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Writing A Music Encyclopedia, Part 3

Posted by Geoff Edgers  August 16, 2006 07:43 AM
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This third part of our e-mail chat with Ted Libbey, author of "The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music."

Part 1.
Part 2.

Which major composer are you personally sick of?
Here we must be careful. Of the canonic "great" composers, Robert Schumann is surely the most overrated. That doesn't mean I'm sick of him...yet. Telemann and Glass don't really count as major composers, so I guess my being sick of them is beside the point. What I'm really sick of is hearing all the time on the radio the same two works of Rachmaninov - the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony - when there is so much else: how wonderful it would be to hear The Bells for a change, or the Vespers; if not them, then how about the Third Symphony or the Symphonic Dances? Same with Vivaldi. It would be nice to hear his Gloria, and more of the later concertos, instead of The Four Seasons yet again.

Who would you pick as an underappreciated favorite?
Dvorak always gets my vote. Finzi is almost unknown, and certainly underappreciated, in this country. I would like to see Sibelius appreciated for the titan he was, both here and in all those countries south of the Alps that simply don't get him. As an opera composer, Janacek is still underappreciated, but maybe not for much longer.

Should symphonies be playing more or less Schoenberg?
Outside of Boston, and maybe Berlin, I don't think they're playing that much, and for good reason: there's not that much that is serviceable. Pelleas und Melisande is pretty dreadful, and Gurre-Lieder, despite a few glorious pages, is disjointed and prolix, not to mention so big in its requirements that it's almost unperformable. I don't know of many soloists who want to devote an engagement to the Piano Concerto or the Violin Concerto, and in any case there are better 20th-century works for both instruments (the list of violin concertos is particularly long, and runs from Elgar's concerto through Prokofiev, Berg, Bartok, Barber, Korngold, and Shostakovich). Schoenberg's best symphonic works are his Five Pieces for Orchestra, and the Variations, Op. 31 - and these don't get performed often enough. We have to remember that the bulk of Schoenberg's output was vocal music, chamber music, and piano music - not really suitable for orchestra programs. If you want to challenge your players and audience with music that's advanced, yet rewarding, you could throw some Zemlinsky at them (I'd rather hear Die Seejungfrau any day than Pelleas und Melisande; the works are exactly contemporaneous). And there's always Debussy, Roussel, Honegger, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Piston, Sessions, etc.

Libbey Book Cover Art.jpg

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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