Neglected pages, overlooked composers

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An aria from Stephen Storace’s The Siege of Belgrade (1791).

I could probably write about neglected composers almost every day, which isn’t such a bad idea, as long as a lot of good music gets uncovered.

I heard two things back to back the other day that reminded me again how much nifty music is out there that doesn’t get played much. One of them was a sonata by the short-lived English composer Stephen Storace,  friend of the Mozarts and a writer of great charm and inventiveness, judging by this one performance. I can hear the opening 3-note motif of one of the movements in my head right now.

The audieansstephenstoracence loved this piece, and with good reason. It had all the directness and warmth of Haydn and Mozart, and would fit without difficulty on a program of music including those two composers. If I had some extra scratch for a foundation I’ve been thinking about, I might very well issue a grant to some scholar to come up with new performing editions of his long-lost operas, now known only in vocal score.

The second discovery was the music of Vincent d’Indy, whose work has fallen out of favor, probably partly because of his anti-Semitism but also because it’s modest music in general (at least what I’ve heard; even the Symphonie Cevenole applies). It doesn’t have a big profile, but it’s very well-made and too often neglected.

What I heard was violist Lawrence Power in the Choral Varie, Op. 55, which or225px-Vincent_d'Indyiginally is for alto sax and orchestra, but also is played in a viola version, and it’s a lovely piece, through and through (this must have been the recording). There’s a beautiful brass chorale, very simple, that appears early on and recurs again toward the end, wrapping the piece up beautifully.

After that, it was a performance of the late Concerto for Flute, Piano, Cello and Strings, Op. 89. This was a much later piece (1926, as opposed to 1903) and it has a lot in common with the Neoclassical styles of Stravinsky and Poulenc, but without any of the sharp edges. It’s a far more conservative style, but clear, lucid and engaging nonetheless. What a nice change of pace it would make on a program somewhere, and how much it whets the appetite for a playing of the Symphony in B-flat, for instance, or some of the choral music.

The thing that always gets you when you’re a composer, trying to craft something that will communicate with people, is the thought that all your work might be for naught, and never heard again. Because I’m an American, I think of someone like John J. Becker, to whom Charles Ives was so generous financially and whom he championed.

I have never heard a single note of Becker’s music in concert, though I suppose I could have missed one or two chances. I doubt it, though; in more than 30 years of steady concertgoing I’ve only heard a couple pieces by Wallingford Riegger, one of the more recognizable members of the same school of American composers.

But total neglect doesn’t stop most composers. They keep at it anyway,  even though the entire history of Western music that became canonical comes down to around 200 people, and that’s being generous. It’s closer to 50 men over the stretch of time from roughly 1400 to the present day who get the bulk of performances, and that’s an extremely small percentage of the whole.

Still, I think we’re in a repertory-stretching time, and I’m confident some other composers will join the ranks of those who are treasured down the generations. The American Symphony Orchestra and Leon Botstein gave a concert performance last night of d’Indy’s opera Fervaal, and I will be interested to see what the critics thought.

If Fervaal doesn’t make headway, perhaps some other music by d’Indy could be added to the lists, and it would nice if someone got to work on Storace, too.

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