If you listen to classical music radio, you hear music by unfamiliar composers, but chances are it’s very nice music. Have you ever wondered who these composers are and why they’re not well known?
Wait, you may say. Bruckner is hardly an unknown composer. He was one of the great symphonists of the late 19th century. Oh, and he also wrote some lovely choral music. But did it occur to you that probably no one would know about the choral music if he hadn’t become famous as a symphonist?
Bruckner was 44 when he moved to Vienna from Linz in 1868. He somewhat reluctantly accepted a position at the Vienna Conservatory. He had three reasons for his reluctance. He had been rejected for positions in Vienna that he wanted more. He lacked the self-confidence to see himself as a teacher. And the salary he was offered was less than what he was making in Linz.
He wrote two symphonies while still in Linz, but one, known as Symphony 0, was not performed till 1924. He did not write his Second Symphony until 1873. He was not regarded as a major symphonic composer until even later.
What would have become of his reputation if he had remained in Linz? At Linz, he was organist at the cathedral. That position was the pinnacle of a lifelong devotion to composing music for the church. In addition to the First Symphony, he composed three gigantic masses. Before he composed these works, he was completely unknown.
Had Bruckner remained at Linz, I suspect he would have remained mostly a composer for the church. Church musicians of the time did not become well-known composers.
Since he wrote a symphony in Linz that, along with the masses, attracted some attention. So he might have continued to write larger orchestral pieces and tried to arrange performances of them in Vienna.
In that case, he would have been a respected provincial composer. His music would have been performed occasionally, but we would have no reason to take notice of him today. The wonderful motets he wrote even before taking his position in Linz would be sitting unnoticed in an archive somewhere.
How much other music by equally good provincial composers languishes unheard?
It was moving to Vienna and taking an active part in musical life there that gave him an international reputation. Vienna was one of the major musical centers of the 18th and 19th centuries. London and Paris were others.
No one among whom we regard as major composers of classical music developed an international reputation without becoming successful in one of these centers. Everywhere else was peripheral, out of sight, out of mind.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few other very accomplished composers whose music I have recently heard on the radio, but are little known today.
Johann Wilhelm Wilms (1772-1847)
It was hearing a symphony by Wilms and trying to find out something about him that inspired this post.
German by birth, Wilms moved to Amsterdam as a young man and basically lived as a freelance musician. He played flute in three different orchestras. He presented piano concerts. He gave music lessons. He served as a church organist.
In the process, he became one of most highly respected musicians in the Netherlands. He served on juries both for composition competitions and for selecting church organists.
As a result of winning a contest, his song “Wien Neêderlandsch bloed” became the national anthem in 1816, and remained so until 1932. It is, of course, his best-known piece.
Every composer starts out writing music influenced by established elders. Haydn had the widest reputation of anyone likely to have influenced Wilms. Whatever other influences he may have had, his music was not merely derivative. He kept up with the times and provided Amsterdam audiences with very good music.
In an article he wrote for Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung he criticized the world of concert music for neglecting Dutch composers like himself. He could have as easily taken them to task for not playing the music of composers in other peripheral cities.
Antonio Rosetti (1750-1792)
Despite the Italian name, Rosetti was a Bohemian composer, born Frantisek Antonin Rösler. He started studying music (in Prague) as a child of 7 and also earned a degree in theology.
He entered the service of the Prince of Oettigen-Wallerstein, Kraft Ernst, in 1773 as a double bass player. By 1785 he had become Kapellmeister there. Because Wallerstein boasted the finest Harmoniemusik (wind ensemble) in Europe, Rosetti composed especially good wind music. He was also prolific in the composition of orchestral music and chamber music.
Does a servant in a princely household become a world famous composer? Haydn did. But his prince had an annual residence in Vienna.
Haydn had no chance to travel on his own until he was already world famous. Rosetti, on the other hand, undertook at least two concert tours. He earned acclaim in Paris in 1781, but did not stay long.
Also unlike Haydn, he did not remain in the service of the same court for his entire career. He tripled his salary in 1789 when he became Kapellmeister for the Duke of Mecklenberg-Schwerin. In 1791, he was summoned to Berlin by the future King Friedrich Wilhelm III, but he died in 1792.
His contemporaries held him in the same esteem as Mozart and Haydn, but none of the courts where he worked were major international music centers—not even Berlin. Even C.P.E. Bach remained in the shadows of the Viennese masters.
Come to think of it, the greatest of J.S. Bach’s sons gets more play on recordings and the radio than on the concert stage. Nowadays he seems well known as much as the son of a great composer as for his own excellence.
For that matter, J. S. Bach’s Leipzig was not exactly a launching pad for an international reputation. It became so only after two music journals with international circulation were published there and Felix Mendelssohn established its orchestra as one of the finest in Europe.
If Rosetti’s music were more frequently performed, we, too, might regard him as equal to Mozart and Haydn. But because he spent his life in the musical periphery, his name will not attract people to concerts.
Joachim Nicolas Eggert (1779-1813)
The Swedish composer Eggert spent his professional life in Stockholm. I don’t know why Wilms or Dussek chose to remain in peripheral cities rather than trying to make a reputation in one of the major centers. I do know why Eggert didn’t leave Stockholm. His health wouldn’t permit him to travel. He died of tuberculosis at 33.
I must confess that I don’t remember hearing Eggert’s music on the radio. In fact, I don’t find any recordings of his music.He came to my attention when I was working on my doctoral dissertation.
He used three trombones in his Third Symphony (1807). At that time even Beethoven hadn’t used three trombones in a symphony or anything else.His use of trombones is but one instance of his innovative spirit.
The orchestral effects he devised anticipated many techniques of 19th-century composers. He also experimented with symphonic form and collected folk songs.
Apparently there has been a renewed interest in Eggert’s music in Sweden in recent decades. I heard of a project to record his Third Symphony a few years ago, but I don’t know if anything came of it.
The greatest of Swedish composers of the time, Joseph Martin Kraus, like Wilms and Rosetti, appears on the radio but not, to my knowledge, on the concert stage or opera house. He made a big splash in Stockholm. But that wasn’t as good for his reputation as becoming famous in Paris or Vienna would have been.
Source: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. All portraits are public domain.