Where Go the Special Masters?
Recent books have compiled condensed ‘story-life’ surveys of the “great” composers, usually numbering under one hundred. Among such books one may cite “Classical Music” (Eyewitness Companions) Ed. John Burrows. DK Publishing Company; 2005, and “The Encyclopedia of Music” Instruments of the Orchestra and the Great Composers. Eds. Wade-Matthews & Thompson. Hermes House/Annes Publishing Company. 2002.” Included in these texts is the normal list of suspects. Beyond this, though, these books attempt to enhance the focus from the usual small list of greatest masters extolled in previous publications (e.g. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, et al, – plus the major lesser masters Schumann, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others) by including a variety of less commonly honored composers, mostly selected from the local countries of the publishers and editors. Ostensibly this establishes a new, wider field of greats to give recognition to the growth of the field of music inherent in today’s growing population. While the aim here is laudable enough, such books as those above shoot themselves in the foot, continuing to overlook the greatest originality and volume of contribution by extolling the relatively mediocre parochials. 
We are left with an ongoing outrage in the neglect of extremely gifted and original composers just waiting to be heard. Would they receive print media attention, their value would become immediately honored.
This complaint strikes at both ends of the spectrum. Never is appropriate attention paid to the recent explorers (especially such stalwarts as Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and Edgard Varèse, let alone Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono et al.) The public remains unconcerned at the sorry fate of such explorers, as shown in the numbers of performances they receive. The audiences take the news of this neglect of such major masters as the rightful sign that such idiosyncratic work is doomed anyway. Never mind that it is the public’s job to make such great art accessible through personal growth.) But what about the other end of the scale? If modern authors and editors really want to expand the sensibility of listeners, one encounters several challenging new possibilities each time one peruses the monthly reviews of new releases in classical music magazines. We behold, upon perusal of such print-matter, many composers, the names of whom we’ve never before heard, from cultures rarely examined. The reviews of these ‘eccentric’, though tonal, masters are often of high praise, with such remarks as “Here is a new voice that should be accorded real attention!” The styles of most of these composers are unique, even if distantly reminiscent of well-trodden tonal sounds. The tonalities used by these shadowy masters are truly original extensions, using unusual scales. The rhythms are varied and often raw. Here are a few highly qualified, intensely original composers who were/are making history quietly behind the scenes, some as we read this:
Ahmed Adnan Saygun (Turkey 1907-1991, companion of Béla Bartók on excursions to collect folk music materials, and modern, strongly expressive tonalist writing in extended harmony – Symphony no. 1 ‘Birinci’, Symphony no. 5; Yunus Emre, cantata); Kamran Ince (Turkey/US 1960- , who composed in highly expressive rhythms, off-balance in feel, in dissonant-consonant harmonic foundation – Domes, Symphony no. 2 ‘Fall of Constantinople’, Symphony no. 3 ‘Siege of Vienna’); Bechara El-Khoury (Lebanon 1957 -, strongly expressive composer in unusual tonal and harmonic functions Harmonies Corpusculaires, and Symphonie, The Ruins of Beirut’); Douglas Lilburn (New Zealand 1915-2001, eclectic composer fluent in post-modern harmony (Symphony no. 1, Symphony no. 2) modern expressionism (Symphony no. 3); also pioneer in electronics in New Zealand, Five Toronto Pieces. He also composed warmly romantic short works – Aotearoa Overture; A Song of Islands, Drysdale Overture.
Each of the above composers is strongly original and very strongly deserving of consideration for greatness. These are anything but ordinary.
Yet, even in the dark, scary regions of the avant garde we encounter peculiar prejudices in the ranking implications. In reference to the two books identified above, among others, when there is inclusion of the avant garde, there is ordinarily little attention paid to the relative contributions of these composers. Most are presented in a perfunctory way, much as though an afterthought, as if in an attempt to cheaply feign historical ‘completeness’ in the book’s survey, by mere fact of inclusion without regard to focus. For instance, how can one justifiably restrict Xenakis, Nono, and Pierre Boulez entries to one-two paragraph synopses on the basis of the major recognition accorded to the better-known ‘masters’? Why, how one does it is by trying to avoid offending the public mind by feeding it the pabulum upon which it has always fed! But, better known does not imply better! This compartmentalization of treating all modernists as equals among minor contributors perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding, especially. The public becomes completely misled into believing this propaganda!
If one does not wish to recognize the varying degrees of contribution of different modern composers, then simply roll Johann Sebastian Bach into the same class as Carl Maria von Weber! This, of course, would be nonsense. But so is equalizing Xenakis with, for instance, Krzysztof Penderecki.
Let’s take a moment to digress, by way of examples of the absurdity of the latter mischaracterization: for instance, Xenakis has contributed a long list of astonishing achievements, each of which will spawn future offspring (e.g. Dusapin et al) rich in expressive power. This is a template for long lasting cultural enrichment and is due a far greater level of recognition. Among these innovations are: stochastic music in independent probabilities of occurrences, strategic music, symbolic music, Markov chains of dependant probabilities, rare event distributions, Brownian Movement, Arborescences, Eratosthenic sieves in scale-building, non-periodic scales, minimum rules in composition, Polytope constructions in musical environments, expansive cell propagation based on genetic growth patterns, and “new proposals” in micro- and macro-sound, automatic computer composition in non-Fourier sound packets, granular sound evolutions and many, many more. Penderecki is best known, at least in his work from 1958-1971, for intuitive cluster sound structures that generate from direct , often blunt generation methods, without intervening mathwematical or architectural processes, as exist in Xenakis’ methods. This creates a more restricted field of expression that can be satisfying only a more elementary level. Especially by Xenakis’ example, the avant garde is indeed rich and varied and reflects many levels of contribution. It need not be pigeon-holed as a collective of add-ons, all of equal and minor value.
As we see, the lost masters populate the very modern field, as well as the more customarily well-understood composers (Saygun, Ince, et al). Take, for instance a number of highly original moderns who rarely even earn recognition in books on modern music:
Bruno Maderna (Italy 1920-73, teacher of Nono, composer of highly sensitive, subtle works in an original modernist vein that emphases the impressionist tendencies of Claude Debussy – Biogramma, Quadrivium, Aura); Henri Pousseur (Belgium 1929-2009; composer of subtle serial works that reflect in self-commentary, internally; often involves theater and audience participation, Aquarius-Memorial, Trois Visages de Liége, Rimes pour Differentes Sources Sonores); Karel Goeyvaerts (Belgium 1923-1993, founder of radical rigid serialist methodology, turned religious expressionist in more relaxed, yet rich harmonic dissonance, Litanies, Aquarius, Zomerspelen); Tōru Takemitsu (Japan, 1930-1996 composer of sometimes biting, sometimes serene modernist sounds, occasionally given to the sparkling and scintillating metallic percussion sound, mesh of East and West without becoming too prosaic, Arc, Coral Island, November Steps, From Me Flows What You Call Time); Henri Dutilleux (France 1916 composer of avant garde sound and structure and protégé of Debussy in serial environment. Harmonies are rich and betray influence, divergently, of Florent Schmitt, Paul Dukas, and Albert Roussel, First Symphony, Second Symphony – ‘Le Double’, Cinq Metaboles, Timbres.Espace.Mouvement; York Höller (Germany 1944- post-Stockhausen serial-eclectic composer in rich expressionist style. Same generation of Lachenmann, but uses less densely clustered sounds in harmonic usage. He moves between modernism and post-modern expressionism easily; vivid orchestration, Sphären, Der ewige Tag. One last composer who seems on the verge of emergence deserves mention here: Beat Furrer (Switzerland 1954- writes in intensely complex atonal style, resembles no one else, leader of a number of other young radicals including Peter Eötvös et al. Nuun, Still.)
So, what about these luminaries? After all, Höller? Who’s Höller? One would never know, were one to rely solely on the earlier mentioned sources or ones in similar vein. Höller was a participant in the Darmstadt courses in the 1960s. He was a student of Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Herbert Eimert. And his Sphären was the winner of the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Did some of the lesser inclusions found frequently in popular surveys ever win anything like that? Where is Höller’s champion? Xenakis’? Takemitsu’s? Most such music survey sources are prejudiced to the bone. This treatment misinforms the public.
One can go on and on. Here’s a short list of other deserving originals: Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, Julio Estrada, Salvatore Sciarrino, Leonardo Balada, Jón Leifs, Ernst Toch, Gian-Francesco Malipiero, Sylvano Bussotti, Alfredo Casella, Bohuslav Martinů, Otmar Mácha, Svatopluk Havelka, Alois Hába, Joseph Mathias Hauer, Willem Pijper, Rudolf Escher, Hilding Rosenberg, Åke Hermansson, and Harald Saeverud, among many others.
The excuses provided by the publishers for these exclusions are the old worn out ones: these are unknowns and the public is unfamiliar with these. No, kidding; I wonder why. This and other circular arguments need to be ferreted out. Demand more of these books. Scream to be exposed to this spectacular new world of uncommon originality! Hold these publishers’ collective feet to the fire.
The public must somehow find a way to break the chain of commentators and critics who set policy for reception of, and perception of music. The old composers should not be extirpated; neither should the masters of today’s and tomorrow’s music.
James L. McHard
© 11 July 2010
 It is not surprising that these books tend to favor British and American composers, mostly mediocre, inasmuch as the editors and publishers are British and American. Doubtless this annoying feature of national prejudice also pervades book publishers of other countries. This is misleading.
 Reminiscent of, not a carbon copy of, which is the fare usually left us by obscure British and/or American composers.