Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Changing Face of Classical Music

Among some, there's a mispreception that classical music is immutable and unchangeable. The pantheon of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms has always been in place. The great works were always considered great works, and will be forever.

But tastes do change over time -- even in the world of classical music.

Case in point: "Stories of Symphonic Music," a book written by Lawrence Gilman in 1907. I picked up a copy at a used book sale several years ago. As the forward says,
The design of this book is to offer in compact and accessible form such information as will enable the intending concert-goer to prepare himself, in advance, to listen comprehendingly to those symphonic works of a suggestive or illustrative nature, from Beethoven to the present day, which are part of the standard orchestral repertoire, and such others as seem likely to become so—to serve, in effect, as a guide to modern orchestral programme-music.

An exhaustive cataloguing of modern programme-music has not been attempted. It has been thought worth while to include only such works of importance as the American concert-goer is likely to find upon the programmes of symphony concerts in this country.
So what would the American concert-goer of 1907 be likely to hear? If you believe classical music is immutable, then you'd expect the book to be about the same pieces played by symphony orchestras here in the 21st Century (save for those written after 1907, of course).

And to a certain extent, you'd be right. Gilman discusses manyworks we recognize as being part of the core repertoire: Beethoven's Third Symphony, Bizet's Suite from "L'Aresienne," Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice," as well as compositions from Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and (at that time) newcomers like Debussy, Smetana, and Elgar.

But the book is also full of descriptions of works that haven't been heard in concert halls in some time. When was the last time your favorite orchestra performed a symphony by Joachim Raff? In the late 19th Century, his popularity rivaled Brahms -- not so today.

Or George Chadwick, considered one of America's most promising composers in the early 1900's? His music is still highly regarded -- just not frequently played.

Louis Spohr was a respected colleague and friend of Beethoven's. And at the turn of the 20th Century their music shared the concert stage with regularity. But no longer.

Or what about Swiss composer Hans Huber, whose Second Symphony enjoyed enough popularity at the time "Stories" was published that Gilman considered it "standard repertoire."

Fashions change, and works get reevaluated. "Stories of Symphonic Music" is a fun read -- and an illustrative one. Audiences of the late 21st Century may still be listening to some of what we consider the classics -- but some will go unheard, replaced by other works more to contemporary taste.

Reading "Stories of Symphonic Music" has made me seek out some of those forgotten works. Some -- but not all -- were worth the effort. But for me the takeaway from the book is this: as much as folks want to keep classical music frozen in time, it continues to evolve. Just ask Joachim Raff.

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