Every day on WFCR, we program plenty of works in the most prestigious classical forms. There's always a symphony or two, at least one concerto, an overture or some other curtain-raiser, probably a symphonic poem or rhapsody, a chamber music masterwork, a major choral selection, a couple of great arias, and of course, solo piano music great (e.g., Beethoven Sonatas) and small (e.g., Chopin Nocturnes). These forms drew the greatest music from the greatest composers over the centuries, and rightly dominate our airwaves.
But a few times every day, we take a break from the prestigious forms, and investigate music from some of the more isolated planets of the classical solar system. Each has its own musical flora and fauna (i.e., its performing forces and instruments), its unique history, its conventions (both in the "accepted standards" sense and the "gather in a hotel and shmooze" sense), and its leading figures. You can always tell who the leading figures are, by the way. They're the ones whom their peers fawn over and treat like big shots when they're present, and make snide comments about when they're not.
Inspired by such terms as "genre fiction" and "genre film", referring to thrillers, mysteries, science-fiction and other sub-species of their art forms, I've come up with the my own term for these out-of-the-way musical worlds: "genre classical". Which genres do I mean? Well, there's choral (of the church and college types, not the "major" works mentioned above), there's wind ensemble and bands, there's classical guitar, organ, harp and other specialty instruments -- this term, like many others, is a broad umbrella under which many seemingly disparate sounds can find shelter. Each thrives within its own comfortable confines. What unites them, however, is the general neglect and, sometimes, lack of respect afforded them from the outside. For just as the "genre" works in film and fiction are not likely to grab the Oscars, Palme d'Or and PEN Literary Awards, so are "genre" composers not usually thought of by peers, critics and award committees as the leading composers of the day.
This is the case even though the "genre" composers, by some measures, may be more successful than their prestigious contemporaries. Think about it: A major symphonic work will receive a well-publicized premiere, but may then languish before finding a second performance. Same goes for a new opera -- if it even gets premiered in the first place. Ask Amherst College emeritus Lewis Spratlan how long it took for his Pulitzer-winning Life is a Dream to make it to the stage. A concerto may get played several times when the soloist for whom it was written takes it on tour, but then never get taken up by other soloists.
But in "genre" classical, a good new work stands a decent chance to become a hit within its field, with performers and ensembles by the hundreds constantly looking for rewarding new repertoire. Indeed, that's why some composers specialize in the supposedly lesser genres in the first place. It's why, for instance, composer and long-time Eastman School director Howard Hanson counseled young composer Clifton Williams that he would get larger audiences and a larger range of organizations to perform his music by writing for wind bands rather than orchestras (hat tip to radio friend Mona Seghatoleslami for this citation). Hanson offered this counsel many years ago, but the situation remains largely unchanged today.
And it's a big reason why we dip frequently into "genre" classical, where the composers have an added incentive to come up with something enjoyable for performers and audiences. They're also maybe less likely than their mainstream peers to succumb to what critic Terry Teachout (quoting Stephen Sondheim) has dubbed "importantitis", a disease characterized by artistic overreach and stifling self-importance. Speaking of Teachout, it was his recent article in praise of one of the leading "genre" composers that provoked this post in the first place -- and also reminded me of some of the pitfalls as well as pleasures of life in the "genres". Lest I succumb myself to importantitis and its related ailment, blogorrhea, I think I'll wait 'til next time to expound further.
(Pictured above: American composer Morten Lauridsen)