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December 14, 2005

Late Romantic Music: Great Works You Would Like If You Knew They Existed

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - shares his musical tastes and extols the late Romantic composers.

Musical taste is probably the most idiosyncratic and individualistic form of artistic preference, and I suppose very few people - possibly none at all - will be entirely bowled over by what I like, or vice-versa. My own musical preferences strongly favour the late Romantic composers, those writing after about 1870; most flourished in the twentieth century, and some still do.

Below the likes of Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Copland, and their ilk, they tend to be surprisingly neglected despite their often immediate accessibility to the listener, and the situation in Britain, where virtually all Classical music is broadcast by the BBC's Radio 3 and one or two other stations, does not exactly encourage their leap to fame. I should note that the situation elsewhere is, and can be, quite different. In Melbourne, Australia, where I lived for many years, there is a listener-sponsored station, 3MBS, devoted wholly to Classical whose programmes are made by enthusiastic amateurs, and which plays a range of unusual pieces beyond what is apparently available on air here. In a departure from what I more usually write about, I would like to suggest a range of works by little-known, or lesser-known, late Romantic composers which I particularly enjoy and which, I suspect and hope, others will enjoy as well.

The purpose of all music is to produce transcendence; these pieces often do this for me and, I hope, for some of you. A remarkable number are British, and British music tends to be terribly neglected in the international repertoire. The availability of relatively inexpensive CDs does compensate, to a large extent, for the lack of radio outlets, although of course one first has to learn that these pieces exist and are worth listening to.

Let's start with two non-British composers whose works are assuredly less well-known than they ought to be, the Australian Ross Edwards (b. 1943) and the Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov (1915-98). It is likely that the average reader has never heard of either one, which is a shame, and evidence of how surprisingly limited are the opportunities in Britain to hear Classical music outside the standard repertoire.

Edwards' Symphony Da Pacem Domine, composed in 1992 to honour the late Australian conductor Stuart Challender, is a remarkable single-continuous-movement quasi-Gregorian chant without voice, lasting nearly half an hour. In my opinion it is clearly the greatest piece of serious music by a living composer. It is available, together with Edwards' violin concerto Maninyas, only on one CD, Ross Edwards - Orchestral Works, produced by Polygram for the ABC (the Australian equivalent of the BBC), no. 438610-2.

Other very good works by Edwards are also available on Australian recordings, such as his Piano Concerto, recorded with piano works by Australians Peter Sculthorpe and Malcolm Williamson, on another ABC Polygram CD, and his Flower Songs, which appears, together with Edwards' other chamber and dance works on his Ecstatic Dances (Tall Poppies TP051). Some of these recordings are available here in very large CD shops, but generally they have to be ordered from Australia or from a specialist distributor.

Georgy Sviridov is, apparently, well-known in his homeland, but almost totally unknown here. A student of Shostakovitch, he nevertheless wrote very traditional Russian music which would have been religious in format in the old Russian Orthodox sense if the authorities had permitted it. Since until his last years they didn't, he wrote music which approximated to it, including several masterly, deeply moving and memorable works. His greatest single piece is probably The Poem to the Memory of Sergei Yesenin (1956), which might be described as a kind of Soviet Carmina Burana, although one which is poignant instead of bacchanalian. Unfortunately, for many years only an old Melodiya 33 rpm disk existed of this fine work. Recently, however, it has become available on a Soviet import CD (Vista Vera VVCD-00067), together with another fine work, Small Tryptich (1964). The latter is also available, with other memorable music by Sviridov, on The Snowstorm and Other Work (Olympia OCD 520). Other works by Sviridov are also available on import labels, but in my view they lack the immediate impact of these pieces.

So many lesser-known late Romantic works of great merit are available for those who look hard that one does not really know where to start listing them, and one is always faced by the difficulty of finding the cut-off point between unknown and merely neglected works, and also between these and works which might be described as famous in a limited way. But let me suggest some works by these composers.

Sir George Dyson (1883-1964) has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. An English late Romantic in the lyric tradition of Vaughan Williams (and, incidentally, the father of the astronomer Freeman Dyson), he fell into neglect for many decades. I have listened to all of his music available on CD, but nothing matches his greatest work The Canterbury Pilgrims (1930), available on Chandos (CHAN 9531/2), especially two of the pieces in the score, "The Nun" and "A Poor Parson of the Town", which are among the high points of modern British music.

Of similar ilk was Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), who also wrote late Romantic music of a slightly earlier vintage. He also fell into prolonged obscurity, and has also experienced something of a recent revival. He wrote one great work, his Hebridean Symphony (1916), with its amazingly over-the-top concluding fifteen minutes, which is available in several versions on CD; again, I have not enjoyed his other music quite as much, but hidden gems may be there.

There are other fine British late Romantic composers, too, in the shadow of Vaughan Williams and, like him, lyrical, expressive, and unique. Ernest Moeran (1894-1950) wrote an outstanding Symphony in G minor (1937), available on Naxos and Chandos. Howard Ferguson (1908-99) was a Northern Irish composer whose striking Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1951) has recently become available on Naxos, with very good piano works by three other British composers.

On closer inspection, even well-known modern British composers turn out to have written outstanding music in totally unexpected genres. There is, for example, the chamber and small orchestra music of Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953). A prime example of his work is his Quintet for Harp and Strings (1919), a genuinely neglected masterpiece, available in several versions, including an inexpensive Naxos recording with several other of his works for small string orchestra. British small orchestra and chamber music is, generally, much underrated and too little known.

Among non-British composers there is the same problem of quantity, so let me name only a few. Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) was a Russian composer who fled the Bolsheviks for Vienna. He wrote a memorable late Romantic Piano Concero No. 1 in B Flat Major (1912), which pulled out all the stops. It is available on only one CD (Hyperion CDA 66624), together with an interesting Piano Concerto by another virtual unknown, Anton Arensky (1861-1906).

Anything that the American composer of Armenian-Scottish descent, Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) wrote is worth listening to, for instance his Mysterious Mountain and Celestial Gate symphonies and his Prayer of St. Gregory, with their lyrical, otherworldly, quasi-Armenian rhythms, often profoundly moving and immediately accessible.

One might also mention in closing the serious music of the Hungarian-born Hollywood composer Miklos Rozsa (1907-95), for instance his Theme, Variations and Finale (1933; revised 1943), which has a place in musical history because it was this piece, conducted without rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic in November 1943 by the young, unknown Leonard Bernstein in place of the indisposed Bruno Walter, which launched Bernstein's meteoric career.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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