The endlessly changing musical reputation


God damn I look like Charlton Heston.

According to the official WordPress statistics, this is the 100th post on this blog.  What an achievement.  What a devoid-of-financial-compensation achievement.  Those are, after all, my specialty.  Anyway.

I’ve started writing for a local arts journal, and I reviewed my first concert for them this past weekend (it will theoretically be posted on something called “the internet” at some point).  Among the works performed was a Trio by Muzio Clementi, he of the piano exercise books and the “Sopranos” character name.  I mentioned in my review that Clementi is now remembered almost entirely for those piano exercises (and for his influence on Beethoven’s piano music to a lesser degree), which is pretty unfair, really.  Of course, that’s my personal connection to Clementi: he wrote something easy enough for me to pass a piano proficiency exam.

I originally intended to play the first of the Trois Gnossienes by Satie because a) it’s easy to execute technically and b) it’s pretty fucking cool.  But for some reason or another, the piece was determined to be unacceptable for an exam (which I know would have made Satie laugh his ass off, so at least there’s that), and I was pointed in the direction of the op. 36, no. 1 Sonatina by Clementi (had I known it at the time, I could have split the difference and played the Sonatine bureaucratique).  The Sonatina seems annoying on the surface, and I guess it probably is, but so is a lot of the Anna Magdalena Notebook stuff, and nobody gives Bach (or whoever else wrote in there) much shit about that.  Either way, I can’t say I was particularly enamored with Clementi based on first encounter.

A brief aside: I was only able to play anything on the piano because I memorized the music so that I could spend every second keeping an eye on my fingers like they were suspects in the JFK assassination.  I spent a solid week pounding the tunes for the exam into my head and subsequently into my hands so that I could watch everything unfold hunched over with my arms looking like a T-Rex.  But it worked.  I swore that if I could get myself in a practice room for 5 hours a day for 2 or 3 years, I could play Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2.  Which I now understand is retarded.

Back to Clementi.  He was a gifted pianist, obviously, and took part in a famous improvisation duel with Mozart that led to the legend making insensitive and borderline racist remarks to his dad.  His piano music is secretly pretty awesome (better than Haydn, and getting me to say anything is better than Haydn is like getting Russell Brand to not make a horribly shitty movie), with some pretty wild technical demands (he’s every bit the piano forerunner of Liszt as he is of Beethoven).  Clementi’s orchestral works disappeared for a long time, presumably because they aren’t as good as his European-mainland-to-England-superstar contemporary Haydn.  But you know who else’s orchestral works aren’t as good as Haydn’s?  Almost every single human being who has ever lived.

What is it that causes the reputations of composers to wax and wane?

Perhaps we simply reach capacity.  Why do we need to hear the symphonies of Erkki Melartin when we already have Sibelius and Nielsen?  Hell, we barely have time to ignore Alfven, and now you want us to consider ANOTHER Scandinavian guy?  Christ, when will we have time for Real World/Road Rules Challenge?!

Perhaps our tastes just change.  It wasn’t that long ago that you could read a book about the “lives of the great composers” and find a nice biography on Edward McDowell in the spot where Mahler should have been.

Over the long haul, though, we may just end up reviving many of these sadly neglected composers.  The boom in Baroque music and period-instrument bands and historically informed performances still surprises me (I’ll be going to such a concert tomorrow, in fact).  We’ve gone from Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and a splash of Telemann here and there to a landscape populated by every two-bit ass clown who ever had a church organist gig or whose mother happened to walk into the path of Bach’s penis.  Here’s the thing, though…we’re better for it.  Without this renewed interest in Baroque music, we may have never heard cool shit like that hunting horn and bassoon concerto by Ignaz Lachner or Pelham Humfrey’s Church Anthems.

With the proliferation of recordings and iTunes and Spotify and used record stores and estate sales, there are lots of opportunities to hear something new, even if that something new is 250 years old.  We should never stop questing for new, good shit.  There’s a pretty decent chance that if you listen to ten pieces you’ve never heard, you’ll like two or three of them, and maybe even love one.

And, if only because I spent the first 500 words of this post talking about him, why not start with Clementi?  Here’s a couple YouTube videos to whet your appetite:

Piano Concerto in C major, mvt. III  

Piano Sonata op. 24, no. 2, mvt. I



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