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From Vivaldi to Vaughan Williams: more musical voices who have changed our world

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2020-11-25 Martin Kettle

The aim of the Know the score series was straightforward. To assist the reader who is curious about classical music, and to help them find some entry points with short guides to some of the art form’s best-known names. With the series now ended, where might the reader who is still curious go next? What of the many, many composers who didn’t make our top 20?

There is, of course, no definitive league table of great composers, and no two people would come up with the same 20 names that we chose to focus on. And so the aim of this article is to offer one entirely personal view of some of the composers who did not make it into the original series. And, for the sake of symmetry, we have another 20.

In some respects, I think this is a trickier assignment than choosing the original 20. Beethoven was an obvious first selection for that series; Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms didn’t require a whole lot of debate, either. And Handel, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky were pretty much certs for inclusion, too.

Once you get beyond that first dozen, though, it becomes more a question of judgment and balance, and, to some extent, of taste and tradition. The inclusion in the premier league of two British composers – Elgar and Britten – would astonish compilers of similar lists in other countries. Not everyone would give a place to Shostakovich or Sibelius, either – especially if we were doing this 50 years ago.

The enduring centre of gravity of classical music still lies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The lamentable absence of women from such lists reflects those times

Some obvious generalisations stand out. All of our top 20 are men. All are long dead. All were Europeans (in defiance of Brexit, I count Elgar and Britten in that category, and they would have done the same themselves). And all bar five were born during Europe’s “long 19th century”, between the French Revolution in 1789 and the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. Five of them were contemporaries – all born between 1857 and 1865.

Reviewing my 20 proposals for the salon des refusés it is clear that most of the same generalisations apply. This reflects a reality: in spite of the broadening of public taste in recent decades, the enduring centre of gravity of classical music still lies in the 19th and early-20th centuries. The lamentable absence of women from such lists also reflects those times – and also our own. But at least not all of my 20 are dead, and nor are they all Europeans. Nevertheless, the power of the long 19th century persists. Fully 16 of my choices were born in that same 125-year period, though this time the “golden generation” has moved forward a bit, to the years from 1872 to 1885.

Romantic passions

The most controversial exclusion from the first 20 was surely Robert Schumann (1810-56). Schumann’s continuing importance in the fields of piano music and song is towering. In both fields, his lyrical and innovative gifts produced white-hot periods of creativity – in the late 1830s on piano, and in the year 1840 with his songs. Much of this output was sparked by his love for the scarcely less remarkable pianist and composer Clara Wieck. Schumann’s chamber music and orchestral writing (including some fine works with chorus) may not touch the same heights, but he unquestionably qualifies for inclusion in our new list.

Life of Franz Liszt sitting on a suitcase: A mighty musical presence ... Franz Liszt, c1858. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo © Provided by The Guardian A mighty musical presence ... Franz Liszt, c1858. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The same is true of Schumann’s contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) and Franz Liszt (1811-86). Mendelssohn was arguably an even greater childhood genius than Mozart. His wonderful string octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture were written when he was 16 and 17 respectively. His choral works remain pillars of the repertoire, as do his orchestral pieces, but much of Mendelssohn’s other work is still neglected. His late chamber music is especially fine.

Liszt was a mighty musical presence in two (and a half) important ways. His prowess as a pianist – and his scandalous private life – coincided with the perfecting of the modern grand piano and the rise of the public concert, at which Liszt excelled and in which his own music loomed large. But he was also a serious innovator as a composer, especially after he abandoned the concert hall. And the half? Liszt’s role as a conductor and champion of the music of Wagner (who became his son-in-law).

Italian innovators

a group of people jumping in the air: Dazzling ... Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, in a 2007 production at the Edinburgh international festival. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/the Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Dazzling ... Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, in a 2007 production at the Edinburgh international festival. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/the Guardian

The earliest composer on my list is Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Known as the father of opera, Monteverdi was the first operatic composer of genius, achieving a fusion between the harmonic refinements of his 16th-century predecessors and the new Italian taste for declaimed musical drama. Huge amounts of his music is lost, but the operas, madrigals and choral music that survive are dazzling achievements.

Like Monteverdi, but a century later, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) spent most of his creative life in Venice, which was then still the musical powerhouse of Europe. Vivaldi taught at one of the city’s four music schools for girls, for whom he composed hundreds of concertos. As Liszt would do for the piano, so Vivaldi did for the violin and other stringed instruments in which northern Italy led the world. His Four Seasons has become one of the essential works, not just of early music specialists. But it is only the tip of the iceberg of an output of astoundingly sustained quality.

Two other Italians make my list. Both were essentially operatic composers, though both wrote a small number of fascinating other works, too. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote some of the most spirited and successful operas ever composed. The humour and quicksilver originality of his music conquered Europe. Then, for close on 40 years, he effectively retired to live an epicurean and hedonistic life in Paris.

Dilba et al. posing for the camera: Conquering humour ... Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in a 2014 production at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Conquering humour ... Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in a 2014 production at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote one brilliant comic opera, too, but most of his works are melodramatic, tragic and often violent. A streak of misogyny in his operas is hard to deny and, as with Rossini, there are still those who turn their noses up at it all. But the human ardour and sheer tunefulness of Puccini’s vocal writing is of such quality and skill that he produced some of the most enduringly popular operas of all time. With both composers, there is so much more than musical cleverness at work.

Iconoclasts

The opposite is sometimes said of both Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his fellow Viennese composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). It is impossible to understand the trajectories of the music of the 20th century without Schoenberg. Indeed, almost all music since his time can, in part, be seen as either an embrace or a rejection of his approach. Schoenberg began writing as a follower of post-Wagnerian lushness before eventually replacing traditional keys and harmonies with a system based on relations between the 12 pitches of the musical octave. Berg was Schoenberg’s most distinguished disciple, but he assimilated much of the older composer’s system without impairing either the lyricism or dramatic power of his own writing, and the older system of tonality remained a subconscious presence in his music.

a person wearing a costume: Dramatic power ... Berg’s Lulu in a 2002 production for English National Opera. Photograph: Tristram Kenton © Provided by The Guardian Dramatic power ... Berg’s Lulu in a 2002 production for English National Opera. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Pathfinders

Three others on my list also were musical pathfinders, but in very different ways and eras from Schoenberg. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87) did more than anyone to get rid of the stylistic clutter, indulgent virtuosity and sheer length of 18th-century opera and return it to a more human, dramatic focus in which words and music were treated equally.

One of Gluck’s later admirers was Hector Berlioz (1803-69), whose own greatest opera, Les Troyens, owes much to Gluck’s directness and seriousness. But Berlioz was, in most respects, a one-off. His originality, the virtuosity of his orchestration and the daring of his imagination all contributed to a composer who combines romanticism and aspects of classicism like no other.

a woman wearing a costume: Daring imagination ... Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s 2014 ENO staging. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Daring imagination ... Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s 2014 ENO staging. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Anton Bruckner (1824-96) is my third pathfinder. Like Berlioz – though he does not resemble him in many other ways – Bruckner found and relied on his own highly individual musical voice. A renowned organist, Bruckner’s symphonies and choral works, on which his reputation rests, are often seen as embodiments of his deep religiosity. But the grandeur of Bruckner’s writing often belies the loneliness and uncertainty behind it. Bruckner’s music involves enormous resources and sonic splendours, but it is the music of a solitary man.

National roots

So is that of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), whose death in New York at the end of the second world war has a poignancy almost worthy of Mozart’s. Though he was unquestionably one of the giants of 20th-century music, Bartók is not easily categorised. His music is saturated in the rhythms and melodies of Hungarian folk music. But its harmonies and experimentations reflect the era of Debussy and Stravinsky, too.

Something similar is true of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whose music also transcends its national origins – in this case, Czech and Moravian – while often being recognisably rooted in them. But whereas Bartók’s mastery stretches across opera, orchestral, chamber and solo music of many different kinds, that of Janáček rests primarily (but not solely) on his operas, many of which were written in the last 20 years of his life. The operas span everything from realism to fantasy, but they are united by their humanity and by Janáček’s utterly distinctive musical voice.

a person wearing a costume: Dawn Upshaw and Joyce DiDonato in a 2003 ROH staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Dawn Upshaw and Joyce DiDonato in a 2003 ROH staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Now, two immensely popular inclusions. The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) has its own deep national roots and, as with Bartók, folk music is very often a powerful and authentic influence. Unlike Bartók’s, however, the music of Vaughan Williams tends not to travel, but its popularity in this country is impossible to ignorable. Two of his pieces, The Lark Ascending and the Tallis Fantasia, regularly top the classical polls.

The music and popularity of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) are also inescapable. A magnificent pianist himself, his works for solo piano and for piano and orchestra are Rachmaninov’s chief claim to inclusion. Some of these are among the most famous and iconic pieces ever written. But the achievement stretches much further, to include orchestral, choral and operatic works. And Rachmaninov’s influence on music for the cinema, especially in mid-20th-century Hollywood – he died in Los Angeles – is incalculable.

French accents

As my list fills, places must be found for another two French composers. The music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) possesses an elan, inventiveness and texture that bear comparison with Rossini. His chamber music is some of the sunniest and most atmospheric in the whole repertoire. His ballets are among the most evocative and colourfully scored. And the piano repertoire, both solo and with orchestra, would be very much the poorer without his brilliant contributions.

a group of people sitting on a bench: Elan ... Ravel’s l’Enfant et Les Sortilèges in an Opera North staging from 2013 with Katie Bray, Wallis Giunta and John Savournin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Elan ... Ravel’s l’Enfant et Les Sortilèges in an Opera North staging from 2013 with Katie Bray, Wallis Giunta and John Savournin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) would probably have been thought too slight a composer to have been included in such a list while he was still alive. But we take Poulenc more seriously now, especially because of his operas, which have found a firm place in the repertoire, and his reputation continues to rise. Poulenc’s music combines debonaire charm, urbanity and deep religious feeling, occasionally all in the same piece, and his concertos, chamber music and songs are as full of grace as they are lacking in pomposity.

Reaching out

The reputation of Kurt Weill (1900-50) has also grown in recent decades. Once dismissed as a talented young German whose journey down Marxist political byways and then to Broadway ruled him out as a serious composer, today the different phases of his career seem less important and Weill’s attempts to bridge the gaps between classical music, jazz, cabaret and political theatre seem like one of roads less taken in 20th-century music – to our loss, not Weill’s.

Which brings us, at last, to America itself, birthplace of so much of the greatest music of the 20th century. There are so many contenders, from Gershwin, through Copland and Bernstein to Ellington and Glass. In the end, my choice goes to John Adams (born 1947) because he combines constant innovation with the ability to reach out, and does so across so many types of music.

a group of people riding on the back of a bicycle: Constant innovation ... Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, staged by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh international festival in 2005. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/the Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Constant innovation ... Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer, staged by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh international festival in 2005. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/the Guardian

So, much to debate and plenty to take issue with; please do so. I’m sorry about all kinds of omissions, not least some of the composers whose music has often wormed its way into my head recently, people as diverse and eclectic as Schütz, Smetana, Chausson and Hindemith. But deadlines mean choices must be made.

Long ago, I had a music-obsessed history teacher at school. He would never have permitted this easy-going, pluralistic approach. He firmly believed in a pantheon of great composers, and, for him, Mozart was supreme. “If you say that The Land of Smiles is better than Don Giovanni,” he would say, “that’s not an opinion, that’s just wrong.” There were, he would add, only five truly great operas in the whole of music. They were The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute – and Boris Godunov.

Damn it. I forgot about Mussorgsky until now. Ah well, he would qualify another time.

Next week: some of the many women composers we should get to know.

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