Gál and Schumann are both 'more-than-meets-the-eye' composers

Kenneth WoodsMon 5th March 2012

An ongoing recording series gives two underrated composers a voice

I’d just been introduced to an eminent member of the music writer’s fraternity.

‘Woods…’ he said, as if trying to recall a lost bit of information. ‘Ah! Aren’t you the Gál guy?’

Well, I suppose if anyone is going to wear that moniker, it may as well be me.

Thanks to the power of recording and radio, more people these days are likely to know me as ‘the Gál guy’ than as any other sort of guy, be it ‘Redneck Mahler guy’, ‘ex-rocker-turned-conductor guy’,  ‘Beethoven guy’ or even ‘blog guy’. All this, even though out of the 80 to 100 pieces I conduct or play in a typical year, only three to four will be by Gál.

It would probably make more sense for people to think of me as ‘the Schumann guy’. After all, when the Orchestra of the Swan and I went into the studio to record the latest in our Gál/Schumann series, I was doing my umpteen-zillionth Schumann 2, and my very first Gál 4. I guess I share Schumann with too many other conductors to be the Schumann guy, but by now, hopefully, I qualify at least as a Schumann guy. Schumann’s music has been important to me for as long as I can remember, and in fact it was while playing cello in a performance of the Second Symphony by my high-school orchestra that my fascination with Schumann began. Conversely, I didn’t even know Hans Gál was a composer until fairly recently. And I’m the Gál guy…

Gál’s music was widely misunderstood in his lifetime because his language seems, at first glance, so familiar. When you get to know his work well, you realise it is endlessly original, full of surprises, and only seems familiar - much like the music of Gál’s hero, Josef Haydn.

Still, if it’s possible for Schumann’s music to be as misunderstood and underrated as that of Gál, whose work had completely fallen out of the repertoire for decades, it probably is. I remember several years ago when I was starting out with a new orchestra and they asked me to put forward some big, multi-year projects we could explore in our programming. When I suggested doing all of Schumann’s orchestral music, everyone’s faces fell. It was as if they’d just hired a new professional chef to cook them delightful and interesting things, and he’d proposed a multi-year diet of Brussels sprouts. To their credit, we did that Schumann cycle, and it was a huge success.

All too many people still think of Schumann’s music as somehow more ‘good for you’ than ‘good’. We’ve read so many ill-informed statements about his orchestration that we expect it to sound mushy, soggy and woolly, and all too often conductors and players are content to deliver a performance that lives up to that expectation exactly. But Schumann doesn’t have to be the overcooked vegetable of classical music - his music can be as tangy as an Indian mango, as hot as a Scotch bonnet, as unctuous as barbecued unagi, as luxurious as back truffle and as satisfying as a bacon and blue cheeseburger with a cold IPA.

Schumann and Gál are both ‘more-than-meets-the-eye’ composers. Both employ a harmonic language that is infinitely subtle and sophisticated, but rarely obvious or calculated for shock. Instead, there are always new things to discover - the more you listen, the more you find. 



Gál’s Fourth Symphony, his last, is a sinfonia concertante for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and chamber orchestra. It is pure chamber music, varying in scale from the intimate dialogue of solo violin and cello in the slow movement to the densely constructed orchestral tuttis of the opening Improvvisazione, and it is, without a doubt, one of the most contrapuntally intricate works I’ve ever conducted, although it wears its craftsmanship lightly. It’s a true summation of one composer’s lifelong study of counterpoint

Schumann 2 documents another composer’s discovery of counterpoint. What is astonishing is that Schumann had only really begun his work on contrapuntal studies a few months before this piece was written, yet Schumann’s C major symphony shows no signs whatsoever of a novice still learning his craft. I can’t really think of any passage in the symphonic literature with as inspired a sense of the combined independence and interdependency of musical voices as the first 24 bars of Schumann 2. Gál 4 is the culmination of seven decades’ practice in writing counterpoint, Schumann 2 the result of seven months of total immersion, but the end result is similarly spectacular: music in which each individual part leaps off the page, imbued with its own impetus and character, yet totally integrated with everything around it.

This is one of the most satisfying aspects of a life in music - we get to combine work that is part of our ongoing, lifelong journey with the discovery of new things. One need never tire of repertoire we’ve known forever, and yet, when we discover something fresh and immerse ourselves in it, newly discovered music can reach us on just as profound a level as the music we’ve always known and loved.

Kenneth Woods

Kenneth Woods is principal guest conductor of Orchestra of the Swan. His Gál/Schumann project, which began in 2010, follows on from his commercial recording debut as a conductor in sessions for Avie with the Northern Sinfonia in 2009.

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