Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I had a conversation recently with a classical music lover. He had no use for modern music -- he only wanted to hear the great composers because, well, life was just too short. His underlying assumption was that the pantheon of great composers (and works) were handed down unchanged from time immemorial.

But the reality is quite different. My friend considers Mahler part of that pantheon -- but when he was alive, Mahler was considered a great conductor who composed, but not a great composer. Actually Wilhelm Furtwangler has the same reputation. Both wrote symphonies that contemporaries didn't think much of.

In Furtwangler's case, the assessment seems to be justified. His symphonies are big, portenous works that never seems to get off the ground (they kind of remind me of Bruckner on a bad day).

Mahler, on the other hand, when championed by Bernstein and other conductors in the 1950's found a place in the standard repertoire -- a combination I think of sympathetic conducting and the changing of audience tastes.

Had my friend lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century, he might have placed Joachim Raff in the circle of great composers. Although Raff was arguably more popular as a symphonist than Brahms during his lifetime, his works are now only heard on recordings.

In fact, Raff's symphonies vanished from the repertoire very soon after his death. Tastes changed, and they simply didn't bear up to repeated listening the way Brahms' works did. I personally find Raff's music quite nice -- but I'm hard pressed to hum a single motif after the work's over. No staying power.

In the late 1700's everyone agreed that Bach was an important composer -- and so was his brother. Johann Christian Bach was the toast of France and England, while Carl Phillip Emanual Bach had the Germanic nations in thrall. It would be much later that the general public rediscovered their father, Johann Sebastian and consigned them to relative obscurity.

In every age music lovers have felt that the list of greatest composers was immutable and unchanging -- which it never quite was.

And now that we're well into the 21st century, I wonder who will emerge as the unquestioned masters, and which will prove to be a passing fad. Unlike my friend, I don't believe I have a lock on the answer -- and life's never to short for me to hear a new musical work.

- Ralph

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