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.
(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.
(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).
(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?