Resurrecting the second division 19th century composers.
In his opening number, the eponymous Mikado in Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta sings of the music-hall singer who attends a series of ‘masses and fugues and ’ops / By Bach, interwoven / With Spohr and Beethoven, / At classical Monday Pops.’ Yes, Ludwig (or Louis as he called himself in his autobiography) Spohr was a familiar enough name to be cited alongside Beethoven and Bach. True, Gilbert needed a composer with a single-syllable name to fit his verse scansion, but neither Gluck, Grieg, Liszt, Raff nor even Johann Strauss conveyed the desired effect quite as effectively as Spohr. Spohr was simply part of the canon in those days. Today you’d be hard pressed to find anyone, in a random vox pop, who has ever heard of him. (Mind you, a random vox pop I conducted several years ago revealed that 80% of those questioned did not know the date of St George’s Day or Shakespeare’s birthday.)
In the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary Spohr merits 8 pages (16 columns); Johann Strauss 11, ‘his pen still busy (1883)’, receives slightly less than a single column. Go to any of the great concert halls built in the last half of the nineteenth century and there will be the name – and possibly the bust – of Spohr carved into the fabric of the building alongside those of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert et al. This is particularly true of buildings in England where there was something of a Spohr vogue.
Spohr, born in Brunswick in 1784, was a child prodigy as a violinist and composer. He was one of the first conductors to use a baton, and was an early champion of Wagner. His own operas were immensely successful, among them Faust (revived in London in 1984) and Jessonda, as were his oratorios: well-thumbed copies of his Calvary and The Last Judgement crop up in boxes of second-hand music with surprising frequency.
Composers fall in and out of fashion. Even the mighty Bach had to be rescued from near-obscurity (by Mendelssohn); Mozart’s piano concertos were rarely played in the 19th century (Liszt, for instance, never played them); Vivaldi was almost unheard of (the same edition of Grove devotes just two columns to him: ‘he possessed the creative faculty but in a limited degree’). These three geniuses are now accorded their rightful place in the Pantheon. Spohr is one composer among many of whom the reverse is true, whose music achieved immense popularity during his lifetime, was admired by his peers, praised by influential critics but which, within a relatively short space of time after his death, fell into obscurity. That which had once enchanted and been highly-regarded suddenly enchanted no longer, its merits now perceived as faults. ‘The range of his talent was not wide,’ says Grove. ‘he never seems to have been able to step out of a given circle of ideas and sentiments…He was fond of experiments in composition – such as new combinations of instruments (to wit the Double Quartets, the Symphony for two orchestras, the Quartet-Concerto and others)…but after all, what do we find under these new dresses and fresh-invented titles but the same dear old Spohr, incapable of putting on a really new face, even for a few bars?’ This may be so but does the fact that he did not inhabit Olympia, that not every work thrust forward, ever-seeking new means of expression intent on commenting on the human condition, mean that they should forever after be consigned to the rubbish heap? Spohr’s delightful clarinet concertos, violin concertos and many of his symphonies, not to mention his masterly Nonet in F Op.31, are the work of a considerable composer – but where are they in the concert halls of the world?
It is a phenomenon that applies to second division composers, and particularly to those of the 19th century. While the Early Music brigade and the Baroque specialists have had a field day (or rather a half century) discovering the buried treasures of the 16th,17th and 18th centuries, the forgotten names of the 1800s have yet to make a return in quite the same way. For instance, the Four Rs – Raff, Reinecke, Rheinburger and (Anton) Rubinstein – may have made it on to disc thanks to indie labels (and none at all to the majors) but their names are entirely absent from the concert halls of Europe which they once filled. Even the weakest works from the pen of an acknowledged Great Composer (GC) will be routinely programmed by conductors, promoters, soloists. It’s safe. There’s a brand name of excellence attached to it. The best works by any of the Four Rs, though as good (if not better) than some of those by the GCs, struggle to find champions. Raff’s Symphony No.3 ‘Im Walde’, his Piano Concerto in C minor, and his Cello Concerto; Reinecke’s F sharp minor piano concerto, Rheinburger’s two organ concertos, Rubinstein’s once popular ‘Ocean’ Symphony and, still on the margins of the repertoire, his Piano Concerto No.4 (young Joseph Moog has just released a fine version of this): why does the public so rarely have the chance to hear the A-rated works by B-rated composers?
If the Four Rs are ignored by concert promoters, no commercially successful composer suffered a greater reversal of his reputation after his death than Giacomo Meyerbeer. In several ways, he was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day making a vast fortune out of lavish, spectacular operas that relied heavily on their staging for their dramatic success. While many of the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini are part of the standard repertoire and regularly revived just like those of Verdi and Wagner, Meyerbeer, the link between the two generations, is missing. Le Prophète, Les Huguenots and L’Africaine are seldom produced, and we hear only the occasional aria from Dinorah or fantasy on themes from his first colossal hit Robert le Diable. At the very least, the best operas of Meyerbeer stand comparison with the weakest of Verdi, their improbable plots no more unlikely and their dramatic tension no more flaccid than Attila or Il Corsaro. The enormous popularity of Robert, Les Huguenots and Le Prophète during Meyerbeer’s lifetime is, of course, no proof of their intrinsic merits but they had something besides elaborate stage effects to captivate and enchant audiences to the extent that they did. Mendelssohn commented after seeing Robert le Diable, that ‘every taste is catered for, every means of holding the attention of a musically uneducated public is employed’, before adding that ‘there is little to engage the heart’. Well, that is a comment that could apply to many other operas of the period by GCs that are regularly revived (and, coincidentally, is one that could be applied equally to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber).
What prompted these musings? The bicentenary of another forgotten figure: the birth of a pianist-composer whose glittering career lasted from the 1830s to the 1860s. Sigismund Thalberg was born with a silver spoon in his mouth in 1812 and raised in castles and palaces by his paternal grandfather Prince Franz-Joseph von Dietrichstein. By his mid-twenties he was considered to be Liszt’s only serious rival as a pianist. A famous ‘piano duel’ was held in the salon of the Princess Belgiojoso in 1837 in order to determine which of the two was the greater pianist. The verdict: Thalberg was the greatest pianist in the world; Liszt was the only one. Aristocratic by birth, in looks and in bearing, Thalberg was a sophisticated, highly cultured musician with impeccable taste and manners. Karl Halle (later Sir Charles Hallé, founder of the orchestra), writing sixty years after hearing Thalberg in 1837, recalled that ‘totally unlike in style to either Chopin or Liszt, he was admirable and unimpeachable in his own way… His performances were wonderfully finished and accurate, giving the impression that a wrong note was an impossibility. His tone was round and beautiful, the clearness of his passage-playing crystal-like… He did not appeal to the emotions, except those of wonder.’
Thalberg’s most famous compositional innovation was to play a melody in the middle register with alternating hands (very often the two thumbs) leaving the free right hand to provide elaborate decorations and the left to supply the bass and harmony with the addition of the clever use of the sustaining pedal. It foxed the ears and sounded as though three or four hands were playing. People used to stand on their chairs to see how it was done. It was a device that Thalberg used in the majority of his more than thirty opera fantasies and they became his trademark. They astonished his public and, though largely forgotten today, were far more popular than anything than, say, Chopin was writing at the time. Why are they forgotten? Because Liszt’s opera fantasies were far more inventive and harmonically adventurous (not to mention his Piano Sonata which is on a completely different level of creativity to Thalberg’s sole excursion into that genre); because Thalberg was perceived as a one-trick pony (understandable but not true) – he even became known by the nickname of ‘Old Arpeggio’; because he failed to move with the times. He made a fortune touring America in the late 1850s, returned to Europe and thereafter retired, to all intents and purpose, to his villa in Posillipo where he cultivated his vines. The musical world had forgotten him even before his death in 1871.
Received wisdom ever since has been that Thalberg’s piano music (and it was almost all for the piano) is not fit for consumption. It’s an opinion handed down from teacher to pupil through the generations with few bothering to investigate for themselves. Admittedly, not all of it is first class, though I have never come across a piece that was less than beautifully laid out for the hands. But the best of Thalberg cannot fail to work its magic, and if you seek out the recordings by Raymond Lewenthal, Earl Wild, Michael Ponti, Marc-André Hamelin and others you will hear what effective and brilliant music Thalberg wrote: his fantasies on Don Pasquale, for instance, Rossini’s Moses, The Barber of Seville and La Sonnambula, the Variations on God Save the King, and Les Huguenots with its brilliant octave variation. Instead of relying on the recycled verdicts of others, pianists should explore these scores for themselves and, after some judicious cherry-picking, add one or two to their arsenal of audience pleasers.
If concert planners and promoters were equally imaginative, we might even see the likes of Spohr, Raff, Rheinberger, Reinecke, Rubinstein and Meyerbeer making a return to the concert halls and opera houses of the world. Sometimes, taking a risk pays off. Which major label would have even considered making a recording of a work as obscure as Scharwenka’s Fourth Piano Concerto? Who, after it was released by Hyperion, would have bet that recording would win the 1996 Gramophone Record of the Year Award? It has now sold nearly 40,000 copies. OK, that’s not bums on seats – but it shows a noteworthy public interest in a little-known composer from the 19th century that might easily translate into ticket sales…if only the public were given the chance.