Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Composers I missed

I've remembered a few more composers from those sets of LPs I listened to pieces, mentioned in yesterday's post. There was, of course, Dvorak, whose Carnival Overture was on my regular play-list long before I had heard anything else by him. He wrote tons of beautiful music that should be introduced early in the formation of any young fine-art-music fan. Another was Bizet, who contributed a very brief overture to my listening pleasure, years before I heard Carmen as a whole and found out just what it takes for a one-hit composer to reach the very highest ranks of "great composers." (Bizet was so disappointed with the critical reception of his masterpiece that he died. Shortly afterward it became the most popular opera ever. Some people are so hasty!)

My early musical friends also included the sole Symphony by Franck, a piece I never heard performed better than in that second-hand set of vinyl discs. I had ample opportunity to contemplate the piece's shortcomings, but if played with care it can have a good effect. And of course, I mustn't forget Debussy, whose Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a gorgeous introduction to a musical style akin to the paintings of Monet. And I also enjoyed Liszt, a legendary pianist whose symphonic poem Les Preludes is full of well-known tunes.

And now, here are some more composers whose names should be well-known to young music buffs. Bartok was a collector of middle-European folk songs, some of which found their way into his book of beautiful, easy piano pieces titled "For Children." Borodin, a full-time chemist and self-styled "Sunday composer," is best known for the thrilling Polovetsian dances from his opera Prince Igor, and a kick-*** Second Symphony. Would that I got as much creative work done on Sundays!

Britten's numerous fascinating works include a piece specifically aimed at teaching young people how to listen to symphonies: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Today no one knows Clementi better than young piano students, who often play his charming Sonatina in C. Another crowd-pleasing piece is the Enigma Variations by Elgar, also famous for the "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, including one you have probably heard playing at a high school graduation.

An English composer whose works are just beginning to get the attention they deserve is Gustav Holst. Until recently, if you hadn't heard The Planets, you hadn't heard Holst. That's beginning to change, though The Planets is still required listening. If you listen carefully, you can try counting the number of movies that have stolen musical riffs from the piece. Every kid who studies music in school owes a big thanks to Kodaly and/or Orff, whose methods are widely used in the music education field. If you want to meet them directly, you may have trouble finding more than one work by each of them: Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Orff's Carmina Burana.

While we're talking about one-hit wonders, you probably enjoy at least the famous intermezzo from Mascagni's one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana, though some day you will probably declare yourself sick of hearing it. And the composer of Mickey Mouse's masterpiece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is the otherwise obscure Paul Dukas.

While we're talking about composers you're going to love for a while and be sick of later, why not mention Rakhmaninov and Ravel? The former is best known for his second and third piano concertos, some piano preludes, and a really excellent set of Symphonic Dances. His Vespers (a massive piece for unaccompanied choir) is breathtaking. The memory of Ravel, on the other hand, is plagued by a horrid piece called Bolero, which plays incessantly even though everybody hates it and has always hated it, including Ravel (who called it a "piece for orchestra without music"). You will probably find more to love in his next-most-popular piece, Le Tombeau de Couperin, or in his famous orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition.

Another Frenchman with occasionally tiresome tendencies is Saint-Saens. Nevertheless his Third Symphony, the one with the organ in it, is magnificent. More recent symphonies that should be early favorites for newly-formed aficionados include the First, or "Classical," Symphony by Prokofiev (composer of Peter and the Wolf), and the Fifth by Vaughan Williams (that's two last names there). Another exceptional Fifth Symphony belongs to Shostakovich, who wrote loads of pieces combining wit and sparkle with the kind of expressive power teens especially go for.

If you like composers whose music paints pictures with sound, you will find pleasures old and new. Vivaldi (the old) was an 18th-century composer whose oodles of concertos hum along like a sewing machine, including the famous set titled The Four Seasons. And Respighi (the new) was an early-20th-century composer best known for his symphonic poems about Rome (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals) and his suites based on Renaissance lute pieces titled Ancient Airs and Dances. He was also, in my opinion, one of the loudest composers of all time, which should go over really well with the teen crowd.

That still leaves a LOT of composers I am excited to share with you. But if you don't want to wait, make use of the lists of composers in this post and the previous one, and get started on discovering some great music!

IMAGES: Left column, from top: Dvorak, Franck, Liszt, Borodin, Elgar, Kodaly, Orff, Dukas, Ravel, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Respighi; right column, from top: Bizet, Debussy, Bartok, Britten, Clementi, Holst, Mascagni, Rakhmaninov, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich, Vivaldi.

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