Playlist 2017: 4th commentary

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And it’s time for some notes on the additions to 2017's Playlist since my last post about it.

  • Morfydd Llwyn Owen, Nocturne for orchestra in D-flat major (1913). Starting the next tranche of playlist items with the same ‘why did I not know this?’ sentiment from my last commentary. This piece is in some ways so exactly of its time, whilst being a distinct compositional voice I’ve never heard before.
  • Charlotte Bray, At the Speed of Stillness (2012). And a century later than Owen’s piece, an ex-student of mine making her mark
  • Fanny Mendelssohn, Quartet in E-flat (1834). If I had a criticism of this quartet, it would be that I would have liked the first movement in particular to be longer. When it ended, I thought, ‘No, don’t stop, I was enjoying that’.
  • Germain Tailleferre, Ballade for Piano and Orchestra (1920). I knew of Tailleferre as one of ‘Les Six’ – a group of comoposers working in early-20th-century France. She was generally cast in my education as one of the also-rans, along with Auric and Durey, only known now for having hung out with Poulenc, Honegger and Milhaud. I think the famous three knew what they were doing when they picked their friends; I too would want to hang out with someone who could write music like this.
  • Amanda Röntgen-Maier, Violin Concerto in D minor (1875). In some ways, this music has lived the cliché of gender-based neglect - though perhaps one can’t be surprised if the writers of music history ignore a composer who retires from the concert stage when she marries. The explicit withdrawal from public life does give something of a ‘don’t write about me’ signal – even though she did continue to compose until the end of her life. (Though of course when a man retires from the stage, he does somehow still count as an active musician when he writes music – Robert Schumann, anyone?)
  • Henriëtte Bosmans, Sonata for cello and piano (1919). I did enjoy a comment (for a change!) on youtube that you’d never guess such ‘dark, opulent, powerful and impressive’ music could be written by a Dutch person. Pick your cliché…
  • Sophia Dussek, Harp Sonata in C minor, Op. 2 No. 3 (1794). Apparently this sonata is famous under a misattribution to Sophia’s first husband.
  • Grazyna Bacewicz, Symphony No. 4 (1953). I mentioned recently that I am interested in the control of dissonance. This music speaks directly to that part of my brain that holds that interest.

Time for a general comment:
At this point, a bit over a third towards my target of 100 pieces, I am increasingly engaging with composers whom I’d never actually heard of, not merely composers I’d heard of but didn’t know much of their work. It’s a real aural adventure, and it is making me realise how much I have been trained to navigate my mental soundscapes by the clichéd landmarks of the musical canon.

The experience reminds me somewhat of visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Havana. All the works displayed from the years before the Cuban Revolution fitted into the standard artistic narratives you see replicated in museums of modern art the world over. Everything that came later was a plausible continuation of the narrative, but was completely unfamiliar.

What is weird here, though, is that none of these composers were in the least isolated from the tradition I have been brought up in. They were friends and colleagues with all those whose names we know, and wrote for and played with the main ensembles of their day. Apart from some of the 19th-century women who were pushed out of public life by convention and family, they were all established parts of the professional musical life of their time. And yet they are almost entirely hidden even from relatively recent history.

We knew this to be the case, of course. That is the point of this project. But it has a different impact on you when you are experiencing the music.

Indeed, the ones here are not hidden to the extent that their music has been recorded and shared on youtube. But they are still absent from the privileged narratives of curricula that form our sense of ‘what counts as music’.

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