What we know about our past is often heavily filtered through something like “conventional wisdom”. Certain “great men” are raised up as heroes while others are confined to the footnotes of history. The names that we hear often get credit for far more than they deserve as they ossify into myths, people who are bigger than life. That’s been changing lately as we study history as the actions of people who were simply doing their best. It’s especially evident in the growing body of performances of ancient music that showcase “minor” composers – those who made up the scene that made it all happen.
I’m a big fan of ancient music. The idea that a voice can speak to me over centuries has always been a mystical experience that hits me in the guts much harder than the latest pop tune. The personal connection I have with Ludwig van Beethoven is only a part of the experience of feeling well grounded by the sounds of artists long past, the composers whose music somehow lasted and made it to the ears of today.
Recently, however, the classical scene has undergone a genuine revival that puts these great composers in their place. Since the advent of recorded music, every one of the “great works” has been recorded over and over by musicians eager to get their craft out to an audience. But do we really need another “cover” of a work that we all know well? Many young musicians out to make a name for themselves have taken a scholarly approach and dug up works by people we don’t know that sound, suspiciously, like works that were written by figures we thought we knew intimately.
It turns out that none of the great composers of any time worked in a vacuum. This may sound like a huge “Duh!” to anyone paying attention, but it puts everything in a new light. For example, I’ve never thought that van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D (Opus 61) was actually written by van Beethoven. It just doesn’t sound like him to me, especially compared to the piece he wrote just before it (Symphony #4) and just after (the Carolian Overture). He was undergoing a lot of turmoil in his life, and in a short time his growing deafness would drive him to contemplate suicide. Was the melancholy but sweet longing of the first movement or the bouncy exuberance of the third possibly written by such a man?
The answer, to me, came when a young violinist named Rachel Barton Pine dug out the Violin Concerto of Franz Clement, re-published for the first time in 200 years in 2005. Clement is important because he is the soloist who performed the premiere of Beethoven’s work in 1806, and is said to have been the one who stood between the concert organizer and Beethoven, who was incredibly late with the score. It turns out that Clement’s own Concerto, written 8 years earlier, is remarkably similar to the one that we call Beethoven’s.
Musicologist Clive Brown, who is responsible for digging out the Clement work, charitably refers to the “hidden dialogue” between the two men. I honestly think that it’s just as likely that Beethoven was in a personal crisis and couldn’t finish the commish, leaving it to Clement to Beethoven-up his earlier work to cover for a friend.
There’s no doubt that there is a relationship between the works, just as there was between the two men who were both responsible. That’s the important part of this whole story, in the end, because no matter how great we insist that a composer must be their work came out of a scene in their own day. There are many other examples of “borrowing” that became obvious in time, such as the suspicious similarity between the Siciliano of Bach’s Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord in Eb (BWV 1031) and an earlier work by Pergolesi.
The idea that great innovation doesn’t come from spontaneous “eureka!” moments in a great mind, but from connections between a number of people that are very skilled in their craft is a strangely recent way to look at history. We’ve been far too in love with the idea of people who became myths, supposedly bigger than the times from which they came.
The lesson that we are products of our times, some products perhaps a bit more durable than others, is hard to understand when we can’t relate well to our own history. Thanks to developments in the depth of the classical music playlist, this lesson can be appreciated in our guts by sounds that wash over us from days long past. It’s a good lesson, and one that I’m happy to hear firsthand.