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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Neglected genius

Historians and scholars alike have long been enthusiastic to tell us that some composers were 'far in advance of their time' and that the composers we now revere were reviled, misunderstood or simply neglected, in their own times. It would seem to be a sentimental fallacy.

The greatest composers undoubtedly forged a way ahead, exploring territory shunned by their busy, skilful and mediocre contemporaries -- and it is from them that the disparaging anecdotes more often than not emanate. But beyond trivial envious carpings, every age has recognised its great geniuses. It is impossible to find any great composer who was not idolized in his own day, however 'advanced' his work was considered to be. They are the same ones we still recognise.

From William Byrd who, to quote the diligent research of Edmund Fellowes, 'was held in the highest esteem and veneration by all the musicians and ordinary people of his time' to Wagner who, in the 1850s was drawing full houses everywhere from Weimar to Boston to Brazil, and in the 1870s was innundated with demands from theatres all over Germany for productions of the Ring by public demand!

Being in advance of one's time is generally the excuse of the mediocrity, the creator of second or even third rate work, the moderately talented dilettante who has no cultivated skill with which to communicate with a contemporary world. Such an avant-garde is usually championed by the same critics who base their evidence for the reviled, ridiculed and neglected composers of the past unscientifically on nothing more than anecdote.

Because a few minor critics wrote disparagingly about Monteverdi ('how can a musician permit himself faults that would leap to the eyes of little children'), or Mozart ('music is bound to go to the dogs when such barbarians decide to compose.'), the later works of Beethoven, the eccentricities of Berlioz, or Debussy ('modern ugliness; the faun must have had a terrible afternoon'), it provides an extremely precarious basis for the myth that they were all misunderstood and neglected.

Only one was not widely acclaimed in his time, though he was much admired by those who did know. Bach was a performer. As a composer his work was largely unpublished and inaccessible. The musical world cannot be blamed for its neglect of what it doesn't know. But neglecting what it does know suggests that the work is second rate.

Copyright © 13 June 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Gordon Rumson, Canada

The question of fame and the awareness of the public or profession for past and present masters is a tricky one. The issue I feel hinges upon who knows the neglected master or who knows the famous composer.

Some people may know who a composer or performer is or was, and others may not. Bach's fame as a composer was actually quite wide (he was known even in Italy). Alkan was quite well known to musicians in the 19th century.

But who is well known now? What is fame? What has this to do with quality? Dante is famous but how many people have read him?

Oh it is difficult and I would not wish to put some creators back on the shelf just because we now know that the great were always known. I do not trust the judgment of history, which is why I investigate for myself. I have made some fascinating discoveries -- as anyone can make for themselves.

Don't trust the traditions you were handed in those text books. Check for yourself. They may be right or wrong, but once you've checked you will know for certain ... as certain as is possible.

From: Steve Schwartz, USA

There's so much wrong with Patric Standford's note on 'Neglected Genius', I barely know where to begin. There are at least two major problems.

First, as in most writing on this topic, the notion of 'audience' keeps shifting, depending on what the writer wants to prove. In this case, Wagner wasn't neglected because opera houses were full, and Bach the composer wasn't neglected because a few connoisseurs knew his music. By this reasoning, no one is neglected, if only because most composers have mothers or someone very like.

The second problem is the jaw-dropping hubris (probably inadvertant) behind the contention that 'nobody good is neglected'. It certainly hasn't been true in literary history, and I fail to understand why music should be immune. Furthermore, no one has heard even half of all the music in any given period to be able to proclaim with such confidence.

As far as I can tell, works of art go in and out of notice all the time. At one point, Sibelius was considered a better symphonist than Brahms. A few years later, many influential writers considered his music claptrap. Now he's coming back in again, if not at his former high. I remember a point when Verdi was considered the music-lover's guilty pleasure. Raff and Chaminade, to name two lesser examples, seem to be coming out of the wilderness -- for how long, I can't say. It strikes me as natural: most of us can hold in our heads only so much, and the 'new', unheard thing has its attractions.



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