Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Great and Good

Playing Martinů's Fantaisies Symphoniques got me thinking about him, and his place in the greater scheme of things. This is partly a matter of his relative obscurity, which baffles me (as it does in the case of Nielsen), as i find it hard to understand why he's not a massively more popular or played composer. Possibly not more popular because not more played, of course, and given the timidity of much concert programming, not more played because not more popular - the perennial Catch-22.

There's a strange thing in classical music, I suppose because it leans on the past more than any other art form, of an insistence when talking about composers talking up their "genius". It's perfectly possible to talk of, say, Dickens as a great novelist while acknowledging his faults (all that sentimental Tiny Tim nonsense, for example), but we like to keep quiet about the second rate pieces Beethoven churned out amongst the jewels (such as the rotten Battle Symphony) . It's as though we're scared that if we admit any weakness in our musical gods, the entire edifice will come crashing down around our ears.

Martinů is a really good (and underrated) composer, and amazingly consistent for someone so prolific, but he's not a Great Composer. I think this is something to do with the fact that he's almost completely uninfluential (there's no "Martinů School" trailing in his wake), but also to do with an attitude, or lack of it, on his part towards his craft. He wrote well crafted, attractive and moving music, but there's never really a sense of him really trying to stamp himself onto history or change the course of his art for anyone but himself. He just tried to write good music.

This makes me stop and think, what do we really mean by a "Great Composer"? The whole idea of the Artist making a Statement begins with Beethoven (of course), which means that Bach, Haydn and Mozart (to pick only the 3 most obvious names) aren't really Great Composers, because the concept didn't exist for them. Significant, influential, great even; but not Great.

A Great Composer doesn't have to be a good composer; in fact I wonder if the two are very compatible, as it's entirely possible for a Great Composer to be a dreadful composer (Berlioz springs to mind, and Wagner - these are my prejudices, of course, you may have your own candidates for bad Great composers). even Beethoven, a Great composer who's generally also a good composer, sails pretty close to the wind - the 5th, 7th and 9th symphonies are exercises in increasing self-importance and bombast, and I maintain that after the astounding opening 30 seconds or so of the ninth, it's downhill pretty much all the way. But in the face of Greatness, quality's a secondary consideration

The line runs out almost exactly 200 years after Ludwig van, with the death of Stravinsky in 1971, and then the demise of Stockhausen at the end of last year; the Great Composer is essentially an idea of the 19th century that lingered through the 20th, and with the decline of so-called- classical music as a vital force rather than a museum, it's an idea whose time has gone. Which is not to say there aren't some great composers out there still, but are there really any Great ones?


jonathanburton said...

Great to read your blog just after I had said much the same on mine!

What a great composer Martinu is (I mean a great composer not a 'great composer').

I've included a link to yours -- hope that's OK.

Enjoyed your illuminating programme notes too.

All best

petemaskreplica said...

Thank you! Always good to hear of people enjoying the band :)