The unjustly neglected vs. the justly unneglected
I used to read tons of classical record reviews. Gramophone, Fanfare, the American Record Guide — they were my font of wisdom, my bedtime reading, my bible. Those days are over. Sure, I still scan reviews to see if there's something I might have missed and which you and other listeners might like to hear. But thorough perusal? No more.
What changed? I did for one; I got older, had a family, and developed other interests. I also learned how to make up my own mind about music, and how not to be persuaded by the opinions of others. But I also think the reviews, or I should say the reviewers, have changed. Whereas I grew up reading serious critiques by accomplished musicians (e.g., Igor Kipnis and Lester Trimble in Stereo Review) and scholars (Paul Henry Láng in High Fidelity), classical CD reviews are now mostly written by ...well, CD reviewers. And with a few exceptions, they're a class of people whose perspective on life, art, and the relative importance of this rare Wilhelm Furtwängler broadcast performance of Beethoven's Fifth vs. that rare Wilhelm Furtwängler broadcast performance of Beethoven's Fifth is not one I care to know. Life is too short to obsess over such things.
And one popular critical meme I really began to tire of is the "unjustly neglected composer". You know the one: Treated unfairly by history, shunted to the sidelines of the repertoire, a victim of the Great International Conspiracy to deprive the poor fellow of his due. Jeez, if I've read that one once, I've read it a million times. How many composers can we really be unjustly neglecting? OK, I get that the classical repertoire has stultified, and that there are worthy composers to discover once you get past the superstars. We play some of these minor masters every day on WFCR. But really, people — don't you think that if there really were, say, some romantic symphonies out there as good as those by the top ten masters of the form, we've have worn them out by now? Like the backup quarterback the fans clamor for, the minor composer is just fine until he gets major playing time. Then it's "can I have my Brahms back, please?"
Take, for instance, this review of the latest CD in a series of symphonies by the 20th century Swedish composer Gösta Nystroem. After praising the contents, reviewer David Hurwitz concludes thusly: "His music deserves far more attention than it has received, and this series should help redress the imbalance." Oh, come on! First of all, how a set of CDs that 99.9% of classical listeners will never hear can "redress" anything is a mystery to me. But then there's the music itself. No offense to Nystroem, who was a good composer of colorful orchestral works. He even had relatives in Amherst that I would hear from when we would occasionally play him. But the more I hear his music, the more it suffers in comparison with the really distinctive and exciting works of other composers in the same style. Mr. Hurwitz may disagree, but I can't for the life of me understand why we should take up the cause of Nystroem when most people already don't hear enough Sibelius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Barber, Hanson, and maybe a dozen other better 20th century symphonic composers. And Nystroem is far from the only composer Hurwitz and others have championed in this way. Well, my obscure-composer-championing friends, we can't get to them all. We have to choose. Music listening is a zero sum game — when you're listening to one composer, you're not listening to all the others.
You know what composer is truly neglected and really deserves wider recognition? The living composer. Let me be slightly cruel about it: Gösta Nystroem is dead, and past knowing whether his music gets played or not. The living composer still knows and cares (or should care) whether you hear and like his/her music. And while it might have once been true that many living composers wrote as much or more for posterity as for the present-day listener, that's mostly not true anymore. There's something for everyone, or as my living-composer friend Matthew Whittall put it in his excellent guest blog post, "If you haven't heard any new music you like, you haven't heard enough new music." So, if we're going to dig around for new sounds, and choose musical causes to champion, how 'bout we go for the new? Not only might that actually help advance the cause of classical music, it could also help you feel connected to the present day instead of just wallowing in the past. In case you're wondering, I think that would be a good thing.
(Photo: Gösta Nystroem gazing at his beloved sea. We'll make it up to him by playing one of his major works sometime soon on WFCR.)