Friday, May 05, 2006

La galerie des compositeurs charmants

In the Wax Museum of Important 20th Century Composers, we always see the same serious figures: in this corner we find scowling Ives with his scraggly diabetic's beard ... in this niche is fishlike, hunched Stravinsky, trapped in a massive wool suit ... here is Schoenberg with his shining pate and sleepy eyes ... aha!- young Boulez molded in the act of spitting on the score of Das Lied von der Erde...

No complaints from me!- all these composers deserve to be here in the Central Gallery. They wrote music that made permanent changes to the musical landscape, flannel-shirted Paul Bunyan figures who connected rivers, gouged out canyons, installed new constellations.

However, if we turn this corner at the end of the Central Gallery, we find- the Gallery of Charming Composers! What a difference!- many of them are sculpted with smiles on their faces, glasses of red wine in their hands.

Here are three composers from that Gallery who, I think, would put a brighter face on 'classical' music if anybody would bother to program or record their works. I'm not saying that this is great, important music. Instead, I'm pointing out that 20th century music, as currently represented, is alarmingly short of good froth. Mozart and Haydn excelled at froth, Strauss made his entire career out of it, Mahler symphonies are usually %20 excellent froth- but, Schoenberg? Copland? Stravinsky? Even when they were having a good time, these composers usually had to have some artistic agenda to justify it. For instance, Pulcinella isn't just fun, it's also safe for academics who can pretend they enjoy it because of the way it explores the concept of "pastiche" within the context of an era that treats ... blah, blah, blah inevitable mention of Adorno.

But, on to the Gallery....

Wax Figure 1: Francaix

Jean Francaix was a child prodigy, wowing Nadia Boulanger with his counterpoint acumen at a tender age. His music is, I think, perfect. Whereas a Bruckner symphony is an enormous, lumpy, mountainous heap of wonders -- glorious and sprawling, but much too big to be seen from a single vantage point -- Francaix's compositions are on a human scale. His pieces are perfectly built and counterbalanced little elegances, ticking away like those pretty 18th century clockwork representations of the solar system. Every piece displays a sort of casual mastery, every detail mapped out- dynamics, for instance, are obsessively notated, every bar punctuated with sfz and fp and three different species of staccato. But what does it sound like? In terms of mood, you might say he's the P. G. Wodehouse of 20th century music. Most people wouldn't want to live on a steady diet of Wodehouse, it is true, but well-rounded person can afford to take their nose out of The Anatomy of Melancholy and not feel frivolous.

Wax Figure 2: Dondeyne

Desire Dondyne was described to me as certain type of Frenchman who is 'big and beefy and drinks a lot of red wine.' His music is, sadly, pretty much impossible to find in the US, having mainly appeard on LPs that never made the transfer to CD. This is unfortunate, because, while principally famous as a symphony conductor and writer of military marches, he composed a great deal of sweet, fun chamber music and four intriguing symphonies. Someone once characterized his typical mode as 'French travelogue music- imagine the soundtrack for a car bouncing along a country road in Provence', which seems pretty fair.

Wax Figure 3: Wüsthoff

Klaus Wüsthoff was a German composer who wrote a lot of 'light' orchestral music for German radio after WWII. I've only found one disc of it, released briefly on Koch when some accountant had his back turned. The pieces, though, are great. For instance, there's a little 'Russian' piano concerto that has so many little giddy, infectious moments that you don't care about whether he's advancing the state of modern music. The harp serenade is gorgeous, serene fluff, the sort of thing the Boston Pops might play if their audience were pleasantly stoned instead of full of hotdogs and waving miniature American flags. Wüsthoff be great fare for community orchestra 'pops' programs- it's tuneful, fun music that would appeal to an audience without resorting to humiliating stunts like quoting the 'The Irish Washer-Woman'.


Blogger sfmike said...

Wow, those are not only Charming Composers but Awesomely Obscure ones to boot. Please, make me a CD. I need to be charmed.

You're right about 20th-century composers being a bit too serious. Britten, one of my favorites, basically writes very dark music, and so does Janacek. Poulenc, Lou Harrison, Nina Rota and Duke Ellington are some of my picks for 20th century "charming" music.

6:43 PM  
Blogger ggwfung said...

Top writing Trevor! Classical music is at the core of my being, and it's great to find others out with the same level of interest.

I especially like your Harmonic Analysis Diary, it's very difficult to write about musical structure and development without wandering off into jargon land, but you do an awesome job. I've written up a link -

and I hope some others visit your blog. It's quality stuff.

Thanks for your efforts,


9:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home