Unjust Obscurity?

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert explores one aspect of the American Symphony Orchestra’s mission. We would like to offer a challenge to the habits by which orchestras set their repertoire. Why are some works repeated over and over again and others only occasionally performed? Why is it that some works are rarely ever heard? Implicit in the ASO’s mission is a healthy skepticism about the way we understand music history. The commonplace wisdom is that “history” is itself an objective judge. That means that if a piece of music doesn’t survive in the repertory over many generations it must not be a masterpiece or even worth hearing. The idea behind this is that somehow all works receive an equal and fair chance to be heard and to be judged as worthy of rehearing by generations of listeners. The truth of the matter is that for every work that survives in this manner there are works that have to be resurrected laboriously without the verdict of “history.” Perhaps the most famous example is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. After the first two performances, it was declared a failure and a bore. Nearly four decades after its composition, Joseph Joachim revived it by performing it persistently despite the objections of concert organizers. Future generations are grateful that he took the time and trouble.

We at the ASO also hope to puncture the exaggerated emphasis that many lovers of music place in the ideal of the “masterpiece,” we would like to encourage listeners to enjoy a piece of music, appreciate its magical and memorable moments, and even recognize weaknesses without feeling compelled to dismiss any work to oblivion simply because it is not an equal of a familiar and flawless masterpiece. Why shouldn’t we love and appreciated fine music the way we look at fine paintings and read fine books? Over the past few seasons, the ASO has revived works that past generations of listeners have been moved by and have appreciated; works of mastery and inspiration that have been belittled in some quarters because they still don’t seem as good as, for example, a Brahms concerto or a Mahler symphony. But if listening to the music of the past is to be a living experience, must we restrict ourselves to a diet of a very limited number of works form the enormous wealth of excellent music writing during the last two hundred years? The works the ASO is presenting today are not in any sense “second rate.” They are not “minor” works by “minor” figures in the history of music. The only way one can consider them minor is if we redefine our sense of proportion. Such a redefinition would render most of the artists whose pictures we cherish minor and most of the books we read and respect as minor. Why are some of us so impatient and judgmental when it comes to music?

Periodically the ASO devotes an entire program to works that we believe need to be performed more often. Obscurity is, of course, a relative term, and some in the audience may be troubled by the idea that any of the pieces on today’s program are considered obscure. Connoisseurs, for example, have a different definition of obscurity. But from the point of view of most music lovers and concert goers, none of these works are everyday fare. To hear them live or even on a recording is a comparatively rare experience. Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that our experience has been that the staff and above all the musicians of the ASO have come to believe in and respect the so-called “obscure” works we present. It is our hope that we successfully communicate this affection and admiration to the concert public.

In 1996, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the great American composers of the twentieth century, Roger Sessions. By today’s standards, his music may sound modern in an old-fashioned way. But in every style in history there are great and lesser practitioners. Even if a musical vocabulary of expression should experience an eclipse for a period of time, the genius of those few who used that vocabulary as an authentic vehicle should not be forgotten. Among twentieth-century modernists, Roger Sessions was a giant. His works will continue to electrify, fascinate, and move listeners despite changes in fashion. This Piano Concerto is a fine example of Sessions’s compositional mastery.

The Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck is less known than he ought to be. Those who know his music admire it for its subtlety and lyricism. His works deserve a wider audience. This Concerto is truly an undiscovered jewel. Since it is a lush and expressive violin concerto, it should appeal to virtuosos and audiences alike. There has always been a demand for Romantic violin concertos, and we hope that this performance will lead to other performances. The work is elegant and intimate. It was written for Stefi Geyer, a fabulous violinist form Hungary who was, among other things, Bela Bartók’s first love. She was a student of Hubay and a classmate of Bartók’s in Budapest. Bartók wrote his first Violin Concerto and the Two Portraits for her. Before World War I, she moved from Budapest to Switzerland, where she met Schoeck.

Psalm 114 of Mendelssohn is a less familiar example of the still-to-be-revived choral repertoire of the mid-nineteenth century. Although Mendelssohn’s music for chorus and orchestra was enormously popular a century ago, most of it has disappeared from concert programs. This is particularly the case for the shorter sacred works.

The closing work is by Karol Szymanowski. Szymanowski was one of the great composers of this century. Although his two violin concertos are reasonably well know (but not played as often as they should be), most of Szymanowski’s music, particularly the great opera King Roger, still awaits systematic advocacy by conductors, vocalists, and instrumentalists. Several years ago, we performed a very early, neo-Straussian work, the First Symphony. We now present one of Szymanowski’s masterpieces, the Stabat Mater. It reveals Szymanowski’s distinct music language. As the program notes indicate, this work was written for performance in either Polish or Latin. We have chosen to perform the work in Latin for two reasons. Too often Szymanowski is praised in a somewhat condescending manner as a great “Polish” composer. The implicit prejudice is that form some national cultures of Europe–for example, those of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary–different criteria should be applied. Some well-known names are considered as great nationalist composers, but are less regarded if viewed from a so-called universalist, international context. One, for example, rarely speaks of Beethoven or Bach as “German” composers (unless one is a die-hard German nationalist). Yet we persist in speaking of Szymanowski in relationship to his identity as a Polish citizen. No doubt Szymanowski was s fierce Polish patriot, but Brahms was as much a German patriot and we don’t speak of Brahms as a German c composer in quite the way we refer to Szymanowski as Polish. Therefore, we will perform the Stabat Mater not in Polish but in Latin in order to underscore the fact that this work can stand comparison to other great settings of this Latin text. It is a profound work of religious faith designed for listeners all over the world. Furthermore, in the score there are some slight musical variants depending upon which language in which the work is sung. Ironically, in most cases the Latin, I believe, strengthens the musical line. In an era when the work of Gorecki has become wildly popular, it is both appropriate, enlightening, and sobering to listen to the great spiritual and music achievement of Karol Szymanowski.