Who are the most underrated composers of all time?

I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing a series on the most underrated composers in music history. Neglected and underrated music is a recurring, if not always an explicit theme here, to be sure, in many posts.

So far, I’ve shied away from producing anything as straightforward as a Top 10 or Top 20 most-underrated composers list, but not for lack of semi-absent minded contemplation of what such a list might look like.

No such list is yet forthcoming, but maybe a discussion is. First, it’s worth clarifying that we’re talking specifically about “underrated” composers and not necessarily “neglected” composers or even “unjustly neglected” composers. Not all “neglected” composers are “underrated,” and neglect doesn’t necessarily always lead to music being underrated. For instance, Eric Satie’s music is generally vastly overrated, mostly because little of it is actually known. Somehow, the few well-known Satie pieces have been considered far more significant than they really are because we assume that somehow, there is music of genuine depth and importance behind them, when there probably isn’t. I think if more people knew more Satie, the popular Gymnopedie would be taken far less seriously. Then there are funny situations in which music that pretty much everyone who knows it is known to be great, but it is not known by many people. I can scarcely remember a criticism of a significant piece by Frank Bridge (some of the salon music is not all that substantial) from anyone who has played it in a good band or heard it in a good performance- everyone who gets to know the music seems to realize it is special, but very few people yet know it.

I think what might surprise readers is that quite a few people on the “most underreated” list would be very well-known and, frankly, highly-rated composers who just aren’t rated nearly as highly as they should be.  On the one hand, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart, just to start with, could never go on an “underrated” list. They are rightly recognized as some of the greatest creative personalities in human history.  Their music is played everywhere, and nearly universally admired. Scholars, musicians and listeners all seem to agree on their “greatness.”

It wasn’t always so, of course. My writing and thinking about Gustav Mahler is largely informed by the fact that when I discovered him, he was considered something of a cult composer where I lived- almost Havergal Brian-ian in the way that his pieces were considered notable first and foremost for their scale and obscurity, but not for their importance or quality. Now Gus is King, long live King Gus. Gus is box office. Gus is primte time and mainstream,  but when I write about Mahler, it’s probably the ghost of young Ken, hunting libraries around his hometown for copies of a score to the 6th or trying to find a decent book about his music who guides the pen. No matter how overplayed his music becomes, I’ll always write and talk about Mahler as though I’ve just stumbled on something really cool and obscure that I really, really think the world ought to know about. Nonetheless, calling Mahler underrated (other than by jaded critics who think there must be something suspicious about anything as beautiful and exciting  as the 8th Symphony) is obviously absurd.

http://youtu.be/lfWkGzIsZIY

(Klaus was country when country wasn’t cool)

Schubert is a perfect example of a “rated” composer who died profoundly underrated. So many of his late masterpieces weren’t heard for decades after his death. Imagine if we were to find out now about a composer who had died 25 years ago who left a string of later masterpieces like the G Major Quartet, C Major Quintet and the late Schubert Piano Sonatas and song cycles. If it seems more unlikely in the internet age, it’s certainly not impossible. Sometime in the 1850’s, Schubert would have gone from pretty well unknown (although certainly admired by Schumann and Mendelssohn), to high up on the “rated” list.

(Just think how underrated Schubert would be if this piece had never been found and published)

But who from the “known” list would I put on the “most underrated” list? Well, top of the list, obviously, would be Haydn. If Bach is “actually the greatest composer who ever lived” who is rated by almost everyone as “just about without a doubt the greatest composer who ever lived,” Haydn is “at the very damn least, the second greatest composer who ever lived, and the only who could really make Bach sweat” who seems to be widely rated as a twee fuddy duddy by everyone except for a small but enlightened group of musicians who know his music well enough to know better. How many different Haydn symphonies have been performed at the Proms over the years? Just askin’…..

Certainly, Haydn has more posthumous right to be aggrieved by his current level of popularity and critical esteem than any “obscure” composer, be it Hans Gál or Niels Gade.

http://youtu.be/f_mVPWUXSFs

(Haydn 92. This piece is more astounding than you think it is- no matter how astounding you think it is. The same is probably true for almost all of his 100+ symphonies)

Some of the other composers who, well-known and well-loved as they are are, remain underappreciated or overlooked by some significant segment of the “scholar, musician and audience” jury will not surprise regular Vftp readers: Robert Schumann (high on the list, possibly just below Haydn) or Antonin Dvorak (far more to him than just the New World Symphony and American Quartet. Tony D was one of the most prolific  chamber music composers, and a great, great opera composer. His versatility is probably only surpassed by Mozart).

http://youtu.be/N8LmSFptEb4

(The Dvorak Stabat Mater- Music doesn’t get any more heart-rendingly beautiful than this.

I think Shostakovich has finally graduated to “rated” status, but Prokofiev, popular as he is, is most definitely “underrated.” As often was we hear Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf and the Classical Symphony, there is a huge, diverse and incredibly rich and wonderful body of chamber music, operas, concerti, other ballets, film music and symphonies that most people barely know. Even extraordinary popularity doesn’t necessarily keep one off the underrated list-  the gap between how good a composer like Tchaikovsky generally seems to be perceived to be, and how good he really was is probably far greater than the gap between who good the same gap is for Borodin, Glinka, Glazunov or Rimsky-Korsakov. They may be more neglected, but they’re almost certainly less underrated than Tchaikovsky. If you don’t know Queen of Spades, or haven’t properly analyzed the Pathetique, you probably don’t realize what a genius Tchaikovksy was.

(Verdi’s only serious rival for greatest opera composer of the 19th c., and we mostly think of him as a symphonic composer)

A similarly well-known figure whose music and importance are greatly underrated is probably, no- make that certainly, Richard Strauss.  It is with Strauss that this thread will continue.

Meanwhile, who are the composers you think are most deserving not just of more exposure, but of a proper re-think? Is there a composer you think might charge up the charts in the next 25 years as Sibelius and Mahler have in the last 25?

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  • http://www.brianlhughes.com Brian

    I’ve been pondering my own thoughts along many of these same lines for quite awhile now. The NY Times series (Tomassini) selecting the Top 10 that eliminated Haydn was undoubtedly a travesty. While everyone just MIGHT know a small handful of his symphonies, what of his chamber music? It was enough to stimulate the young Mozart into composing a set of quartets dedicated to the master. Then there are his operas, which are virtually non-existent in today’s repertory. I count myself fortunate to have been at least introduced to “La Canterina” (sp?) as an undergraduate so long ago.

    Write more on this Ken! I’m greatly looking forward to it!

  • http://klacknermusic.wordpress.com Erik K

    Welcome to my world, where what you call “semi-absent-minded contemplation” I call a way of life…;-)

    Your concluding sentences contain the second best answer (obviously after Haydn), that being Richard Strauss. It’s funny, the same tool that we use to venerate Mozart (usually at the expense of Haydn), the SUBLIME EFFORTLESSNESS of his music, we use to shortchange Strauss relative to his peers. Strauss makes Mozart sound like Beethoven in the effort department; it wouldn’t have shocked me to have read a Strauss bio that contained the sentence “he emerged from his study 4 days later with the completed short score to Ein Heldenleben.” Strauss was a wizard, something not of this planet.

    Who are some other composers I find underrated?

    Ernest Bloch, for one. He has name recognition because of Schelomo, but he’s got a long list of really great music. The Concerto Grosso, Avodath Hakodesh, Israel Symphony, some kick ass string quartets, and the best cello music that these non-cello playing ears are aware of, and then some? Come on.

    Now that I think about it, that’s probably the common theme of the composers I find underrated: they’ve become defined by one or a small handful of pieces that obscure everything else they’ve done. Another good example? Aram Khatchaturian. Sabre Dance killed that guy. That piece is rad, but there’s some other great music in Gayaneh, and Spartacus is on the short list of greatest ballets ever, IMO. The Violin Concerto is bad ass, the symphonies are really good (even if the 3rd is borderline unperformable anymore). Tremendously engaging style that should be heard more.

    I look forward to reading more about Strauss…we’re already allied in the attempt to get Haydn the credit he deserves, perhaps Richie is next.

  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    I can’t help myself: By means of a grating, I’ve stopped your rating.

    Actually, nothing will stop the rating. It’s what people do. My list of neglected composers is far too long to elaborate upon, so I’ll just make this brief and personal: Telemann is seriously under-rated. Isaac is too. Pachelbel (who most people still believe only wrote one piece) is a third.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K

    Erik-
    Glad you agree on Strauss. There’s a lot more to him and his music than most people realize. Funny we’ve never talked about this before.

    I completely agree with you on Bloch, as you do know. The quartets are extraordinary, especially the first two, and the first Piano Quintet is a real masterpiece, and probably the best use of quarter tones in musical history.

    In intrigued by what you say about Khatchaturian- the penny has not completely dropped for me with him yet. I do love the Cello Concerto, but I found conducting the Violin Concerto kind of disappointing. It felt a little bit like jamming with an Armenian wedding band for 45 minutes, but where one guy kept hogging all the solos. However, I’m always excited when I find out I may have been missing out on something cool. It’s amazing how we all tend to be so defensive about our dislikes and blind spots. Surely the more music you know well, the more you like a lot, and it stands to reason that someone who likes and knows music you don’t is probably at least one step ahead and likely to be right. I’ll dig out Spartacus again.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Brian

    Hi Brian- I seem to remember that Tomassini himself all but admitted that he took Haydn off the list and left Mozart on because of Mozart’s popularity and Haydn’s lack thereof. Glad to hear Haydn has one more guy in his corner.

  • http://irontongue.blogspot.com Lisa Hirsch

    Martinu. And pretty much everyone who lived before 1700: they are not known at all to the general public.

  • Rosemary Lucas

    My start point is that I cannot believe why or how anyone likes Haydn (and Beethoven). You’ll regard me as a heathen. Not a problem. But I still think Vaughan Williams is underrated, precisely because the Lark Ascending is so popular but most are unfamiliar with a vast repertoire that is so much deeper, profound and beautiful. Also Ravel, Martinu and Janacek. Holst and Dvorak beyond the pot boilers, great though they are. The great Richard Hickox championed many British composers in this category such as Dyson. And, is Britten truly appreciated yet?

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Rosemary Lucas

    Hi Rosemary and welcome. Thanks very much for your comment. Vaughan Williams is an interesting nomination- I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful hidden depths in much of his music as I’ve conducted more and more of it, although there are still pieces that don’t seem to offer much more than an attractive soundscape. The 5th is a seriously great piece.

    Martinu is certainly an underrated composer, but Janacek and Ravel? They may not be as popular as they could or should be, but I’ve almost never heard any professional musician, critic or music lover suggest either of them were anything less than a mega-genius. Not so with Dvorak, who is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight by musicians who are a little too cool for school.

    Glad to hear you giving my dear friend Richard a shout out. He was a great Britten advocate, but, again, Britten might not be as popular as he deserves to be, but he’s certainly taken hugely seriously by just about everyone who is aware of his music. Does anyone really underestimate him who knows the music? I’m a great fan of The Planets, but I’ve not warmed all that much to Egdon Heath and the Choral Symphony, and I’ve certainly done one too many St Paul’s Suites in my life, but you’ve inspired me to spend some more time on Holst. I’m doing the Planets again in October and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll check out some of his other music while working on that.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    Best

    Ken

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Lisa Hirsch
    Hi Lisa!

    That’s two votes already for Martinu. It’s good to see him getting taken seriously. He was definitely treated as a second tier talent in my student days, but he wrote some great, great stuff.

    Just to play devil’s advocate- I’ll agree that most pre-Bach music is not as widely known as it should be, but I think you could make the case that those who do know that repertoire tend to be extremely enthusiastic in their advocacy. Yes, you don’t hear Monteverdi discussed as much as Mahler, but do you ever hear a bad word spoken about Monteverdi? Certainly, everyone who recognizes the names seems to agree that Gesualdo, Josquin and Pallestrina were all tremendous talents. Compare that to the gazillions who play and know Elgar who don’t think of him as a big-time talent because they’ve never really listened with open and enlightened ears…..

  • David Galvani

    Spot on about Haydn, his piano sonatas rival LvB and have wit and sophistication.
    Also Tony D needs more airtime for his chamber music.
    Personally, I enjoy Brahms, but many do not rate him – musical Marmite.
    BW

  • http://irontongue.blogspot.com Lisa Hirsch

    Haha – yes, the knowledgeable don’t underrate the pre-1700 greats. But what about Dufay, Ockegham, and Obrecht? Is Schuetz overshadowed by Monteverdi and, say, Bach?

    My favorite radio station is Cesky Rohzlas, so I hear a lot of Martinu.

    I still consider Janacek to be underappreciated and underplayed. WHY is every opera house in the world not performing “From the House of the Dead’?

  • Roger Miller

    Wouldn’t any female composer be automatically underrated?

    Does anyone know enough about Ethel Smyth’s music for example to know whether her neglect is justifiable?

    The only piece I can find on Spotify is her Mass in D which sounds like it should have the occasional outing at least.

    http://open.spotify.com/user/rogerjohnmiller/playlist/2E0O7Sw9bmJrmtluOgnnm7

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    Hi Roger

    Welcome and thanks for the comment.

    I don’t know Ethel Smyth’s music at all- I’m looking forward to hearing the Mass.

    On the question of female composers- I think that’s probably an oversimplification of a very difficult and complex reality. On the one hand, Jennifer Higdon is now neck and neck with John Adams for most performed living American composer, and the success of Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Ellen Zwilich, Joan Tower and Sofia Gubaidulina ought to once and for all have opened the field of composition to women once and for all. I’m always trying to program Thea Musgrave’s music, with no success.

    As today’s generation thrive and excel, I think the most at risk generation is that of those women composers of 20-50 years ago, who were writing in less welcoming times and who don’t now have agents and publishers pushing their work as some of todays stars do. Getting commissions and first performances is difficult, but getting a second performance is far, far harder, and keeping a piece in the repertoire 10 years after it was written is extremely, extremely difficult (regardless of gender). Once the composer is no longer around to push and to help? Very tough. The good news is that music by women composers of the last 50-60 years will get taken more seriously today than it might have been in the 1950s or 60s.

    In the more distant past, the situation is bound to be more tinged with regret for what might have been than with what was and is. Hildegard is now a proper big name, and closer to our time, we can now expect to hear Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke regularly. I do, however, think it’s not healthy to be too revisionist in confusing what might have been with what actually was. Pretending someone was something they weren’t does a disservice to history. I’ve encountered some writing about Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, just to name 3 who were burdened with great last names, that went way beyond reality. Whether Fanny Mendelssohn could have been a female Beethoven is a separate question from whether she was. What might have been is the most dangerous question in history, and pretending someone achieved what they didn’t is actually unfair all around. In this case, it’s unfair to Fanny Mendelssohn, or whoever you would anoint as the female Beethoven, because it it gives history a pass. The fact that they _might_ have written a body of work like their male counterparts in a more enlightened time ought to be a stinging indictment and a permanent stain on the people of that era. Pretending they somehow overcame all that prejudice and lack of opportunity lets history off the hook.

    Thanks for a very thought provoking comment!

    Ken

  • john bab

    By discussing ‘ratings’ the argument descends into a less than useful competiton between composers – how could one decide between Bach on the one hand and Beethoven on the other? Much more important is the frequency of performances and chances to hear the works of a particular composer. The repertoire of most of the larger orchestras seems so narrow, with ‘current tastes’ dominating everything and so much uniformity. The glut of Mahler performances in the last 12 months has for me been completely over the top. Like some of the other commenters I too would like to hear more Haydn and Martinu.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    Hi John

    Welcome! Thanks very much for the comment.

    I’m glad to see you joining the campaign for Martinu and Haydn!

    I’m not sure your first sentence is actually necessarily relevant to what I’m talking about here: “By discussing ‘ratings’ the argument descends into a less than useful competition between composers – how could one decide between Bach on the one hand and Beethoven on the other?”

    Although I confess I did passingly declare Bach and Haydn to be the two greatest composers of all, that sort of thing is just intended to be provocative rather than definitive, and shouldn’t be taken to seriously. This post isn’t really about comparing composers to each other, but to their own reputations, be it popular or critical. In other words, the rules of the game, so to speak is not to compare how good Beethoven with how good Haydn is, but to compare how good Haydn is with how good most of the world seems to think he is.

    I’m really glad to hear you advocating for more diverse programming, something we can all agree we need.

    Ken

  • http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com Another Brian

    I’m certainly guilty of underrating Haydn – he just seems so cheery and happy with life that it’s hard to fit him into the prevalent rubric of Artist as Struggling Tortured Mind. Haydn is undoubtedly, no question, the greatest composer who would bore a psychiatrist, but the lack of that hook – like Beethoven’s deaf misanthropy, Mozart’s cinematic vulgarity, Chopin’s gloom, Rach’s gloom, the repression in different ways of Tchaik and Shosty – might make people suspicious of Haydn’s achievement.

    It certainly makes people suspicious of Dvorak’s achievement, though “Tony D” is my favorite composer of all. Another evidently perfectly normal fellow, another composer whose versatility is jaw-dropping. “Te Deum” expresses in 18 blazingly glorious minutes every single thing which makes him great: unsurpassed melodic gift, generous variety of moods and textures, and a wholly underrated genius for unconventional structure. Might be one of the top Underrated Works by Underrated Composers.

    I also love the commenters’ suggestions of Martinu and Janacek. And if you like Khachaturian’s Cello Concerto, do everything you can to hear the Rostropovich recording of Miecszlaw Weinberg’s Cello Concerto – the first movement is absolutely heart-melting, and if I had the cash I’d buy scores for every cellist I know.

    A few total obscurities:
    - Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (born Jan Vaclav Kalivoda) wrote a mostly excellent symphony cycle (especially 3 and 5) and some very good string quartets; Schumann’s orchestral work is very obviously influenced by him, as Schumann began his first symphony after writing an extensive essay on Kalliwoda’s Third. When I listen to early Dvorak I wonder if I can’t hear Kalliwoda there too.
    - Weinberg (mentioned above). Solo cello sonatas are pretty acidic and glumly Soviet, but the concerto and fantasia are superb, as is his piano quintet.
    - Kurt Atterberg. Audiences would go absolutely bananas over his Symphonies 3-8 (especially 3 and 8, I should say). They’re splashy, fun, aggressively folk-Swedish, orchestrated with dazzling ease, and in some cases, particularly 5 and 8 (okay – 8 is my favorite), also demonstrate the need to say some pretty interesting things. Atterberg got the shaft, as it were, because he embarked on his symphony cycle around 1910, right when romantic composers were supposed to stop instead of start; by the time of his Ninth, in the 1950s, he was hopelessly passe. But still good. The concertos tend to be overlong though.

  • Roger Miller

    @Kenneth Woods

    Thanks Ken.

    Dame Ethel is mentioned in the Swafford Brahms biography. She knew him through the von Herzogenbergs. From Swafford’s account Brahms definitely underrated her.

    By the way, I’m certainly with you on Haydn.

    Roger

  • http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com Another Brian

    Despite my already extremely long comment I’ve just thought of another underrated composer: Everyone From Central And South America. Dudamel’s doing wonders for Evencio Castellanos’ “Santa Cruz de Pacairigua” and a couple highlights from Ginastera ballets, but Ginastera, Villa Lobos (aside from a couple guitar bits and the Bachianas No 5), Chavez, Revueltas, and more all seem to be waiting for their big break. Piazzolla has gotten a lot of recognition in “crossover” albums of arrangements by various classical ensembles, but his unique compositions are still best appreciated in his own recordings…

  • Richard Bratby

    Under-rated, genuinely great composers (if we’re talking about the gap between unquestionable artistic achievement and current concert hall profile?)? Definitely Haydn and Dvorak. Borodin and Cesar Franck. Gluck. Getting into more predictable areas, I’d say the single most under-rated British composer is without question Frank Bridge.

    Don’t get me started on Daniel Jones…

  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    @Roger Miller
    Brahms hated Dame Ethel! She fooled him by playing some fake Bach. He called her “the oboe” because she was so annoying to him.

  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    @Richard Bratby
    Frank Bridge (who is one of my favorite composers) is, like Charles Villers Stanford, highly regarded as a teacher. I just heard a recording of Stanford’s string chamber music–stuff that has never been recorded before–and now have HUGE respect for him as a composer. It’s a Naxos recording 8.572452.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Richard Bratby

    All this support for Haydn and Dvorak is slightly restoring my faith in humanity! Good on you for listing Cesar Franck- the Symphony in D is a wonderful piece that I’ve written about here before
    http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2010/06/24/franck-and-the-lost-middle-ground/

    Readers: Richard actually commented on that post as well- the links to his writings are well worth following.

    I’m really excited to be recording the Franck Symphonic Variations and Chasseur maudit next year! One of these days, I would really, really, really love to record the Symphony.

    Frank Bridge has been a favorite of mine for going on 30 years now. I love the Cello Sonata and Oration.

    Walton is pretty underrated, too!

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine
    I’ll look out for some Stanford. BBC NOW did some of his music when Richard Hickox was here, but I missed the performances…

  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    @Kenneth Woods
    You need to check out the Fanny Mendelssohn collection in the Petrucci Library and the Werner Icking Music Archive. Her music (more than 500 pieces) was sitting in the family archives until relatively recently. People have been engraving them and making them available. She was not a female Beethoven. Beethoven was a singular personality. She was a female Hensel (or a female Fanny Mendelssohn), and was also a singular musical personality. Women as composers will not achieve equality in the musical world until people come around to considering them on their terms and not comparing them to their male relatives and compatriots.

  • http://bgreinhart.wordpress.com Another Brian

    The mention of Borodin reminded me that I once saw a drinking scene from Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina,” mixed into a Houston Grand Opera program of “greatest opera choruses”, and was astounded. The richness and complexity of expression, the outrageous color… really wish they had skipped “anvil chorus” and Aida and done the whole opera.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine

    Hi Elaine- Thanks so much for calling attention to the new wealth of material out there! I think we’re basically in agreement, although my sense is that the battle for women composers living today to be taken seriously has been won, and thank goodness it has. The few Fanny Mendelssohn works I’ve read and looked at struck me as very good rather than great music, but with 500 pieces out there, I obviously have much to discover from her, and I’m looking forward to that. There is likely some more substantial stuff in that vast archive than what I’ve come across so far. Very exciting.

    Thanks for the comment!
    Ken

  • http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com Elaine Fine

    @Kenneth Woods
    The battle still rages, though it’s a quiet battle, particularly for a lot of women writing now. Some composers would even go so far as to say that the experience of women who write music and men who write music is pretty much the same: that every composer, outside of a sometimes overrated handful, has the experience that women once had do endure.

    Higdon is not an good example of the typical female composer. She has a high-profile job and an expert in-house self-promotion machine (her partner), which is an absolute necessity for success. There are many composers of equal compositional voltage (and both genders) who do not, and therefore nobody will ever talk about their music in the ways that they talk about “household” composers. Publishers do not do the kind of promotional work that the general public assumes they do, unless they can justify their investments in profit. And profit usually means educational and religious choral materials sold in bulk (you need many copies in order to “arm” the choir) and pop-related arrangements for band. Running your own publishing company requires business expertise. I don’t think I’m overreaching when I claim that most composers do not have the business skills to succeed as publishers. Think of the number of non-composer publishers that don’t have the business skills to succeed!

    There have always been composers and composers of both genders who are, for whatever reason, unable to promote themselves successfully. For some, like me, the act of writing music and the act of promoting it are at serious odds with one another. I believe the quality of my work is for other people to judge, and anything I might say about it I feel is either a lie or immaterial. The idea of hiring someone to promote his or her music is not a financial possibility for many composers.

    Some people, like you, are able to excel in the art of self promotion, and people (like me) respect you for it. Others (like me) are just no good at it.

    I believe that the large number of “underrated” composers fall into the category of people who were/are not successful at self promotion, and that the large number of “overrated” composers fall into the category of people who were/are successful at self promotion.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Elaine Fine

    We’re heading towards a different and extremely important topic- thank you for your wise and important thoughts.

    What you describe, this huge gap between haves and have-nots is not unique to composers. It’s endemic throughout the music world and, obviously, in the society-at-large. We’ve all seen the studies on the perils of a winner-take-all society, and classical music is very much affected by the phenomenon. It’s astounding just how much power and opportunity is concentrated on a tiny, tiny number of conductors via their agents, orchestras, a group that I am most definitely not a member of. If I were a better self-promoter, I might be? The criterion for being in the in crowd as composer, conductor or soloist are incredibly capricious and subjective. It’s definitely NOT a meritocracy. I have a friend here who I think is one of the great living composers who can’t even get one of the big arts mega-organizations to open one of his scores. “If you’re not already on the list, and your not friends with someone in the upper-echelons, you’re not going to be considered” was what they actually told him.

    At least music, once written, is there forever. Sooner or later, it gets heard, and if it’s good, it becomes loved. Incredibly unfair to the composer! That said, I do think it’s healthy for composers to be as proactive and entrepreneurial as they can be. Haydn and Bach had to be the great champions and interpreters of their own music. Time rights a lot of wrongs for compositions, but not for composers, I fear. Over time, music history is more of a meritocracy than it is in the near term.

    Thanks again for the comment!

    Ken

  • Zoltan

    Another vote for Dvorak (but you already knew that)!

    As curious my choice would be, I’d give a vote for Rachmaninoff, as he, similar to Dvorak, is known as having a gift for writing melodies, but not thought of having craftsmanship behind his works. How about the counterpoint in his 2nd symphony? Or the creation of themes out from a singular “motto”? What about his orchestration skills? Anybody who can put the saxophone (Symphony No. 3) into a symphonic orchestra without sounding cheap must be a master at it!

    “Another Brian” mentioned Atterberg. I’m about to embark on a journey exploring his music and he might fall into the same category of “tunesmith” but no “craftsmanship”. Now that I think of, there could be a whole category for such composers (Tchaikovsky you already mentioned)!

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Zoltan

    Hi Zoltan- I think that’s a really, really interesting suggestion. Rakmaninov has most definitely been misunderstood and looked down on by a certain kind of musician all my life. I completely agree with you about the craftsmanship of the 2nd Symphony- in addition to the contrapuntal genius and astoundingly facile voice-leading, the harmonic structure of the first movement is just fascinating and completely wonderful. The First Symphony is a startlingly original and very exciting, dramatic and angry piece- I love it.

    Another composer who merits a post of his own in this topic is Puccini. Yes, he wrote great tunes, but his sense of form and drama was above criticism.

    Thanks again for the comment

  • http://klacknermusic.wordpress.com Erik K

    There are a lot of composers in between the wars that are really marvelous but have become pigeonholed by a work or two. These may be more “neglected” than underrated, but two guys that leap to mind are Alfredo Casella, who was a really polished composer, especially for orchestra, and even more so Georges Enescu. Enescu has some really astounding compositions…each of the symphonies, Vox Maris, the quartets, and some pretty awesome chamber music. But those rhapsodies!

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    Erik-
    Glad you get the difference between neglected and underrated.

    Enescu- Prelude a l’unison. ‘Nuff said

    Amazing Cello Sonatas.

  • Roderick

    There is, of course, a distinction to be drawn between what one likes and what one acknowledges as great. With profound apologies, I have to confess that even though I acknowledge Mahler as a great composer, his music does nothing for me. That may change; I was 45 before I came to appreciate Haydn’s symphonies.

    For a composer to be truly under-rated, they don’t necessarily have to break new ground; they just have to be “great”. I would say Havergal Brian is under-rated although that may be in part due to his music particularly resonating with me. This may say more about me than Brian. Likewise, Martinu, Dvorak, Vaughan Williams seem to me to be self-evidently underrated, particularly as symphonists. I’d add Rubbra and Robert Simpson to the list, the latter as much for what I personally regard as the finest cycle of 20th century string quartets extant as for his fine symphonies.

    The one “big” name I would add to the debate would be Lizst. Yes, some of his music is incredibly florid, because his public demanded this and he was more than capable of delivering, but a lot is not virtuosic for its own sake, and he stretched the limits in many forms, inventing the symphonic poem (and producing some gems of the genre) as well as producing remarkably prescient pieces like the Bagatele Sans Tonalite.

    Interesting thread.

  • Rosemary Lucas

    It occurs to me that underrated is perhaps most justified as applying to composers if they composed across the full range of genres including chamber music, concertos for different solo instruments, symphonies, opera, song cycles, but are known primarily for only one or two of these. I think these criteria fit my suggestions. Martinu wrote wonderful operas and symphonies but I’ve recently acquired two stunning cds of cello music. Have you played any of this? I’m also thinking Poulenc. Like Dvorak he wrote a wonderfully orchestrated Stabat Mater.

  • http://www.christopherpainter.co.uk Chris Painter

    @Kenneth Woods
    Richard Hickox did indeed do much to raise awareness of many under-rated English composers (rather than British ones – apart from one lone CD of music by Grace Williams). If one wishes to ensure obscurity (and thus avoid the possibility of being under-rated by denying anyone the opportunity to hear one’s music) then apply the epithet of “Welsh composer” to one’s CV.

    Even though he managed to secure many first performances, the music of Alun Hoddinott is widely overlooked and unknown and certainly does not enjoy the prominence that it deserves. There are some fine pieces amongst his orchestral output – the fifth symphony is a particularly fine piece as is the second violin concerto. His last work, Taliesin, written as his farewell when the composer knew he would not be able to write again and might not survive to hear its premiere, is a work of great power and feeling and deserves more than just the one performance that it has currently received (it should have been included in last night’s Proms programme).

    William Mathias has faired little better and the works of important Welsh composers such as Grace Williams, Daniel Jones and David Wynne are largely unknown and remain unperformed and unrecorded.

    Whilst not in the ranks of the “greats” (and they would never have considered themselves so) they still deserve to have their voices heard, not only to give an opportunity for their work to be evaluated but also because of their immense historical importance to the emergence of a tradition of composition in a very small nation.

  • http://klacknermusic.wordpress.com Erik K

    The mention of Liszt is a good one, and reminds me of another:

    Smetana, who has the diversity of styles (orchestral, a small but awesome chamber repertoire, piano, some popular operas, some really fine vocal music), the historical impact (one of the great pioneers of using folk music in his compositions), and the “holy shit that is a ridiculously good piece of music” factor (Ma Vlast, Bartered Bride, 1st Quartet). I know Gianandrea Noseda digs his Smetana. And as your mother always told you…”if it’s good enough for Kubelik, it’s good enough for you.”

    Also, Wallenstein’s Camp.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Chris Painter
    Hi Chris- Thanks for the comment! The thoughts about Hoddinott are particularly useful- finding a starting point with a composer so prolific and relatively little known can be daunting. Having a “hit” for a composer is a blessing and a curse- on the one hand, it gives new listeners a starting point for discovering the music, but on the other hand, many may never get past that piece. Look at Dvorak or Elgar.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Rosemary Lucas

    Poulenc is a good name to add to the discussion. Wonderful composer. I have conducted the Gloria and the Stabat Mater- both are marvelous. The Sinfonietta is fantastic, and the Cello Sonata is one of my very favorites (VERY difficult cello part)

    I have played a good bit of Martinu’s cello music. In addition to the solo works, the duos for Violin and Cello are great.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Erik K
    Don’t forget the Smetana Piano Trio. Still trying to program Wallenstein’s Camp. Fun piece.

    Speaking of great composers who wrote great if not well-known piano trios, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Chausson. I’ve been really digging King Arthur of late.

  • http://www.chickwithastick.wordpress.com Jenn

    @Roderick
    I’ll never forget my first piano lesson with a new teacher my senior year of college, after spending the summer learning Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage and not liking them much. I went to the lesson, and before plunging into Guillaume Tell, I confessed fearfully to the teacher (she had a reputation for being terrifying) that I had tried, but I just couldn’t manage to LIKE these pieces, so how will I be able to perform them well and understand them if I can’t even like them? She very calmly nodded and asked me to go ahead and play.

    After I finished playing, she sat for a moment, and then said mildly, “The reason you don’t like Liszt is that you’ve been playing Liszt the way you hear everyone else play Liszt, rather than what’s actually on the page. Let’s take a look.” Then she proceeded to work through the piece with me, having me play exactly the tempi, rubati, dynamics, etc. that Liszt wrote, with most of the florid self-indulgence stripped away. It was a complete revelation.

  • John Fro

    There are a number of philosophical problems with this approach. The first is the “it’s getting crowded at the top” problem. The second is “underrated compared to whom?”. Without a sorting out you can’t really make any judgments. More issues: Who is doing the underrating? How does one tackle consensus with a personal opinion? and What objective criteria can we hope to use?

    These are all seemingly trite issues if one simply wants to promote a composer or two out of sense of personal discovery, but the cumulative effect of all the names in the comments does really bring up a host of practical issues. Many of the suggested names are not merely underrated, they aren’t rated at all. Is there a list long enough to know in terms of general consensus whether Grieg falls before or after Smetana today, but that their positions be reversed? Pete Tchaikovsky is popular in the public mind for a Christmas ballet and defeating Napoleon. He’s probably more popular with the public at large than Mahler, making him overrated by some and underrated by others.

    Then there are the works of composers that are hugely popular even though the composers themselves are not underrated. Think Rimsky Korsakov. This makes some composers seem underrated to their fans.

    At any rate, keep plugging away. Thanks.

  • Michael

    I would be very much inclined to add Alfred Schnittke to the list, even just for the ease with which he wrote in so many styles, forms and genres (light music, dark music, humorous music, religious music, choral, symphonic, ballet, opera, film, ‘popular’ music, solo works and chamber groups of all shapes and sizes).I think those who have heard of him or his music tend to do him down because they see his works (almost certainly the only one they will have heard is the (k)ein Sommernachstraum) as merely humorous or ‘crazy’. But plunge a little deeper and you will find great depth and creativity. I think I have listened to more Schnittke in the last few years than I have of any other composer by quite a large margin.

  • http://www.kennethwoods.net Kenneth Woods

    @Michael
    Very interesting suggestion, Michael. Since I’m in a run of 6 concerts in a row with a Schnittke work on them, I probably agree.

    My group plays his String Trio very often, and I can think of few other works that so consistently have such a powerful, even overpowering impact on the audience. It’s also a joy to rehearse. Even though I’ve performed it dozens and dozens of times, I find new connections and new resonances in it every time we work on in.

    It seems like his music went off the trendy meter when he died. Back in the 90′s, everyone was playing Schnittke, but since 98, it’s much rarer. I’d love to play the cello sonata, and the symphonies are very interesting. We did Moz-Art ala Haydn last week with Orchestra of the Swan- that’s more in his zany mode, but the audience loved it, and it was interesting for the performers to put together without being pointlessly tricky.

    Thanks for writing.

    KW

  • john

    Good to see Hoddinott included here.
    He is by far the most resourceful and international of Welsh composers, and a great British symphonist.
    I have 3 CDs of his and have listened to them on many occasions, each time finding new and interesting sounds in his rich orchestral scores.

    1. Star Children (a Proms commissions in the late 1980s) and Heaventree of Stars (an impressionistic poeme for Violin and Orchestra)
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hoddinott-Heaventree-Passaggio-Doubles-Children/dp/B00000E0BO/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1333200310&sr=1-1

    2. Contemplation upon Flowers and the moving Lanternes des Morts
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hoddinott-Symphony-No-6-Watson/dp/B000025W7V/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1333200340&sr=1-1

    3. This brand new recording featuring one of the UK’s most exciting sopranos Claire Booth in some very beautiful songs, including the composer’s final work for voice and soprano:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hoddinott-Landscapes-Song-Cycles-Folksongs/dp/B0041XSB6C/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1333200438&sr=1-1

    I recommend all 3 with reservation.

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  • Kartikey Sehgal

    When the current fads have passed, ‘male’ will be back in my opinion, Beethoven Brahms would be back.