The Top Ten Underrated Composers, Part II
March 22, 2011
Last week, SFCV started a list of the Top Ten most underrated composers, the criterion being, mainly, a reputation that derives from a few well-known pieces and ignores a large majority of great works. Like most lists, this one can hardly be compressed to just 10 choices, but at least it's a start. Feel free to add your own choices in comments.
No. 5, Luigi Boccherini: There are so many underrated 18th-century composers that it’s hard to say who deserves this distinction the most. But the cello virtuoso Boccherini hit the trifecta: He went to Spain (bad idea, if you want to be famous), his autograph manuscripts were burned during the Spanish Civil War, and in his most common portrait he wears a puppy dog bow-tie that makes him look like a Christmas present for some duchess or other. How can you take a guy like that seriously (if you’re not a cellist)?
Yet Boccherini, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, wrote some of the most original, un-Viennese instrumental music of the time. It lacks the forward momentum and drive of the music of the Viennese greats, but it has a wealth of charm, and Boccherini was freer than anyone else of the time with formal models. If you’re a Mozart/Haydn lover (who isn’t?), Boccherini’s music is a constantly surprising, undiscovered treasure trove.
No. 4, Mikhail Glinka: In the face-off of underrated Russians, Glinka (1804–1857) wins out over Rimsky-Korsakov by virtue of not having composed Schéhérazade or the Capriccio Espagnole. I’ve loved Glinka ever since my run in with Ruslan und Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera 16 years ago. I thought then, and I reiterate now, that anyone who can combine Russian folksong, advanced French grand opera musical techniques, and a Donizetti-inspired patter-song (in Russian, yet) in one opera has my vote for the Hall of Fame.
Specialists will tell you that Glinka’s effect on Russian classical composition was catalytic. The influence was total, encompassing both “the Mighty Handful” and Tchaikovsky — they all knew they would be nowhere without Glinka’s Kamarinskaya Overture. But Glinka wrote many scores that general music lovers don’t know or could stand to hear more of, including the Capriccio brillante and Memories of a Summer’s Night in Madrid (Second Spanish Overture), a slew of Chopin-influenced piano music, and some wonderful songs. Oh, and can we please have Ruslan performed again?
No. 3, Paul Hindemith: Hindemith had one of the highest reputations between the world wars, which has now dropped shamefully. There should be a happy medium for this fine composer, as a recent San Francisco Symphony performance of his Concert Music for Brass and Strings confirmed. His precipitous fall came because he opposed the nontonal and serialist techniques that dominated the European new music scene in the postwar years.
That won’t stop you from enjoying the many fine pieces that this extremely prolific composer created, in all kinds of genres. Personally, I’d love to hear the Variations on “A Frog He Went a-Courtin’,” but more serious minds might prefer Nobilissima Visione or the song cycle Das Marienleben, or perhaps the set of piano works, Ludus tonalis. As a champion of all the old classical virtues, including the ability to write a great melody, Hindemith is unsurpassed.
No. 2, Jean-Philippe Rameau: Rameau is famous for having been the guy who first fully described the theory of “tonal” harmony that we still learn in music lessons. He sometimes spoke of himself as more a theorist than a composer. But don’t take him at his word: He was a tremendous composer, one of the first to really push what the orchestra could do, paving the way for Gluck, Cherubini, Beethoven, and all the rest. His tremendously energetic and physical dance music can literally pull you out of your seat, when it is performed with attention to the myriad complicated details that the French Baroque throws at you. And he was the single great French opera composer of his time — all this, after he turned 50.
Unfortunately, the stylized French opera of his era isn’t a big seller in ours. Outside of France, you have to hope for a tour by William Christie’s ensemble Les Arts Florissants or Mark Minkowski’s Les Musiciens de Louvre. And as for ballet, well, even balletomanes don’t think Zaïs or Les Fêtes d’Hébé when they name famous works. Rameau’s music is kept alive through the orchestral suites drawn from a few of his theater works, and by a few of the many great keyboard pieces he wrote. This is not nearly good enough, for a composer of such imagination. We have to do a little bit better by Rameau.
No. 1, Gioachino Rossini: “Wait, isn’t he one of the most celebrated composers of Italian opera — the master who wrote Barber of Seville?” I agree he is, which is why it’s so surprising that his last, great comic opera, Le Comte Ory receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere this month. And by the way, when’s the last time we’ve seen his greatest masterpiece, William Tell? Or Tancredi, the epochal opera he wrote at the same time as The Italian Girl in Algiers? (That opera’s carpet of great tunes has been twice recorded, and it used to give my Conservatory students chills, yet no production is in sight.) And what about The Lady of the Lake or Otello, operas that helped define Italian Romanticism? If there were three or four great Mozart or Verdi operas or a couple of late Beethoven symphonies that didn’t regularly get performed and were hardly known to music lovers, you’d be surprised, wouldn’t you?
On the other hand, Rossini made about 10,000 ducats/lire/Italian units of money per opera, at a time when most composers received 800 or less. He retired rich before he was 40, married a second wife half his age, helped Donizetti and Bellini get their feet wet in Paris successfully, wrote two of the great sacred works of the period (the Stabat Mater and Petite Messe Solenelle), had a decadent steak recipe named after him (tournedos Rossini), and lived long enough to say snarky things about Wagner.
So some of his operas don’t get performed now; Rossini still had the best of it.
Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.