Which composers matter? By this I don’t mean who are the greatest, or which composers set the most successful trends. What I’m really getting at is, if very particular cyber-terrorists hacked into the digital database of every classical music publisher in the world and deleted their back catalogues, which one composer would you miss the most?
I’m assuming there’s no single answer. We’ll all have our favourites. But I’ll also bet that for most people it will not be an obvious choice. For someone’s Bach, there’ll be another’s Busoni, for every Wagner, a Vaughan Williams or a Victoria. We form emotional bonds with music that often has nothing to do with the composer’s historical impact. Sometimes a fond memory provides an association that, once formed, can never be weakened. More frequently, I think, we stumble upon a voice, a particular, identifiable, idiosyncratic sound that can belong only to a particular composer and it’s that sound that we warm to, no matter what the piece. I’ve started listening to Martinů, his Fifth Symphony, and I rather liked the noise of it. So I’ve gone on to hunt out more Martinů. To the extent that I can now recognise the Martinů sound whenever I hear it. I like it. I’ve no idea whether it’s considered any good or not. I’ve no idea either whether I’m listening to late or early Martinů. I just warm to the Martinů-iness of it.
But when does this subjective fondness start to matter? Really, really matter? There are clear examples of it mattering for certain conductors or performers who’ve dedicated a large portion of their career to championing the work of composers who otherwise might not be considered for the canon of musical greats. Look at how Charles Mackerras pushed and cajoled us into accepting Janáček, not just as an interesting 20th-century Czech composer but as one of the greatest opera composers of the past 200 years. Yehudi Menuhin’s support and programming of Bartók was also significant, as was Colin Davis’s obsession with Berlioz. People of sound judgement are saying, look, there’s more to musical greatness than Bach, Schubert or Mozart and more to musical impact than the revolutions of Stravinsky, Beethoven or Schoenberg.
Why they feel they have to put so much effort into promoting this music is perhaps because there’s a tendency for us to try to categorise music, to place it within a style or a period; anything that doesn’t seem to fit, any sound that seems so idiosyncratic, as if it’s come from nowhere and is possibly going nowhere, can sometimes get put to one side. We hear Berlioz, we may or may not like the Berlioz-ness of the sound, but we don’t stop to consider whether this is music that really matters. Colin Davis spent a career saying it does.
What composers like Berlioz, Janáček and Bartók have in common is an air of having absolutely nothing in common with those around them. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique comes only a decade or so after Beethoven, but is from another sound world altogether. In its orchestration, structure and narrative, it’s a work that almost contemptuously defies categorisation. And the sound that Berlioz went on to make for the rest of his artistic life, taking on mounting debts to do so, bold, passionate blasts of brass and skittering strings, was one of almost deliberate idiosyncrasy. I’ve always felt this way about Janáček, too. Janáček’s voice was always an extremely eccentric one. It’s difficult to compare his music to anything outside itself. He absorbed folk rhythms, but only into a musical language that was already distinctively personal. He made the apparently straightforward seem odd. I heard his Capriccio recently. A conventional name for an odd combination of instruments: brass, flute and left-handed piano. Listening to it, it’s impossible to determine whether this music is progressive or traditional, mainstream or avant-garde. It slithers from one category to another because in the end it is just Janáček. And we measure his music and how good it is by that criteria alone.
More so with Bartók. His six string quartets alone make him one of the most important figures of 20th-century music, but how often do we forget to include him in the list of the “significant”? How often is he left off the list that includes Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Ligeti? Is it because he attempts no conformity, he doesn’t take on targets or aim for categorisation? Even if it means he has to endure poverty, exile, ill-health and neglect, he just sticks to the only thing he can do: writing Bartók.
Our musical tradition is upheld and strengthened by a long line of composers who sought nothing more than to bethemselves and we can judge them only by how well they did so.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of Gramophone.