Buying music is a little like buying a TV; for installing a big black screen in our pride of place, we usually chose a brand we recognise - Panasonic, Sony or Samsung. If you went into your local UK shop ‘Dixons Whoever Put Their Phone Into A Car Warehouse’ or USA store ‘Best Buy Except That It's Cheaper On The Net’, you would always gravitate towards Asian electronic company names. I have never met a person who bought a British branded TV, because although they exist, they are not famous or well-known. The same phenomenon could be said for classical composers; hence my post on 3 Incredible Composers You’ve Never Heard Of.
We all know our Beethoven to Beatles (the band, not the insect) and Mozart to Madonna (the singer, not the depiction of the little baby Jesus's Mother); but just like the TV market, we are scared to try an unknown brand, or in this case composer. We live in a world of celebrity; so if the composer is not well-known, then they're not a ‘celebrity’ and often overlooked or dismissed.
I thought it was time to change that, so here are three incredible composers you’ve never heard of - until now:
1. Leopold Godowsky
You’ve heard of Chopin - the composer who wrote not a single opera, no symphonies, nothing for a choir; just piano music, a couple of concertos, a few songs and the odd chamber piece. One of his most successful compositions were a set of Études, also known as studies. It’s these Études that Leopold Godowsky decided to play around with, and turned Chopin’s original twenty-four into over fifty pieces.
The complete Studies on the Chopin Études have been recorded by the Canadian ‘super-virtuoso’ Marc-André Hamelin. Zoom along to 7mins 47secs, close your eyes, and try to believe it’s just the left hand playing…
And to hear clearly how Godowsky used Chopin's music, listen to original here:
and now listen to Godowsky’s version:
Godowsky (who died in 1938) was also an incredible pianist, but sadly left only a handful of recordings to remind us of his genius. Have a listen to these Chopin Nocturnes:
Back in 1933, Albert Einstein, aside from discovering the theory that relatives can be tricky, was a keen amateur violinist. He was eager to meet Godowsky to play some duos, and the story goes that Einstein kept making the same mistake, which made the gentlemanly Godowsky a little twitchy, eventually shouting to the great physicist ‘What’s the matter with you - can’t you count?!’ Any man who stands up to Einstein deserves to be heard!
2. Étienne Nicolas Méhul
Da Da Da Daaaaa!! Name the symphony?
Yes, yes, it’s Beethoven’s Fifth, but how many of you said, ‘oh, that sounds like the First Symphony by Étienne Nicolas Méhul’? Probably not a lot. Remarkably, this now unknown composer was hotter than a George Foreman grill in Europe during his lifetime. He was even writing his piece at the same time as Beethoven in precisely the same year - 1808.
Let’s just remind ourselves of a bit of Beethoven’s Fifth (start at 2mins 57secs):
And now listen to the end of Méhul’s First (start around 24mins 50secs):
So which one ‘creatively borrowed’ from the other? Well, undoubtedly both composers knew each others work, but it’s probably more a case of shared influences: Beethoven was taught by Haydn, who Méhul revered, and the technique of obsessively developing a motif like Da Da Da Daaaaaa! has its roots in Haydn. Here’s an example from a Haydn’s B Minor Piano Sonata, played here by my dearest friend from my Royal College of Music days, Alisdair Kitchen (listen from 7mins 7secs):
No-one is going to say that Méhul trumps Beethoven, but the French chap is worth a listen. If you’re interested in more Méhul, check out his overture to La chasse du jeune Henri, which has some amusing horn-y bits - the french horns are used to sound like yelping hunting dogs. Mrs E as a horn player approves, so it must be OK:
3. Leo Ornstein
The latest money-making industry, apart from legalising Cannabis, is the art of longevity. People predict this will be the worlds most significant sector in one-hundred years. Far too late for me and thee, but Leo Ornstein seemed to do well without this new technology. To be composing ground-breaking music at the age of 109 is more jaw-dropping than the idea of me running a marathon.
Probably born in 1893 (the exact date is unknown), Ornstein quickly developed a reputation as a child prodigy in his native Russia. His family fled to America in 1907, where he became a renowned pianist and as a composer was spoken of in the same breath as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, frequently shocking audiences with daring, avant-garde pieces with titles like Suicide in an Airplane (inspired by a newspaper article):
You can, quite terrifyingly, hear the plane rumble in the distance, fly deafeningly overhead, and disappear back over the horizon.
You might take this as a metaphor for Ornstein’s own career. Around 1925, he withdrew almost entirely from the scene, preferring to compose and teach in virtual isolation; he was the John Deacon of the classical world. His son, Severo (himself a fascinating man, and an early pioneer in developing the Internet!) describes the reasons for his father’s abrupt falling-off the map:
“Along with more radical, atonal works he also composed relatively conservative music, and this confounded his audiences. Having learned to accept him as something of a musical freak, people found such works a retreat. When some of his more lyrical compositions produced accusations of "backsliding," he concluded that listeners were more interested in novelty and sensation than in what he considered musical substance. He began to feel increasingly remote from the direction modern music was taking, in particular, the search for novelty for its own sake. Ironically, having been irrevocably labelled as a radical, he was now unwilling to bend to the demands of his own image. Instead, he insisted on writing in whatever style seemed demanded by the music itself.”
When he wrote Suicide in an Airplane, aircraft were pretty much made of paper and held together with spit. But Ornstein was still composing incredible, unique works in the Concorde age. His Eighth (and final) Piano Sonata from 1990 is the perfect summation of what he stood for musically; the fierce, atonal spirit sitting next to lush Rachmaninoff-like harmonies. This may be a little like marmite, but love it or hate it, it shouldn’t be forgotten…
Music recommendations fROM OUR THREE UNKNOWN COMPOSERS
Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Leopold Godowsky - forgive the quality of the recording (made nearly a 100 years ago!), this is still amazing playing.
Godowsky: Complete Chopin Studies - 53 études for piano/Marc-André Hamelin, piano.
Godowsky - Piano Music, Volume 1 - a good recording of other Godowsky compositions.
Mehul: Symphony 1-4, Overtures La Chasse, Le Tresor - a great recording of some great symphonies.
Méhul: Uthal - a fascinating and important part in the history of opera.
Leo Ornstein: Complete Violin Sonatas, Hebriac Fantasy, Three Flute Pieces - this 2CD set contains the complete music for violin and piano and for flute and piano.
Ornstein: Piano Music - the incomparable Marc-André Hamelin is in the driving seat for this amazing recording, which is just as well since the multi-stave scores of some of these turbulent works are almost black with notes.