Trying to be Positive:
Music, Technology, the Market
(3rd September 2021)
If I wanted, I could write another litany of complaint that would easily fill up several thousand words. Let us take it as read, though, that we are not living through any kind of golden age of respect for liberty or tradition. This being done, I will pass to one of the various reasons for me to feel glad to be alive now, and not at any time in the past.
This is that, during the past few years, I have become acquainted with a growing band of composers from the High Classical Period, a term covering the musical styles dominant between about 1780 and 1820. These are men whose names come up in the longer or more focussed histories of music, but whose music I had never before heard, or never heard at any length. Their names include – and I mostly give the German rather than Czech versions of their names where appropriate – Vanhal, Reicha, Paul Wranitzky, Gyrowetz, Rosetti, Vogler, Pleyel, Koželuch, Michael Haydn, and Ferdinand Ries.
To call these men the equals of Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven would be silly. But, if they did not, across the whole range of their works, reach the standard of the musical giants of their age, these were men touched now and again by genius. Many of their works are decidedly worth hearing – hearing and enjoying. There are, I believe, several thousand symphonies that survive from the High Classical Period. I do not doubt that the average quality of these is mediocre. There is something to be said for the dismissive comment of Jan LaRue in 1956:
Any student of the eighteenth-century symphony occasionally feels that proximity to his subject lends disenchantment. Thus Adam Carse, in the final paragraph of his ‘Eighteenth-Century Symphonies,’ asks a disparaging question: “How many symphonies did it take to make one good one?” and estimates that the answer “would have to be in the hundreds.”
On the other hand, the exclusive focus made until recently on a handful of works by the musical giants has deprived us of much good music, and has given us a distorted view of those giants, so far as their works have been presented and heard without any of the musical context in which they were produced. If my sight-reading skills were better than they are, I might have made an earlier acquaintance with these men than I have. Even then, however, sight-reading skills short of the exceptional are a poor substitute for a decent performance; and it is only in recent years that many of the works in question have been published.
Before I pass to an examination of some of these works, I will try to explain why we have so far had so little exposure to these composers. Until about 1800, musical styles and musical fashions moved very quickly. A composer could be big in his own lifetime. He might be famous and respected across all of Europe. He would die, and, within about ten years, he was forgotten. Music was rather like Hollywood films in the early twentieth century. In 1925, Rudolph Valentino was a global star. By 1945, his films were seen as curiosities – superseded in every sense by what came after. That is how Vivaldi and Telemann and even the Great Bach were seen at the end of the eighteenth century. The big exception was Handel. He died in 1759. When Haydn arrived in London at the end of 1791, he was surprised to see that Handel was still performed throughout the British Isles. He was known in Vienna. But, for a public performance, it had been necessary for Mozart to rescore and generally revise The Messiah. Even then, the work was seen as a curiosity from the past.
It was around 1800 that music became less ephemeral. I think it is Mozart who was the first whose works remained popular after their composer’s death. Die Entführung (1781) is the earliest opera that has never had to be revived. Figaro and Don Giovanni were immediate and enduring classics. Demand for his scores in the 1790s led to improvements in the technology for printing music. Mozart was joined by Haydn and then by Beethoven. After about 1820, these were joined by J.S. Bach and by Handel. They were joined, through the rest of the century, by other composers whose music was seen as of permanent value. Ending perhaps with Brahms, these are the standard classics we still revere.
But, all through the nineteenth century, the growing list of giants from the past had to compete for performing time with new music. A concert at the Crystal Palace might end with a Beethoven symphony. Everything before that would be new, and perhaps composed for that concert. This produced an inevitable if ruthless sifting of music from the past. All of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos continued in performance. His Triple Concerto became a curiosity. Other works vanished from the concert hall. It was the same with Haydn, who was known wholly from his Paris and London symphonies. His earlier symphonies and his operas were unknown. Much of his vast output, indeed, remained unpublished until after the Second World War. It was the same with Mozart. Apart from the private study of his scores, he was revered for about a dozen of his later works. Given that there is only so much performing time, this is to be expected. Even live composers suffered a bias against their earlier works. In the 1880s, an Italian audience protested when some scheduling accident led to an unexpected performance of La Traviata, which had first been performed in 1853.
The taste for new music declined after about 1950. It became a general belief – one I happen to share – that, even when not wholly dissonant or impenetrably complex, new music was at best second-rate. It became common for the first time for concerts to be filled with music by the dead. This created an immediate gap. Let us say that the sifting of past music had produced a canon of perhaps a hundred works. Endless playing of that canon, and nothing else, was not enough to fill concert schedules and concert halls – not year after year.
The record companies now faced a similar problem. Since the beginning of a mass-market for recorded classical music, the record companies had focussed on the canon. This made sense in an age of rapid improvements in sound quality. Leave aside anything special about the performance, a recording made in 1920 was inferior to one made in 1930, which was itself inferior to one made in 1939, and so on. This process of improvement came largely to an end with the arrival of stereo records in 1958. I think digital recordings are better, but I have friends who disagree. Certainly, until I got rid of the playing equipment, I had few complaints about my records from the 1960s and 70s. After about 1960, then, the record companies had to decide where to go next. How much demand was there for yet another cycle of Beethoven symphonies, or the same dozen Haydn symphonies, or the same handfuls of Bach and Mozart and Brahms?
The first solution was to dig into the unperformed works of the great composers. I am not sure if Antal Dorati was the first to record all the Haydn symphonies, or if Murray Perahaia was the first to record all the Mozart piano concertos. By the 1970s, however, we could hear more by the great composers than had been available in their own lifetimes. Rossini was no longer half a dozen overtures and The Barber of Seville. We could hear Wagner’s Rienzi and the Paris version of Tannhauser for the first time in generations. At the same time, there was a modest expansion in the number of acknowledged great composers from the past. The most notable of these, I suppose, was Mahler – though there was also increased interest in Purcell and Vivaldi and others who had never entirely faded from performance. These expansions were made by the record companies, but their success had an influence on the choice of music for live performances.
Then we have the arrival of the original performances movement – that is, playing music on instruments of its own day, according to some approximation to the contemporary styles of playing these instruments. The idea was to create a performance of something as it might have sounded played well in its own day. The first recordings and concert performances were of the standard composers. In 1977, I attended a performance, overseen by Christopher Hogwood, of the Mozart Piano Quartets. But this was joined by a revival of interest in other composers of the eighteenth century. By the 1970s, there was a growing interest in Johann Christian Bach – the London Bach, the youngest son of the Great Bach. His music is good in itself, both beautiful and characterised by an almost obsessive balance and repetition. Also, for the first time, you no longer had to be a music scholar to appreciate the greatest single influence on Mozart and what he did with this influence.
After this, the number of “new” composers expanded rapidly. So long as the bracketed dates after his name were 17xx-18xx, record-buyers and concert-goers were no longer put off by unfamiliar names. You may complain that the dead have now taken over the entirety of the market for classical music. But, if there are some good living composers beginning to make their name on YouTube, the new music given us by the BBC is just not very good. It is not very good even when it shows no influence of the Second Viennese School or any of the other musical horrors of the twentieth century.
But I will drop this argument. There is no accounting for taste, and my own taste is for music of the High Classical Period. I like the constraints of sonata form – the presentation and development of short themes that vary between the predictable and the unexpected and unstable, the frequent modulations as themes are taken apart and reconstructed, the reassuring solidity of a good recapitulation. I like Bach and Handel. I like Wagner, and also Bruckner and Mahler and some Shostakovich. I like French and Italian opera of the nineteenth century. But most of the music in my collection, and most of the music I play, is from the High Classical Period. I like it and have no need to justify my taste.
But, in case there are others who share my taste and have not stepped yet outside the canon, I will say something about this other music. There are two initial points to make. The first is to repeat what I said at the beginning of this article. The composers in question are not the equals, across the whole range of their works, of the musical giants. Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven have been regarded, for at least the past two centuries, as giants for a reason. The second point, however, is they did not compose consistently great music. Not all of Mozart is inspired. Much of his symphonic output is unmemorable. Some of Beethoven is openly mediocre. You only need to hear it to know why his Wellington’s Victory had to wait until 1961 to be recorded. There are individual works by men like Vogler and Vanhal and Wranitzky that are as good as or better than all but the best of Haydn and Mozart.
Since I mention him, let us take the Symphony in D minor by Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814). He was a composer based in Mannheim, not in Vienna, and this symphony, from 1782, was composed for Paris. It has no introduction, but launches at once into a long burst of Sturm und Drang violence, heightened rather than weakened by the continual pizzicato during the inner passages. This drives forward, now intensified, now relaxed, for seven and a half minutes, then gives way to a rather sinuous minuet and trio. The third and last movement is in the style of an operatic overture and a return to the spirt of the first. The orchestration throughout is both striking and colourful. Of course, Haydn wrote better symphonies than this, but he also wrote worse, and we listen to these without complaint. Vogler had a longish life for his time, and an interesting one. He made an early attempt at the formal analysis of music, and his travels in search of new sounds took him far outside Europe. I learn from Wikipedia that his later students included both Weber and Meyerbeer. I have heard nothing else by him that matches this early work. Then again, I have not heard that much by him – and, if he did compose only one memorable work, that work is still worth hearing.
Or we have my present favourite, which is the Symphony in D, Op.16, by Paul Wranitzky – or Pavel Vranicky (1756-1808). Unlike Vogler, he lived and worked in Vienna, where he was a favourite of the Empress. There, he was regarded, between the death of Mozart and the rise of Beethoven as the leading symphonist of the day. He was admired by Mozart and Haydn, and he directed the first performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony. His Symphony in D is in the full High Classical style. Its first movement is both grand and brilliant, with a powerful development section. For its quiet solemnity and extensive use of wind instruments, the second movement easily stands comparison with Mozart. The third and, as with the Vogler symphony, the last movement is another rondo in the style of an overture, and is a fitting end to a fine and remarkable work.
There is also a case to be made for his Symphony in F, Op.33. This is a different kind of work – more expansive, though still notable for its use of wind. The first movement introduces and develops a strange and unexpected theme which is echoed from his String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 16, and which I suspect is borrowed from Moravian tavern music. The second movement is a clever set of variations on the popular song Freut euch des Lebens. The trio in the minuet third movement is another popular song, Auch, du lieber Augustin. The symphony has no pretensions to the grand or profound, but is enjoyable throughout, and often striking.
I could say more about Wrantitzky. Unlike Vogler, he is not an occasionally good composer, but one hovering back and forth across the border between high talent and greatness. I am presently working my way through all his output so far recorded, and I am continually astonished by it. His chamber music is probably my most exciting discovery of the year. If he is forgotten, it is an effect of that ruthless sifting of past music during the nineteenth century. No one can say of Wranitzky what Adalbert Gyrowetz (1760-1853) lived long enough to say about himself:
There was a time when I celebrated triumphs in Paris, Naples, London, and Vienna. I welcomed Haydn to London, and some of my quartets were published later under his name by speculating music sellers. My operas were sung a hundred times on every stage; the arias of my Augenarzt went, like Donizetti’s, around the world. And who knows me now? I am poor and forgotten. And that is natural. I was only a talent, and must count myself lucky, since talent wins over only the present; only genius lives beyond the grave. But it is a strange feeling to remain alive yet to understand that one is spiritually dead. [Quoted in John A. Stine, A Stylistic Assessment of the Viennese Symphony, 1790-1825, 2017]
Much rather, I agree with François-Joseph Fétis, a French critic, writing around 1870:
The music of Wranitzky was in fashion when it was new because of his natural melodies and brilliant style. He treats the orchestra well, especially in symphonies. I recall that, in my youth, his works held up very well in comparison with those of Haydn. Their premature abandonment of today has been for me a source of astonishment.
But, if I could, and perhaps should, say more about Wranitzky, I could say more about all the others, and much more about their works and why I like them. I will not. I am not a musical scholar. I know what I like, and I can usually explain some of the things I like. But, if I can appreciate it when done by others, I am not myself qualified to write about tonal oscillations or tertian relationships in a false recapitulation. What I will do instead is come to a sudden and abbreviated end.
Yes, we are ruled by wolves and pigs. They are visibly trying to take us back to something like the social structure of the High Classical Period, though without the good taste in the arts that redeems the old ruling classes. I will not try to discuss what our rulers have been up to with the Coronavirus Panic, except to say they are up to something, and it is not intended to be to our advantage. All this is true. Even so, now is for me a glorious time to be alive. A reasonably free market has given us all the most wondrous technology for recording and transmitting and storing music. It has given me record companies that jostle against each other to provide me with more and better performances of the music I like. I have unlimited music to console me, and to do more than console me. It is like being a boy again – something new and often wonderful almost every day to listen to.
You may not share my musical tastes. You may not much like music of any kind. I will not blame you for this, though I may feel sorry for you. But, if you are a libertarian or a conservatism, there is something to be said for looking up every now and again from predicting and explaining all the terrible things our rulers have in mind for us, and giving thanks for the many other good things in life. There may even be many more of these than of the terrible things.