Unjust Obscurity?

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

The influence of history on today’s symphony orchestra concert repertoire is more complicated than might appear at first glance. We are, no doubt, the heirs and beneficiaries of the considered taste and judgment of generations of performers, amateurs, critics and audiences. The span of time of continuous listening and widely disseminated music criticism is about a century and a half; it began in the mid 1840s. A certain degree of stable consensus has emerged, comparable to the consensus with which we are familiar in literature and painting. No matter how historically contingent we admit our tastes in literature and painting to be (as opposed to claiming that our judgments are entirely “objective” and immune to history and culture in some formalist sense), we continue to acknowledge Dante and Shakespeare as doubtlessly great, just as we grant Leonardo and Rembrandt a permanent place in a pantheon of painters.

However, the total history of the forms of symphonic music is much shorter. There was no “classical” era, in the sense of antiquity, which the late eighteenth century could rediscover and assume as a model (as happened in art and architecture). Likewise, because of the advent during the seventeenth century of the orchestra in the modern sense, no “Renaissance” or “Middle Ages” bequeathed a body of work formally continuous in some obvious manner with the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century orchestral repertoire. We are participants in a relatively recent urban ritual, the symphonic concert.

Nevertheless, the Beethoven symphonies and the last Mozart and Haydn symphonies became the starting benchmarks of the concert hall canon (a term used here in its recent fashionable sense, not to indicate the musical form but a body of paradigmatic works) in the mid-nineteenth century. Works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Schubert and Brahms were added, followed by select works by composers from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Amidst the ebb and flow of taste a small group of out-standing orchestral pieces, from Mozart to Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius and Shostakovich has emerged as the standard repertory.

However, in contrast to painting and literature, we have become enthralled by the shadow cast by the perhaps 175 orchestral pieces that make up the standard list. We compare all non-canonic works to them. We persistently invoke masterpieces to denigrate lesser-known works, even by well known composers. It is as if we have lost the joy of listening; of following in our imaginations the invention, insight and skill of most of the fine composers from the past. We seem compelled to comment, immediately after first hearing, “but it is not x” or “it is flawed, unlike y.” We have lost perspective and patience. In painting, we are sufficiently pleased and appreciative of lesser works by masters and fine works by lesser figures to hang them in museums and to spend exorbitant prices to own them. In literature, we read with delight book after book from the past without comparing what we are reading to a handful of classics.

In the concert hall, we have become intolerant of the unfamiliar. We are bored too quickly at first hearing. We have become addicted to endless repetitions of the very same works. A cult of the masterpiece has developed, and we search–often in vain–for nuances in the repeated renditions. It is as if we were film buffs who had memorized every line and frame in Casablanca, awaiting eagerly our favorite moment, only to anticipate savoring it once more. Despite the understandable pleasure we all experience in recognition through memory and repetition, the situation has become so extreme that we are in danger of losing one of the great pleasures enjoyed by audiences in the past: the act of fresh discovery and response.

This concert is dedicated to the revival of the history of music as a living presence. We are performing works that are finely crafted and inspired in their own right, written by outstanding composers who used music to express ideas with power, intensity, authenticity and artistic and emotional commitment: music by leading figures from the musical past. The works, in formal terms, are as good in every sense as most of the paintings in our museums and works of literature in print from the past, with perhaps the exception of the 175 most valued examples. That a single work is not the Beethoven Fifth, the Dvorák Cello concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Debussy’s La Mer or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ought not disqualify it from being listened to, even more than once.

The works on this program span the most prolific period for the creation of orchestral music. They mirror the importance and communicative power that the musical culture of the orchestral concert possessed before 1945. The modern audience can once again experience wonder and delight in the large repertoire that has all but vanished from the concert stage, without feeling compelled to judge works against an extremely limited paradigm. The concert canon must change and expand, not merely from the addition of new music but from the active reappraisal of the past if the concert experience is to remain vital to our lives. This concert has been designed to accelerate the contemporary embrace of the many overlooked historical treasures of orchestral music.