Opus Posthumous: Reception and Reputation

Reception and Reputation

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

This concert explores shifts in the reputation and characterization of composers during their lifetime and after their deaths, generated by posthumous discoveries. As in the history of the visual arts (contrary to public opinion, the highest prices were paid for work during the artists’ lifetimes, not after), in music, composers have been best known and best understood while they were living, not after their death. The myth of the unappreciated and unrecognized genius is just that—a later romantic invention. The popularity of the image of the misunderstood artist gains momentum with Wagner, who, despite astonishing success, seemed to revel in spreading the idea that he was the victim of philistine taste, that he was held back and misunderstood. The advantage in doing so was that it enhanced his sense of self, reinforcing his belief that he was a visionary prophet of the future—a threat.

Wagner’s fame coincided with the spread of the practice of the arts during the nineteenth century; in a parallel fashion the affectations and mannerisms of the artistic temperament, and a growing affection for the notion of the great artist as “ahead of his time,” an outsider and an outcast, flourished. No one made more of this sensibility than Gustav Mahler, who despite great success and acknowledgment, felt unappreciated and predicted that “his time” would come, but after his demise.

The idea that Mozart had been buried in an unmarked grave presumably because no one cared and he was impoverished and obscure, or that Schubert was undiscovered, lonely and penniless, during his life has to be set side by side with the success and satisfaction acknowledged and experienced by Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Stravinsky in their lifetimes. Mozart was hardly obscure and his burial had to do with the rituals and mores of 1791 Vienna, and Schubert was famous and well-loved in his lifetime. What is more likely the case in music history is not the discovery of an overlooked genius but the forgetting of those once justifiably famous and the recalibration of the reputation of permanently well-known composers.

It is this last process that this concert examines. Schubert, for example was famous at the time of his death for the lieder, choral, and dance music he wrote. The Great C major symphony came to light only a decade after his death, and the most famous of all Schubert works—the so-called “unfinished” symphony—was first heard nearly 40 years after the death of the composer. The C major Quintet came to light in the 1850s (Schubert died in 1828). Schubert harbored ambitions to succeed in the theatre—but in that he did indeed fail; most of his operatic work remained unperformed. The overture that begins the concert points to a radical shift in the way posterity has understood Schubert, a shift made possible by the discovery of unknown large scale works for the stage and concert hall. Schubert’s fame was redirected in the second half of the nineteenth century by the encounter with new works that came to light. After 1870 he became an icon of late 19th century romanticism more than a proponent of the early Biedermeier aesthetic of the years between 1815 and 1828.

Bruckner is best known for his symphonies. But Bruckner is seen as a composer in the thrall of the Wagnerian—a Viennese figure opposed to a sterile classicism associated with Brahms. Bruckner is understood as having transformed the symphony into a monumental sonic drama. He was a world-famous man at the time of his death. Much as Brahms and Bruckner shared a mutual antipathy during the more than thirty years they both lived and worked in Vienna, they both shared a deep debt to and love for Schubert. The link between Brahms and Schubert is more familiar to classical music lovers. But as the “study” symphony on this program makes evident, Bruckner’s reputation as a link to Mahler and major figure in the post-Wagnerian world becomes tempered when we encounter the early works and recognize affinities between Bruckner and Schubert.

The most astonishing posthumous discovery on today’s program is doubtlessly the Dvořák first symphony. Like Schubert’s “unfinished” it came to light only decades after the composer’s death. It required a renumbering of the Dvořák symphonies and a reconsideration of the composer’s aesthetic trajectory. Dvořák revised many of his early works; we therefore rarely get a chance to hear what the young composer thought to do, unhampered by the wisdom of experience. This symphony is a case in point since the composer considered it lost. (One is reminded in how privileged a condition we live now. Imagine writing an entire symphony and having only one copy).

In the twentieth century, each of these three works became important as scholars and audiences revisited the life, career, and reputation of three famous composers, all widely honored and acknowledged in their lifetimes, but all too quickly categorized in too simplified and reductive a manner by posterity. It is unfortunate that these posthumously discovered works have not yet gained the place in the repertory that they deserve.