Why are so many great works so rarely heard?

Martin CullingfordTue 18th June 2019

The symphonies of US composers Hanson, Creston and Hovhaness should be much better known

It’s always important to question consensus. It’s not that there’s nothing positive about everyone agreeing, but when they do, there’s always the chance that an alternative view has got pushed out. It applies particularly to art. Cultural history is full of examples of music, architecture or paintings that were collectively ignored (even in some cases derided) only to be subsequently declared significant. Just think of Pre-Raphaelite art. Often that change comes about due to a plucky champion: Leonard Bernstein and the music of Mahler in the US comes to mind, or John Betjeman and Victorian architecture in the UK. That latter example is well worth pondering every time a piece of mid-20th-century modernism is condemned to the wrecking ball. Luckily such destructive decisions don’t need to be made with eminently storable symphonic scores but it does remain a mystery why so many great mid-20th-century American orchestral works never entered the regular repertoire.

Take the surging themes in Howard Hanson’s Third Symphony; or, in Paul Creston’s Third, the sense of beguiling mystery that leads us through some beautifully written episodes as the composer depicts the life of Christ (a work only programmed live three times in more than half a century); or the grandly sweeping score of the Second Symphony of the prolific Alan Hovhaness which – when placed before members of some of America’s greatest orchestras just a few years ago – proved a joyful new discovery. 

The conductor who introduced those players to the work was Gerard Schwarz, and in our latest issue he aims to do the same for Gramophone readers too, championing these and other symphonies which have largely remained unknown to modern ears. In doing so, he in fact follows in the footsteps of the likes of Koussevitzky, Ormandy and Stokowski, who either premiered or performed them. So why have they fared thus? The commercial requirements to fill halls (easier done with canonical works) undoubtedly plays a role. But the joy of recording is that it’s never been easier to explore for yourself: I hope you enjoy the journey. 

I was pleased that consensus wasn’t always in evidence at this year’s Classical:NEXT either. As the annual meeting of performers, programmers and innovators in the classical music world, if everybody had agreed then part of the conference’s point – to discuss, challenge and share ideas – would be undermined. To give one example, in a debate about how orchestras should use online video, some were adamant high quality was key even at the expense of quantity, while others felt people wanted instant back-stage access however lo‑fi it might be. (Looking at our site, my take on this is that it’s the strength of story that matters most of all.) Streaming continued to divide opinion of course – with labels still caught between the opportunities for audience growth and the commercial challenges posed because revenue is considerably lower than when selling a CD. There was, however, a shared consensus view on one thing: that music matters, and can enhance and transform lives. After three days of intense activity, hundreds of delegates returned to their various parts of the world newly strengthened with that inspirational belief and message. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Find out more about Gramophone's July 2019 issue, which is available now

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Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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