There’s something I’ve noticed from those of us who are concerned with trying to increase awareness of neglected composers. It’s a tendency when people are introducing a composer that has been bothering me for a while.
I’ll use Bax as an example since regular readers know I genuinely love his music. He was influenced, among others, by Sibelius, and both wrote seven symphonies. If I introduced Bax’s symphony cycle as ‘not in the same league as Sibelius, but worth a listen’, what does this say?
For a serious classical record collector, the take-home message might be ‘go and listen to Bax’. But for anyone else, it’s simply that Bax was not as good at symphonies as Sibelius.
My point is this: framing a recommendation in this way actually reinforces the way of thinking that has kept a composer in obscurity. It’s ultimately counter-productive. I don’t for a second doubt that people make such recommendations with their heart in the right place. But it boils down to the hopelessly uninspiring sales pitch: ‘it’s good (but not that good)’. Thinking along these lines will keep works like Bax’s symphonies as something that serious record collectors pull from an alphabetised shelf once a year, but not much else.
I find the idea of paying tribute to the gods of artistic hierarchy before promoting a composer or piece of music extremely depressing. That is why on this blog I try to look at what is distinctive, noteworthy and pleasurable about music when I advocate it, and try to not to be critical about the music itself. This last point may surprise people, but I don’t see being a music critic as a personal priority. I don’t want to construct a hierarchy of my own, I want to share works that I find rewarding and interesting, and I hope that some of my readers will find them rewarding and interesting too. I will happily reserve my criticism for the music industry that marginalises so much brilliant music instead.
If I were recommending Bax to someone, I might choose to mention that his third symphony was performed nine times at the Proms in the fifteen years after it was written. Imagine that happening to a large piece of new music today. Wouldn’t you like to find out why it was so popular? (Listen here).
Just like the Radio 3 tweet above, language matters. How we frame things matters. Is Purcell the greatest British composer? My reply is a different question: why does everything nowadays have to be a damn competition?
More thoughts on the narrowness of the classical repertoire can’t be found in my guest blog for The Cross-Eyed Pianist: Our Narrow Repertoire Is Holding Classical Music Back