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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Superconductor Top Ten: Obscure Composers

This is one of only two pictures
 taken of Alkan. Paris, ca. 1850.
In the world of classical music, there are the big names--the three "B's" (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) and reliable operatic favorites like Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. And then there are the "other" guys. The obscure composers who, for whatever reason, never had the same lasting impact on Western musical culture as their more famous contemporaries.

So here's my list of ten lesser-known composers. I'm always willing to be passionate about them (and others) in the pages of this blog and in the material world as well. Some may be new to you. Some may be old hat. All are worth your attention. Alphabetical order.

1) Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
One of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19th century. Alkan's music rivals Liszt in complexity and harmonic invention. But unlike the flamboyant Hungarian, he was a recluse who avoided the spotlight. He is remembered for writing a symphony and a concerto (both for solo piano), and his Grand Sonata, ("The Four Ages") which attempts to encapsulate the experience of a lifetime in four dizzying movements.

2) Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
A Swedish composer, and one of the earliest important composers to be active in Scandinavia. Berwald is known for four cheerful symphonies that have cool nicknames (Sinfonie singulere, Sinfonie serieuse) and a warm compositional style that recalls the middle period of Beethoven. Under-performed and underrated.

3) Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
A predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach, Buxtehude was an important Danish composer whose works for voice, organ, and chamber ensemble contain brilliant counterpoint and great beauty. In 1705, a young Bach walked 250 miles (from Arnstadt to Lübeck) to meet Buxtehude and hear him play. (All you have to do is get some CDs). Start with the organ music.

4) Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
One of many post-Wagnerians who sprang up in late 19th-century Paris, only to fall out of fashion with the ascent of Impressionism and Claude Debussy. Chausson is remembered for Le Roi Arthus, a chromatic, gorgeous opera based on the legend of King Arthur. He is the epitome of the French late Romantic style, and his music deserves more attention for its rich orchestrations and sweeping melodies.

5) Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Korngold is one of the great prodigies in music history, writing operas like Violanta and Die tote Stadt ("The Dead City") to great acclaim. He fled the Nazis and wound up in Hollywood, where he became one of the fathers of modern film music. He won Academy Awards for his scores to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse. Today, his best known piece is the moving aria "Gluck, das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt.

6) Max Reger (1873-1916)
Some composers never fall out of fashion. Reger belongs to the category of those who never fell in. In the late 19th century, this German composer went back to the complex contrapuntal ideas of Bach and Telemann for inspiraton, writing impressive chamber music and works for solo piano that require a tremendous keyboard technique. Check out his piano works, particularly his sets of variations.

7) Josef Suk (1873-1935)
A Czech symphonist best known for his dark-tinted Symphony No. 2, a sweeping, majestic work that examines man's place in the cosmos and makes Asrael (the Islamic representation of the Angel of Death) its protagonist. Suk was a famous violinist in his own right, and a pupil of Antonín Dvořák. He later went on to marry his mentor's daughter, and dedicated the Asrael Symphony to Dvořák's memory.

8) Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
One of the more important British tonal composers in the second half of the 20th century, Tippett is remembered for complex operas like The Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden. His work is melodic and rewarding, written in a rich, satisfying musical language. Start with the Four Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage.

9) Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)
Ullmann is best remembered for being part of the Collegium Musicum, an arts colony in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. While incarcerated, Ullmann composed Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a biting, satiric opera that offered a skewed take on the Nazi madness. (The work was banned by the camp administrator.) Ullmann was killed in Auschwitz. His opera survived, and received its world premiere in 1975.

10) Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
The lover of Alma Schindler (before she met and married Gustav Mahler), Zemlinsky was an influential figure in Vienna, a composer of sensual, expressionistic works that seethe with harmonic invention. (They were banned by the Nazis.) In some ways, he is the bridge between Brahms' conservative, Romanticism and the outright experimentation of the Second Viennese School. (Schoenberg was one of his pupils, as well as his brother-in-law.) Thanks to the efforts of conductors, programmers and singers, the operas (including Der Zwerg), songs, and orchestral works of this great composer have returned to the repertory.

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