Great composers' unlikely works

We celebrate some little-known music by composing greats

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There are many classical works out there that are lucky to be staged more than once a decade.

And we're not just talking about minor composers here, nor just individual works. There are, remarkably, whole areas of repertoire by the great composers that have become seemingly forgotten over the years. We asked our writers to name the music by well-known names that really should be heard more often. How familiar are you with the following, for instance...

 

Haydn's operas

'Haydn? Opera? Did he have time? Composing 21 operas in as many years, and directing them, was the most important aspect of half his period as music director to the Esterházys. And his are as good as his contemporaries’. L’incontro improvviso is hugely imaginative – better, I think, than Gluck’s earlier setting – Il mondo della luna is fantastic, and La fedeltà premiata anticipates Mozart’s integration of buffa and seria styles.

So why the neglect? Haydn wrote ‘no such work has been heard in Paris… or Vienna …my misfortune is that I live in the country’. Some did travel: La vera constanza was given in five European cities between 1786 and 1792, as was Armida. Orlando Paladino, his most popular, received over 20 productions. But in 1787 Haydn refused an invitation to compose an opera for Prague (which would have competed with Don Giovanni), declaring that "scarcely any man can brook comparison with… Mozart".'

Chris de Souza

 

Schubert's operas

'How odd that the master of a dramatic miniature like Der Erlkönig and a composer with an unerring instinct for the lyrical in his Lieder should have failed at opera, starting a total of 16. Was it perhaps the stern example of Beethoven’s Fidelio and the idea of Singspiel that got in the way? However, if Die Zwillingsbrüder and Alfonso und Estrella are no more than interesting failures, Fierrabras, Schubert’s last opera written to order in 1823, is packed with good things.

The lyric impulse is there in this tale of Frankish knights at war with the Moors, notably in the writing for the heroines Emma and Florinda. The duet for Florinda and her companion Maragond ‘Weit über Glanz’ is irresistible. And who can doubt Schubert’s growing dramatic talents when Florinda watches her Roland in battle? Fierrabras hints at what Schubert might have become as a composer of operas had he lived.'

Christopher Cook

 

Rossini's piano music

'Rossini’s genius is so bound up with the singing voice that one would hardly expect him to take any interest in the piano. Yet during his second retirement in Paris from 1855 onwards he wrote dozens of piano pieces to entertain his guests at his famous ‘Samedi soirs’, as well as chamber pieces and mini-cantatas. They have sly, witty titles reminiscent of Satie – Valse lugubre, Prélude prétentieux, Valse anti-dansante, Ouf! Les petits pois.

Often the pieces look back with a fondly ironic eye to his operatic days, with sinuous and technically challenging ‘vocal’ arabesques in the right hand against a ‘rum-ti-tum’ left hand. The mood is often gently parodying, with extravagant pathos suddenly undercut by a jolly dance. But as in the Petite messe solennelle, written at the same time, the trickling vocal runs in thirds and puff-pastry harmonies sit alongside moments of solemnity and even terror.'

Ivan Hewett

 

Donizetti's string quartets

'Despite some scholars truffling for the origins of the string quartet in Allegri and Alessandro Scarlatti, Italian composers have, Boccherini aside, largely preferred to nail their colours to the operatic mast. Puccini’s lachrymose single movement Crisantemi would ultimately beat a path to Manon Lescaut’s door, while Verdi’s stand-alone E minor quartet owes its existence to an enforced break in Aida rehearsals.

Gaetano Donizetti, however, a protégé of the Haydn-loving Simone Mayr, composed almost 20 string quartets, most following his studies in Bologna, but the last (rounded off by a dapper Polacca) came a year after the triumph of Lucia di Lammermoor – its first movement later resprayed as the overture to Linda di Chamounix. An easy melodic gift and lyricism underpin an approach indebted to Haydn – though the Scherzo of No. 13 suggests a brush with the Eroica – and for the morbidly inclined, No. 7 traces an illustrative trajectory from illness to funeral!'

Paul Riley

 

Rimsky-Korsakov's songs

'One of the all-time great orchestrators, Rimsky-Korsakov is principally celebrated for his glittering blockbusters Sheherazade and the Capriccio espagnol, alongside such operatic exotica as The Golden Cockerel and The Tale of Tsar Sultan. Yet behind the scenes he produced a glorious series of 77 published songs, based mainly on poems by Alexander Pushkin, Alexei Tolstoy, Afanasy Fet, Apollon Maykov and Mikhail Lermontov, of which virtually nothing is ever heard – even the ‘Song of India’, popularised in the late 1930s by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, is culled from the opera Sadko.

Anyone who adores the Oriental pedal-pointed harmonies so beloved of the St Petersburgers is in for a treat, as Rimsky takes us on a magic carpet-ride of intoxicatingly aromatic miniatures. From the gently rocking Lullaby of Op. 2 to the songs of Op. 96 – "The Nymph" and "Summer Night’s Dream" – you’ll soon
be emotional putty in the master’s hands.'

Julian Haylock

 

Fauré's theatre works

'The Requiem aside, Fauré has long been most celebrated for his piano music, chamber music and glorious songs. There is another, less acknowledged stratum to his achievements: his works for the theatre, which include the opera Pénélope, filled with beautiful music, yet scarcely ever performed. Fauré spent decades trying to get various ill-fated operatic projects off the ground and Pénélope is the only opera that he was able to bring to fruition. It was premiered in Monte Carlo in March 1913 when the composer was 67.

The work’s obscurity today can probably be accounted for first by the rather static nature of its drama; and secondly, by the fact that the Paris premiere took place on 10 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and though initially triumphant it was soon overshadowed by the furore surrounding the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. It’s time Pénélope had another chance.'

Jessica Duchen

 

Sibelius's piano works

'There’s little doubt that Sibelius felt much more at ease composing for the orchestra than for the piano. Yet to regard his piano output as vacuous and of little musical consequence seems grossly unfair. True, apart from the early Sonata, the majority are salon pieces written out of commercial necessity rather than an inner creative impulse. Nevertheless, the music is undeniably attractive, and there are a number of hidden gems.

Good starting points are the Ten Pieces Op. 58 and the Three Sonatinas Op. 67, the latter much admired by Glenn Gould, both of which inhabit the same emotionally elusive world as that of Symphony No. 4. The somewhat later Five Characteristic Impressions Op. 103 share similar thematic material with the Seventh Symphony and the music to The Tempest, while the modal and tonal ambiguity of the Five Esquisses Op. 114 seems surprisingly close to Bartók.'

Erik Levi

 

Weill's symphonies

'Most music lovers know that Weill composed that early acid-drop of musical theatre The Threepenny Opera; Marianne Faithful and David Bowie, among others, have kept the songs in the popular sphere. But before and between his Berlin stage works on the one hand and his singular approach to Broadway on the other, Weill was a purveyor of what his collaborator Brecht pejoratively described as ‘relatively complicated music of a mainly psychological sort’.

The First Symphony composed by the 21-year-old student of Busoni and, before that, Humperdinck, is a tough nut, reaching out to a more ethereal goal. But no one should have any problems with the Second Symphony of 1933-4, amplifying the tuneful angst and nostalgia of the "sung ballet" The Seven Deadly Sins, even anticipating the tragic resolution of his ‘American opera’ Street Scene.'
David Nice

 

Howells's piano concertos

'Choristers have become familiar with Herbert Howells (1892-1983) as one of the greats of the British choral scene – canticles such as his Collegium Regale and St Paul’s settings, not to mention anthems including Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing and Like as the Hart have become staples of the evensong repertoire. And yet, were it not for a boorish critic at the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto in 1925, the English composer may well have made his name in the concert hall instead. Robert Lorenz’s loud braying of ‘Thank God that’s over’ as the work came to a close severely knocked the confidence of a composer already consumed by self doubt, even with the enthusiastic response from figures such as Vaughan Williams.

Howells withdrew both this and the First Piano Concerto from public performance, and only the recent recording by Howard Shelley brought them to the light of day. What Shelley revealed was music of rich harmonic invention, rooted in the early 20th-century English Romantic tradition, and some thrilling pianistic writing.'

Jeremy Pound

 

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• 15 unlikely composers

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