For reasons too difficult to explain, I have found myself lately listening keenly to a wide variety of music by composers who are virtually known today. Among others, I have heard substantial works by Gustav Helsted (Danish, 1857-1954), Hakon Borreson (Danish, 1876-1954), Joseph Holbrooke (English, 1978-1958), Hamilton Harty (Irish, 1879-1941), Alexander Goedicke (Russian, 1877-1957), Hugo Alfven (Swedish, 1872-1960), and a number of others, all of whom span the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was an intriguing era. These composers were schooled in high Romanticism, and probably never imagined where music would go in their lifetimes. Almost without exception, they ignored the innovations swirling around them, and continued to pursue their musical ideals as they had imagined them in their youth. Goedicke adapted to Soviet Realism when he had to, but remained close to his Romantic ideals.
I am astonished at the craft. Not one of these composers was anything less than highly accomplished technically. I would be eternally proud if any of my students could produce music as technically confident and well formed as these gentlemen. Their grasp of traditional forms, their expertise at orchestration, their confidence with the control of their material, all these are beyond question.
And yet they are all but forgotten. Most of the recordings are very second rate (except Alfven, who is enjoying something of a comeback.) Live performances are fairly rare.
Is the music bad? No, definitely not.
Is the music good?
I honestly don't know anymore. There's no question that there isn't a Beethoven symphony in this group. There's no question that there are some very bad choices about content-- silly dances, overwrought adagios, showpiece finales without any actual material, etc. But I never, at any point, felt compelled to stop the music and go on to something else. I sat and listened respectfully to several large works, and, honestly, I never lost interest. But does that make it good?
It occurred to me that we need to try programming some of this stuff again. Audiences are tired of the tried and true. And yet, when we try to programme something off the beaten path, ticket sales dry up. Marketing divisions run screaming from this kind of repertoire. There is nothing in this music that a regular subscription audience would find difficult, except for its unfamiliarity. A chamber music series could comfortably programme music by these composers, tucked in safely between more familiar works, but an orchestra would have to be very brave to try it.
When I was young, there were no recordings of anything other than the most famous works. When the CD boom happened, the market quickly saturated with Beethoven 7's, and the labels began to look towards the less familiar. Works that I had heard about but never heard suddenly got recorded. Now, the catalogue is bursting at the seams with the unfamiliar.
Can this ever happen in live concerts? Can we re-vitalize concert going with the unfamiliar? I am listening as I write to Hugo Alfven's 4th Symphony. I am enjoying it. Most of my composer colleagues would probably call it a little obvious, but that doesn't bother me. Wouldn't a subscription audience enjoy it too? While I never grow tired of Beethoven 7, I need to hear something fresh once in a while, and not just new music.
Can we reinvent ourselves? Can we recapture concert audiences with a fresh mix of new work, unfamiliar older work, and the warhorses? It's worth a try.