Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?

I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything.

Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and had no interest in listening to his music. Vivaldi’s music, meanwhile, remained undiscovered in various archives. Who can guess which composers the  present generation dismisses that future generations will rediscover and appreciate?

Before the age of recordings, composers who lived and worked outside the major capitals had no chance of developing an international reputation. Bruckner, for example, toiled as an unknown provincial composer of church music until he moved to Vienna, began teaching at the conservatory, and composing symphonies.

Scholars have rediscovered Swedish composer Joachim Eggert (1779-1813) and told the musicological world that he displayed a powerful and original musical imagination. The major musical centers of the time were London, Paris, and Vienna. Composers who did not make a reputation in at least one of those cities had little chance of being well-known. Eggert’s poor health made it impossible for him to travel. He spent nearly all of his short career in Stockholm

Meanwhile, Stockholm audiences heard the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven because Eggert, as court conductor, introduced them. Of the three, Haydn had the widest reputation. Eggert’s own compositions rely mostly on his influence, yet he used three trombones in his Third Symphony a year and a half before Beethoven introduced them in his Fifth Symphony. It appears that Eggert’s Third Symphony is the only one of his works available on a recording. It is not a great work, but it certainly compares favorably with much of the music by minor composers in the modern repertoire.

Living in a major capital does not insure a composer a reputation that outlives him, but French operatic composer Fromental Halévy had particularly bad luck. His first opera, La Juive, established his reputation and served as one of the cornerstones of French opera for more than a century. Although not performed as frequently as it once was, major opera companies of the world continue to stage it.

He is best known today as a teacher and administrator. None of Halévy’s later operas duplicated the success of La Juive. Perhaps inspiration flagged, but in the case of Charles VI, other factors explain why it received so few performances in his lifetime. Like  La Juive, it is set near the end of the Hundred Years War between England and France. It might well have provided the dramatic content to enhance his reputation as a composer.

Unfortunately, 1843 was not a good year to produce an opera about a weak king who went insane. The government thought people might compare the hapless Charles with the current King Louis-Philippe, whose popularity was waning, and banned it.

Halévy tried to revive  his opera in 1850, after the king had been deposed. It ran for three performances, and someone in the audience dropped dead every evening right after an aria whose title is translated “God punish him and strike him low.” The last performance during his lifetime, scheduled for 1858, had to be canceled after a terrorist bombed Emperor Napoleon III’s coach. No one attempted to mount another performance until 2005. I don’t suppose anything awful happened by that time.

[Most of the information about Charles VI‘s performance history comes from A Thing or Two about Music by Nicolas Slonimsky.]


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