SCHWARTZ'S GUIDE TO UNDERRATED MASTERPIECES
(Cage - Elgar)
(Malcolm ARNOLD - William BYRD)
A member of the "lost generation" of modern British composers --
essentially, a conservative group that began their careers around
the end of World War II and that did not employ serial technique.
Alwyn composed mainly symphonies, each different from the other.
As he put it, he wanted to find different paths to the problem of
writing symphonies. They are masterful works. convincing and
assured. Richard Hickox has recorded the set for Chandos, as well
as other works like "Lyra angelica," a beautiful harp concerto.
Guitar Concerto. For once, a guitar concerto that doesn't rip off
Spanish idioms. Lively, with a great sense of forward motion. A classic
recording by Julian Bream. A new CD by Eduardo Fernandez.
Music for strings, trumpet, and percussion. Rowicki conducted
this on LP. A substantial work, obviously (to me) influenced by
Bartók, and right up there with the best of the
The cantatas, despite their importance, are not all that well known,
probably because of their sheer numbers. The ones that send goosebumps
up my arm are nos. 1, 4, 10, 21, 50, and 106.
We can also say the same thing for the motets.
To me, the best recordings of these are by John Eliot Gardiner. I have
the LP set, but I don't know if they released the performances on CD.
English Suite No. 2 in a -- a powerful piece, one of my
all-time favorite solo keyboard works. I prefer it on piano or at least
I've preferred the pianists to the harpsichordists I've heard. My first
choice is by Gianoli, if you can find it. Other good performances are
by de Larrocha and Schiff.
The piano concerto, especially if you can get Browning conducted
by Szell. Barber at his most advanced. I've heard this piece disparaged,
but the reasons seem specious. A high level of melodic inspiration, even
in a dissonant idiom, a striving, heroic first movement. The second
movement is one of those things so beautiful that I have to remind myself
to breathe. A headlong rush of a third movement. 3 Reincarnations to
poems by James Stephens. The poems aren't much and to me demonstrate
that great settings don't need great lyrics. The writing for
a cappella chorus is impeccable, the harmonies powerful, the final
melody again heart-stoppingly beautiful. Finally, the intermezzo to
Act IV of his opera Vanessa -- a melody that just goes on
and on gorgeously.
Cantata profana. I just bought the CD. Exciting work for chorus and
orchestra. In many ways, the vocal equivalent of the Music for
Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.
Bax considered himself, quite rightly, a Romantic. Writing music
was for him an expression of states of feeling. In his early
career, he became entranced with the Celtic Twilight, to the extent
of writing in an Irish vein under the nom de plume Dermot
O'Brynne. His early tone poems (and his most popular works)
Tintagel and The Garden of Fand are based on Celtic
subjects. I find them well-written, but uninteresting. However,
in the Twenties, Bax began a fine series of symphonies -- cogently
argued with great craft and in a more modern idiom. His concerti
(for piano, cello, and violin) also bear a look. None of these
works are that well-known, although they keep attracting champions
and recordings, which at least hints at their power.
Settings of Irish folk songs for violin, cello, piano, and voice.
Jewels from a composer whose solo vocal output has been mostly deservedly
neglected. The Elegiac Song, Op. 118 for chorus and string quartet.
The choral equivalent of the slow movement to the Ninth. Noble, profound.
A British modernist, slightly older than
Walton, Arthur Benjamin has
dropped almost completely out of the Schwann/Opus catalogue. He
is best known for the orchestral bonbon Jamaican Rumba.
However, he has substance as well. Be on the lookout for the
Concerto quasi una fantasia for piano and orchestra, the
piano concertino, and the Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola,
and orchestra. Heifetz and Primrose recorded the last in the early
stereo era. "Romantic" describes it well.
Violin concerto. An American composer whose work doesn't
get all that much play. Absolutely individual in idiom,
although conservative--it really doesn't sound like anyone
else. Though somewhat dissonant, lyrical.
Lennox, not to be confused with his son Michael. A British
student of Nadia Boulanger (who numbered among her pupils
Jean Françaix, and many, many others), and thus a rarity.
Boulanger's impact was far greater in the United States than in
Britain, which tended to teach its own. Berkeley begins, not
surprisingly, in an attractive
vein and later moves to something at once less distinctive and more
personal. Highpoints of his output include 4 Ronsard
Sonnets for tenor and small orchestra, Sinfonia
Concertante, Divertimento in B-flat, Mass for 5
Voices, Partita, Serenade for Strings, and
a Sinfonietta. His best-known work is ironically a
collaboration with Benjamin Britten called
Mont Juic, on Spanish themes. He also wrote three symphonies,
which show his career at various stages--all well-written, but not
Folk Songs. No, not the Berio you love to hate. A very
early work written for Cathy Berberian. Tonal. Beautiful
instrumentation. In very artful settings, he manages to
remind you that these songs come from people without
pretence or artistic ambition. He doesn't violate the
essential simplicity of these songs.
Les Nuits d'Été. Not all that obscure, except
by the shopping mall criterion. Exquisite is the word that comes to mind.
A genuine British eccentric, Berners allied himself with Surrealism
between the wars. His ballet The Triumph of Neptune featured
a baritone in his bath warbling "The Last Rose of Summer." In
musical style, he comes closest to the American
Virgil Thomson, possibly
because they both share the influence of
Satie. Most of Berners's works
have a loopy wit. His Fantaisie espagnole sends up the
Franco-Iberian school of
Falla. His Fugue for
Orchestra quickly runs down to non-fugue, after an impressive
beginning. However, he could play it reasonably straight as well.
His music for the British film Nicholas Nickleby has great
Lenny? Obscure? How he would have hated that.
Nevertheless, outside of his theater pieces, how many people
know at least his first two symphonies? Very original
thinking. You'll hear adumbrations of later show tunes
in them too. Also, I highly recommend Prelude, Fugue,
and Riffs, a piece for jazz ensemble. To me, the
most successful marriage of jazz and the symphonic idiom.
It ends with an incredibly exciting "written-out" jam
session -- a contradiction in terms, but under the
composer's baton, thoroughly convincing and overwhelming.
Choruses from "The Lark." The music was written for
Lillian Hellman's translation of the Jean Anouilh play.
More or less a cappella, with a very discreet dose of
bells and drums. A departure from the "New York"
Lenny. If he had been willing to starve, I'm convinced
he would have been as good as we've ever had.
A colonial American composer who wrote in the "Fuguing"
tradition of New England. A lot of his stuff turns up in
the shape-note collections of choral church music. Rough,
vigorous, and wonderful. Gregg Smith released a magnificent
LP. If you find any Billings, grab it. Then tell me.
In the 1920s, Bliss was a Great Hope of British music, but he was
soon eclipsed (as was practically everyone else) by
Vaughan Williams in his
modernist phase, Walton, and
especially the young Britten. His early
compositions show an original turn of thought: a Colour
Symphony, the oratorio Morning Heroes, with extended
sections for percussion and speaker, and a concerto for tenor,
percussion, and chamber ensemble. It soon became clear, however,
that Bliss would break no new ground. Indeed, he became Master of
the Queen's Music (replacing Arnold Bax) and was
knighted. Beyond Morning Heroes, I can't find an outstanding
work in his catalogue, but there are several nice ones,
including a virtuoso piano concerto, a rhythmically vital
Melée fantasque, and a lovely Meditations on a Theme
of John Blow.
The Cradle Will Rock. A '30s opera about strike-breaking and union
organizing. Obviously influenced by Weill and Brecht, Blitzstein
nevertheless created an idiom that successfully married Weill with
American pop. It's his own. Wonderful lyrics, a sharp satiric sense.
If, however, left-wing agit-prop distresses you (as opposed to
right-wing agit-prop), save your money.
Absolutely underrated. At his best, one of the greatest ever.
Here's someone who knows how to take deep breaths and control
epic notions with a technique of steel. These days, almost
everything but Schelomo is obscure. I recommend
the string quartets (which
ranked with Beethoven's),
the piano quintets, the Sacred Service
(Avodath Hakodesh, the Bernstein recording is the only one worth
bothering with), the violin concerto (strong, powerful), the concerti
grossi, the violin sonatas, the Sinfonia Breve, the Suite
Hébraïque for violin and orchestra.
Symphony #2 in b. Sort of the symphony equivalent of the Grieg
piano concerto. Smashing tunes.
The a cappella motets. The greatest in the genre since
Bach. Also, if you can find it, the Geistliches Lied for
chorus and organ. It sounds like a
Mendelssohn Song without
Words, then you realize it's a double canon at the ninth (as I
A major British symphonist. However, Havergal Brian's music is in danger
of being overwhelmed by the story of his career. Born working-class, he
somehow learned enough music to become a fully-professional composer.
Unfortunately, he had few contacts, and his music, particularly the
"Gothic" Symphony (No. 1), scared off impresarios by the
immense forces it demanded (a complete Te Deum is just one of its
movements). Brian deserved this reputation far less than
Strauss. He was willing and able to
write pieces of "normal" length for modest forces. For most of his
career, he was a "composer's composer," taken up by, among others,
Still, he remained very little known to the general public until the
1970s, almost at the end of his life, when the symphonist Robert
Simpson began to successfully proselytize in articles and arrange for
concerts and recordings, mainly of the symphonies. Brian has a large
catalogue yet to be heard, including over thirty symphonies (at least
twenty written after he reached 70), operas, and other orchestral
pieces. Aside from powerful music, listeners discovered a
fascinating "what if." Brian, like Mahler, creates his own galaxy of
musical imagery, but he is isolated in his influence due to the fact
that his music simply wasn't played enough. The "Gothic"
Symphony is a major work, but so are all his symphonies. Of
those I've heard, I'm particularly drawn to Nos. 6, 21, and 22
("Sinfonia Breve"), a heady musical concentrate in which much
happens in a short time. I keep alert for announcements of
A cruel joke runs, "Bridge's best work is
Benjamin Britten." Britten himself considered
Bridge his principal teacher and worked hard to promote his music, not
entirely out of sentiment, for the music is quite fine. I view
Bridge's career in two phases. The first, strongly influenced by
Debussy, resulted in pretty
pictures like the tone poems Enter Spring, The Sea,
and Summer. However, in the Twenties, Bridge became attracted
to the music of Schoenberg.
This toughened his own music and made his ideas more incisive,
especially in his third and fourth string quartets and in
Phantasm for piano and orchestra, a rare example of
Expressionism in British music.
The choral music. Rejoice in the Lamb,
a masterpiece to an incredible poem by the mad 18th-century poet
Christopher Smart. The poem tells of how all creation praises God,
including a mouse and the poet's cat Geoffry. Britten
captures every quirky move in music of such beauty that
the quirks disappear. It's amazing how atheist artists
seem to capture true religious feeling like few others.
Cantata academica, which starts off with
absolutely blazing fanfares IN STRETTO -- other than knowing the
occasion of the piece (the founding of the University of
Basle), I have no idea what the text means without looking
at the score (it's in university Latin), but an alive
bit of business. Noye's Fludde, based on the
Chester miracle play: Les Noces comes to England,
except it's a lot warmer than
Innovative orchestration mixes professionals
and amateurs. As usual Britten writes non-patronizingly
and imaginatively for children. Tremendously effective use of
traditional hymn tunes. Also the Courtly Dances and Choral
Dances from Gloriana. This is probably the
least-performed Britten opera. I was lucky to see a live
performance at Sadler's Wells in the 70s. If you know nothing
about Elizabethan music, the drama alone will catch you. If
Byrd are your meat, you will
marvel at the unique evocation of this period --in a way quite
The opera has never been recorded. These nuggets will have
to do. Finally, Ceremony of Carols. It seems
to make an
appearance only at Christmas, but hands down my favorite
Britten work. Not only imaginatively and idiomatically
written for chorus, but the way he handles a harp is unusual
and finally haunting. Melodically, I don't believe he ever
equalled this work.
A hope of British music, killed in World War I. He left too
little behind to speculate on potential, but that little reveals
a composer with a genuine lyric gift. He never quite freed himself
from the influence of
Vaughan Williams and
that composer's In the Fen Country vein. He left behind
short orchestral pieces and songs. My favorites include the cycles
Bredon Hill and Six Songs from "A Shropshire Lad",
both to Housman texts, and the sweetly-singing Banks of Green
Willow and Two English Idylls.
One of the high points of music. Since the choral tradition is in general
so little known and recorded, almost everything he wrote is obscure.
Beautiful, expressive counterpoint marks all of his work. Look especially
at Mass for 4 voices, Mass for 5 voices, the
Cantiones Sacrae (Tallis masterpieces are also in this collection),
and any motet. A little throwaway, once recorded by the Deller Consort,
is "Non nobis Domine." Incredibly beautiful and a 3-part canon with
subsequent entries at the 5th and octave. Another wow.
Write to author Steve Schwartz
back to Unknown Composers main page