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Hello everyone,

I take great interest in rarely-played music from the romantic period, and have discovered some true gems among the literally thousands of composers from that era alone. These discoveries have naturally brought the following questions to my mind: why aren't these composers played more often? And why haven't I heard of these geniuses and their music before?

The reason I started this post is because of another made by @Maarten Bauer, called "How original do we need to be?", where he asked interesting questions regarding originality in music. I began to consider these questions in an historical context, particularly in the case of lesser known composers. Music historians often say that the music of these lesser-known composers isn't often played because it wasn't "original" enough, and they often refer to them condescendingly. Take, for example, Harold C. Schonberg's comments on the lesser-known composers Sergei Taneyev, Erno Dohnanyi, and Nikolai Medtner, in his chapter about Rachmaninoff from "The Lives of the Great Composers":

"Sergei Taneiev (1856-1915) was a Russian academician and specialist in counterpoint, whose music, if his Second Symphony is a fair example, was devoid of life and character and is as individual as a toothpick nestled in a box of toothpicks. Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) was another Russian eclectic who, like Rachmaninoff, was a pianist-composer and who did Rachmaninoff the great honor of imitating him. Medtner's music has all but disappeared from the repertory. He was a composer in the order of Erno Dohnanyi - a good craftsman who seldom came up with an original idea."

Such pleasant writing, huh? But just how "unoriginal" are these composers?

Having listened to their music, I personally think that their music is far from unoriginal. Or at least, not entirely conventional. And I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Looking in the comments of videos of these pieces, I see a lot of people saying that these pieces are just as good as many famous compositions, or just people expressing their admiration of these works - quite unlike Schonberg's deprecatory descriptions of them.

Obviously, Dohnanyi, Medtner, and Taneyev are not the only rare composers - in fact, there are far more unusual and under-performed masters than those 3. I shall list a few examples:

-William Henry Fry, USA (1819-1864) - Niagara Symphony
-Franco Alfano, Italy (1875-1954) - Concerto for piano trio
-Bernardino Custodio, Philippines (1911-2001) - Nocturne for the Left-Hand
-Max Trapp, Germany (1887-1971) - Piano Concerto

While all of these composers are arguably late-romantic, some of their pieces are in styles I have never heard before. For example, I have come to believe that had Fry's Niagara Symphony been written by one of the major names in music history (say, Berlioz or Liszt), that piece would have been considered a revolutionary achievement! (It was never played during his lifetime.) I think its safe to say that these composers are not underrated because of supposed "lack of originality".

Obviously, the "originality" conundrum is not the only supposed reason for burying certain composers. I hope to go into those other reasons in future discussions, and also mention some remarkable and shocking examples of this apparent historical blacklisting.

So, this brings us to those same questions from earlier: why aren't these composers performed more frequently? And why didn't we know about them before now?

I'm interested to hear your reasons for this seeming burial of musical legacies; I have a few personal theories, but I want to hear your opinions first. I apologize for the sheer amount of text, but I believe that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. I also understand that this is an arguably subjective issue, but some things cannot be ignored. My point of view is that I personally care deeply about rare romantic music, and think it should be promoted to much wider audiences.

 

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Historically speaking? It mostly comes down to the public, and in social cases, sex/gender/ethnicity/class, etc. 
Honegger, Arensky and others were actually quite good, but it's largely the public who decides what gets considered popular enough to move on. When the printed music market became more widely accessible, people bought stuff they knew. Similar thing happened to opera; since people wanted to be "in the know", audiences started demanding operas that were popular overseas.
There's a reason why we know Rimsky Korsakov and Mussorgsky from the Mighty Five and not so much Borodin, Cui, or Balakirev. Rimsky got popular in academia and Mussorgsky's strong use of mediant harmony got him favors with academia in Boris. It's primarily circumstance, although prolificness couldn't hurt either (i.e. Schubert, Bach).

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Hi @Monarcheon, thank you for your response.

I probably should have clarified that I was not entirely asking in a historical context, but more within a contemporary context. Obviously, historically there were many reasons why certain composers and their music did not become as well known as others, though I do appreciate your input on the matter. But my main issue is why there is very little attempt to promote these rare composers now, in the present era. As I mentioned earlier, now that this rare music is available to anyone on the internet, people are beginning to discover this music, and for the most part are reacting very positively towards it. Some people have even tried to request performances of it in classical radio stations, or concert venues, but often get little to no response.

An often-said reason for this is that it won't appeal to general audiences, who like familiarity in music, and aren't willing to have programs changed around. But as an audience member of many concerts, I have never been asked which music I want to hear. My personal experiences have shown me that the audience doesn't get to decide what is performed - the audiences hear whatever gets played, period. And I am referring to mainstream concert venues, like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or the London Philharmonia.

I do acknowledge the attempts that have been made to promote rare music in present times. Even several major musicians have successfully brought previously little-performed works into the light. However, these attempts have usually been limited to small scale performances, or CD recordings that don't circulate very far, outside of the internet. What I wish to know is the reason why there are very few (or no) current mainstream efforts to promote this music by major performance companies.

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@Theodore Servin Sounds like you just found yourself a niche, Theo. Go out there and start your own orchestra to promote these little-known-but-amazing pieces!

To answer your question, my opinion is that there are probably hundreds—if not thousands—of factors that play into this, but I'm willing to bet the biggest is financial risk. Production managers, conductors, producers: they're all only humans trying to eke out an existence, too. And as humans, they're privy to nobody's thoughts and desires but their own. They predict, as best they can, what their constituents will be willing to pay for... and experience tells them they'll pay for the "big names" of classical music. Sure, they can throw in an obscure piece every now and then, but chances are that obscure piece will be by a modern classical composer who has ties to the orchestra personnel—and not one whose time to shine has long since died away.

It's a game of Russian roulette, and, unfortunately, the Alfanos and Trapps of this world are not worth the bullet to mainstream orchestras. That's my opinion, at least.

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2 hours ago, Theodore Servin said:

I probably should have clarified that I was not entirely asking in a historical context, but more within a contemporary context. Obviously, historically there were many reasons why certain composers and their music did not become as well known as others, though I do appreciate your input on the matter. But my main issue is why there is very little attempt to promote these rare composers now, in the present era. As I mentioned earlier, now that this rare music is available to anyone on the internet, people are beginning to discover this music, and for the most part are reacting very positively towards it. Some people have even tried to request performances of it in classical radio stations, or concert venues, but often get little to no response.

Sorry, in my haste, I forgot to mention that's the underlying cause of the stratification. @Tónskáld took the explanation to its modern conclusion.

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I think it is easier for neglected/overlooked works for smaller ensembles, especially solo piano to gain a potential audience since a big name soloist championing a little-known composer can gain traction.  Much harder for a major orchestral work where the financial investment required is far more significant.  If you're going to invest in producing a concert, which is more likely to draw an audience and make money: a performance of well-known warhorses/famous composers or a concert consisting of works by composers virtually unknown to the public?  Perhaps with social media allowing for more exposure, it may start to get a little easier.  I agree, there are some great gems out there if you are willing to look.

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Posted (edited)

We might look to our own time for answers.

One thing that's crazy to think about, is that it's only in the last 100 years that we actually have a myriad of distinct genres of music to listen to.

In the past, in the time you speak of, it's not that different styles didn't exist, but they were fewer in number, and mostly used the same instruments; which back then, instruments weren't exactly easy to come by. So it was more about developing music itself.

And something about genres or periods of musical development, is that they coincide with generations of people. Every generation has its icons, and every generation also gets old and dies off.

There were many more Rock N Roll performers than Chuck, Elvis Presley, etc. but how many can you name? Elvis and the like remain the most iconic musicians of their day, of that style, and the generation who listened to it all and pioneered it? They're almost all dead and gone now. Could anyone who would want to take up traditional rock n' roll ever hope to escape the shadow of those icons? I doubt it.

We actually are going through this right now in our time with heavy metal and hard rock, which is barely 40 years old. 

 

When I was a teenager, 80s Hair Metal made something of a comeback. The bands, who were then in their 40s, got back together, new festivals and tours popped up, etc. Most of the people I noticed who were going to the concerts, were the same baby boomers and late Gen Xrs who were around in its prime; reliving their youth once more

After that, it quickly fizzled out. Any new bands like Crashdiet, Crazy Lixx, etc. failed to gain much worldwide, mainstream success. The music simply did not appeal to the Millenial and Z generations enough for them to "carry on the torch"; I believe this to be for many political reasons, but also generational differences and millennial and gen z forging their own musical legacies. In fact, the most successful band from that is Steel Panther, whose whole schtick is a parody of the Hair Metal absurdity.

Indeed, there is a complaint in rock/metal today that no NEW bands are taking the spotlight. It's STILL the old guys like Ozzy who sell the most tickets, get the radio airplay, etc. But most these guys...they're dying off.

ronnie-james-dio-rip-2010.jpg

https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/general_music_news/black_veil_brides_frontman_you_cant_let_people_tell_you_that_music_of_your_era_is_not_valid.html

Check this out:

Quote

Black Veil Brides frontman Andy Biersack recently discussed the tricky state of rock music and the lack of young headliners to carry the torch.

Chatting with Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta on his podcast The Jasta Show, Andy pointed out that the rock touring industry as we know it is bound to collapse in imminent future as major headliners soon won't be physically able to perform due to old age.

The vocalist also addressed everyone who thinks that music was better in the past, stressing that no-one has the right to tell the current generation that their music isn't valid.

"I tell this fairly often to the younger kids - you can't let people tell you that the music of your era is not valid.

"There's nothing wrong with loving classic rock and there's nothing wrong with paying respect to people who got you to this point, but letting people tell you that everything you love is sh-t only breeds a generation of people who don't believe in the thing that the love the most.

"It's gone on since the beginning of time that kids' music sucks and that the adults' music was really true and good. The problem now is, most radio [stations] are still playing all parents' music. ... If you turn on rock radio, the newest song you'll hear is from when I was five years old."

Basically: We're at the stage where the generation of rock is over, the icons have long been established, we're forever in their shadow, the new generation has their own music, and so those who are still into rock and metal are not achieving the success of the icons. Perhaps they never will.

The same thing has happened to every "old" genre and generation of music.

Once the people who made it are gone, we remember those who were most iconic of the era,  and move on. Inevitably, some gems will be lost.

and just like how people today aren't generally digging for who else was out there aside from Elvis, or who else rocked like Ratt or Bon Jovi, they aren't looking for composers much beyond Beethoven, either. That music has had its time.

I believe it's just the course of nature. 

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw

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@Tónskáld, @bkho, and @AngelCityOutlaw, thank you all very much for your responses.

These are all very plausible answers, and I do agree with many points. It's true, organizing orchestral concerts is a huge investment, so it would probably be safer to stick with more familiar music.

And of course, tastes come and go, as with generations, like @AngelCityOutlaw said. I'm not arguing with any that. I guess what I would prefer (and this is outside of the performance world) is at least some official historical acknowledgement of these rare composers' works and existences by official musicologists and professional musicians, instead of just a complete neglect.

But I can't help but think of the history of the performances of the music of Gustav Mahler. Towards the end of his career, his music became more and more unpopular with both audiences and critics alike, and after his death, his music for the most part fell out of the spotlight (though it did have some smaller-scale popularity in the Netherlands and among early modernists). However, during the second half of the 20th century, his music became world famous, in part thanks to promotion by Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski, and now, his symphonies are some of the most-performed pieces in modern times.

Perhaps, though, there is still time for these composers to finally be acknowledged. For example, it took time for Mahler's music to become world-famous - maybe it will be the same for other obscure composers. Like @bkho said, with the growing audiences for these composers online, maybe there finally will be a true renaissance for these works later on. In the mean time, I hope to join this small-scale revival and help promote these composers, starting here on this forum.

Again, thank you all for taking the time to respond.

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