Some More Thoughts on
Britten and BarberBenjamin Britten has always struck me as very clever, in fact too facile by half, and, basically, dead in spirit. He is considered a major composer nowhere except England, where they also admire Merchant-Ivory costume flicks and warm beer, and refer to chips as "crisps."
One can be more sympathetic to Sam Barber. He unquestionably belongs in the second tier, and nobody claims otherwise, but I've always found his work very appealing. I never stopped liking the Adagio for Strings, just as I never stopped liking Rachmaninoff. I also like the quartet --- from which the Adagio comes --- the violin concerto, the 'cello concerto, the "Essays for Orchestra," both symphonies, and especially Barber's one piece that, I think, makes it into the first tier: the "Capricorn Concerto," a venture into an astringent neo-Baroque idiom like Hindemith or later Stravinsky ... and as good as either one. Incidentally, Barber has enjoyed a mini-revival in the last decade or so, along with the revival of a neo-Romantic idiom by many American contemporaries like Kernis, Rouse, Adams, Danielpour, etc.My first tier list of "classic" moderns (meaning the 1920s through the 1950s) would include the usual suspects whose idioms were, while sometimes tonally free and dissonant, nonetheless rooted in the tonal system: Stravinsky, Bartok, Bloch, Hindemith, Honegger, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and New York's own William Schuman. Maybe also Karl Hartmann, Sven Einar Englund, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Roy Harris (although he tended to write the same piece over and over) and just one more-or-less avant-garde composer, Gyorgy Ligeti.
The self-consciously avant-garde, from Schoenberg through Xenakis, Stockhausen, Carter, and Boulez, I write off as a bad trip. Some people suggest that their music of angst, disorientation, and ugliness was an aesthetic response to the dreadful massacres of the 20th century's first half.
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As it happens, last Thursday night, I went to a Seattle Symphony concert of all modern music. Afterward, Gerald Schwartz and a panel of talking heads stayed on to sing the praises of modern music and to assail one of the local public stations (KUOW) for no longer broadcasting any music --- whether modern or any other kind.
They also wrung their hands over the absence of modern music from concert programs, a little odd in that Schwartz had just conducted an all modern program.
The standout at the concert was William Schuman's Third Symphony, his best known work nowadays, sometimes paired on CD with Harris' Third. Schuman's is the better work ... sheer dynamite.
Thursday's program also included Carlos Chavez' Sinfonia India, which strikes me as gimmicky: Chavez was no more Indio than you or me, and the contrivance shows. They also did one of Howard Hanson's more boring symphonies, and one of Copeland's modernistic pieces, which are slightly (but only slightly) less soporofic than his vein of "accessible" Americana.
As far as true moderns of our own time, I would offer up the name of Peteris Vasks, who is Latvian. I characterize his music as the equivalent of Arvo Pärt ... for people who are still conscious. There are several CDs of Vasks' music out and he is also represented on a couple of collections of modern music from the Baltic.
Another Estonian who is tonal and mystical, like Pärt, but a little more lively is named Rene Eesperee (or something like that). And still another who is more modernistic than Part, and whose music I like very much, is Erkki-Sven Tüür. You will notice that the neatest thing about these Baltic composers is their weird names.--- Dr. Phage