The Making of Music (Part 2)

As James Naughtie continues his journey through the history of music, he takes a look at neglected composers and lost masterpieces

Anyone who doubts the durability of the musical imagination, and the seriousness of the urge that makes composers work, should spend some time with history. In putting together my Radio 4 series I’ve been refreshed by reacquainting myself with the unending torrent of invention.

There is a common complaint that few contemporary ‘classical’ composers are likely to survive: so much second-rate music is being produced that the tradition is in terminal decline. It’s nonsense. Leave aside the fact that composers like John Tavener and James MacMillan are remarkably popular and that in the United States John Adams is the best-selling ‘classical’ composer for a generation. A vast amount of music from every era has been forgotten. What survives is the finest distillation, no more.

This is because the collective imagination is unstoppable. We know only three of Monteverdi’s operas (and a sketchy unfinished fourth), yet around the time he was writing in Venice the city had 42 opera houses. Imagine what else was written. Think of Paris during the reign of the Sun King, when Jean-Baptiste Lully – courtier, composer and pederast – dominated musical life at Versailles.

We’ve hardly heard of the many other composers in the wings. Or think of British music in the late 18th century. It’s something that’s often undervalued because elsewhere in Europe, particularly Vienna, Haydn and Mozart were gilding their own golden age. But the Linley family – especially young Thomas, who drowned at 22 – was causing an explosion of musical interest in Britain.

When Italian opera was hastily expanding in the early 19th century, behind Rossini and Donizetti (who wrote over 100 operas between them), music was being written by composers of whom most current opera goers have barely heard. I could go on and on – early 20th-century Vienna, Berlin in the 1920s, France in the ’30s…

The creative urge is even greater than we sometimes realise and, though some of what it produces will wither on the vine (thank goodness), there will always be fine vintages too. History tells us that, and it is still true.

The Making of Music was broadcast on Radio 4 and is now available as a BBC Audiobook


Audio clip: The Making of Music: Absolute Monarchy – The Sun King

Related links:
The Making of Music (Part 1)
Hidden Treasures: Iain Burnside looks at neglected masterpieces

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