmund Rubbra: Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby
Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

(Actually I suspect that Hindemith was being mischievous and perhaps even humorous with his Symphonic Metamorphoses title.) Hindemith was a bit of a wag – think of his 1925 string quartet piece “Overture to the Flying Dutchman, as played by sight by a mediocre spa orchestra at 7 a.m. in front of the drinking fountain”.

The two examples above are characterized by (a) their length and (b) the inclusion of musical terms that may be unfamiliar to some people – arguably to many. This is a combination that might discourage somebody thinking of dipping a toe in the wonderful pool of classical music. I wonder whether somebody who gets to hear of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and considers giving it a try might feel less adventurous if confronted with a work called “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”.

How about Holst’s Fugal Concerto and Fugal Overture? Maybe Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (though this is popular enough despite the possibility that the first adjective could be misconstrued as referring to a quality of the work), or all those works of his (and others) that are entitled “Klavierstück” followed by a number? What about “Die Kunst der Fuge”? Carl Ruggles once said “If you ask me , Brahms was just a big cissie. Look at some of his titles : Capriccio, Intermezzo. Now, what the hell does that mean?”

This reminds me of the work by Mendelssohn called “Spring Song” – a real classic, of course, charming in its way and immensely popular. It seems that he wrote this in London during one of his visits to these shores, and originally named it after the place where he was staying – “Camberwell Green”. How would it have fared if he had not changed his mind?

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