Hidden Musical Gems

Monday 22nd November 2010

What is the first thought that comes into your head when the name ‘Edward Elgar’ is mentioned?  The quintessential English composer?  The last night of the Proms?  That massive moustache?  These reactions to Elgar demonstrate the way in which we label composers according to one particular trait, when in reality their music isn’t so black and white (have a listen to Elgar’s Owls: An Epitaph, recently discussed by Tom Service).

We tend to favour categorisations: Debussy is often labelled an ‘Impressionist’ composer, Philip Glass a ‘Minimalist’ and Arthur Sullivan as the satirical ‘operetta’ writer.  These composers often resented the terms that have been used to define them, and if we look beyond these perceived artistic stereotypes, we can come across some surprising musical gems.

Tom Service recently highlighted this issue in his recent article on Górecki, drawing attention to his works which have been overshadowed by his famous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.  Aside from Górecki, there are many other musical surprises in composers’ outputs that are worth exploring.  Here are a couple of interesting ones that we’ve found at WildKat PR:

John Williams

The name ‘John Williams’ will inevitably conjure up the familiar melodies from the Star Wars and Harry Potter films.  But John Williams’ other works, such as his rarely performed Sinfonietta for Wind Ensemble, prove that his compositional capabilities stretch beyond the well-orchestrated big tunes which have made him so famous.  His Tuba Concerto is quite interesting to listen to as well, with a complex contrapuntal effect created between the scurrying dissonant strings and the jaunty tuba rhythms.  There’s not a hint of a big Superman-inspired theme here!

Francis Poulenc

With Poulenc’s output containing both witty chamber music writing and religious works, one music critic noted that ‘there is something of the monk and something of the rascal’ in the composer’s music.   And another side to Poulenc’s creativity is revealed in his tragic ‘La voix Humaine’.  This serious, monologue opera focuses entirely on a telephone conversation between a young woman and her lover who is abandoning her.  Poulenc’s dramatic music reflects the woman’s psychological turmoil here, and this is emphasised the woman’s final, desperate pleas of ‘Je t’aime’.  Have a listen to the tragic ending here.

Arthur Sullivan

Seduced by the commercial success of satirical operettas in the late 1800s, Sullivan’s more ‘serious’ compositions have been largely overlooked in favour of his Savoy Opera collaborations with the librettist Gilbert.  Sullivan’s symphonic works currently lie dormant beneath the popularity of his pastiches and witty tongue-twister songs (such as The Pirates of Penzance’s ‘I am the very model of a modern major general’ from the Pirates of Penzance).  Yet Sullivan’s Irish Symphony is richly orchestrated and his incidental music for The Tempest is an evocative portrayal of Shakespearean themes.  By taking away the musical imitations and witty social observations of Victorian customs, Sullivan’s true musical voice is revealed.

And some more…

Hubert Parry

Parry’s Brahmsian works such as his Second Symphony sound vastly different to his famous, rousing hymn Jerusalem.

Karl Nielsen

Nielsen also wrote some poignantly simple folksongs in celebration of his Danish heritage which sound completely different to his complex symphonic writingJens Vejmand is one of these.

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg, who is strongly associated with the Second Viennese School’s atonality, composed some sublimely orchestrated tonal music.  Have a listen to his oratorio Gurrelieder; doesn’t it sound so much closer to the music of Richard Strauss and Wagner than the works most often associated with Schoenberg?  Compare this with his Pierrot Lunaire to get the full effect.

These examples demonstrate the fact that composers do not always sustain an evolutionary musical development throughout their careers, and this causes us to rethink our definitions of their music.  If we look beneath the stereotypes and deeper into music’s endless repertory, there are many hidden gems waiting to be found.  Why not download one of X5’s Rise of the Masters 100-track compilations; you might just discover a musical style you didn’t expect from one of your favourite composers!