Happy birthday to...who?
My late friend Fred Marks, who used to join us on-air during fund drives years ago, ran a used book shop after retiring from New York Life and moving to Amherst. On one of the many occasions I lunched at his shop, Fred showed me an interesting new acquisition. I don't recall the name of the book or of its female author, but I remember the contents very well.
Dating from around 1940, the book contained a comprehensive list of all the classical composers then active in America, with brief biographies and representative work lists. Now, I thought I knew my composers pretty well. But it amazed me how many of those in the book were strange to me, and how much music they wrote. Symphonies, tone poems, chamber works, piano pieces, songs, cantatas, oratorios and operas -- reams and reams of music. And as I came across unknown composer after unknown composer, a tragic thought occurred to me: For quite a few of those listed between the book's covers, maybe even for the majority, probably not a note of their music will ever be performed again. A life's work, forever silent.
Alas, that's the fate of most composers throughout history. Even those remembered today mostly for just one work, such as Anton Rubinstein (Melody in F) or Jaromir Weinberger (Schwanda the Bagpiper) have fared better than most. It's perhaps from mulling over the implacable cruelty of the composer's posthumous fate that I developed a keen sympathy for those who achieved some success during their lifetimes, even if they've been forgotten since. I know such once-famous, now-obscure composers as Louis Spohr (he was mentioned in a Gilbert & Sullvan aria!) and Cécile Chaminade (she had fan clubs in Europe and the U. S.!) are sometimes regarded now with a sneer ("what could their contemporaries have been thinking of?"), and that our age now prefers the romantic myth -- which is mostly what it is -- of the struggling composer only celebrated after dying, preferably in poverty ("how could those Philistines not have recognized the genius in their midst?"). I tend to see it the other way around. Spohr, Chaminade and their ilk are the lucky ones.
So lest they be forgotten forever, we mark the birthdays of even fairly obscure composers almost every day on WFCR. I figure that if a composer did enough to make it into the history books, there's got to be at least one good piece in his or her work list. It may not be a deathless masterpiece, but it pleased someone sometime, may still have the capacity to do so, and anyway gives us today a better idea of the artistic vitality of the composer's time. After all, these composers had lives, loves, joys, sorrows and everything else -- should they be forgotten forever? Two such composers are pictured above: On the left, Norwegian composer and pianist Agathe Backer-Grøndahl (born December 1, 1847), and on the right, Danish composer Peter Erasmus Lange-Müller (born December 1, 1850). Read their biographies and, better still, listen to their music today on WFCR. No, they're not Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt or Tchaikovsky, all of whom are also on today's playlist. But after you've heard them, tell me you aren't glad that Agathe and Peter were also invited to the party.