Famous in their time, but mostly forgotten today – this is the fate many a truly creditable composer happened to suffer throughout history.
Today plenty of ensembles, musicians and institutes make it their task to rediscover unknown or lost works of music, putting a lot of effort in editing, publishing and performing those. Digital and online resources of libraries and archives make it a lot easier to do so than just 20 years ago.
Still, however committed these efforts are, it does change surprisingly little for the reputation of the long gone authors and their presence in our concert halls, despite the more than occasional find of real masterpieces.
To be sure, they do exist – the infamous ‘small and rightly forgotten masters’ every musician dreads when presented with a ‘delightful rarity’ he has never heard of.
But the issue here will be the real heavyweights, creative geniuses and stars of their epoch, whose compositions are characterised by originality, uniqueness, workmanship and expressiveness. They gained historical significance by the influence they had on the music scene and other notable composers during their lifetime.
An example in between would be Telemann. After his death, he has been deprecated as an irrelevant, mass producing and trivial scribe for a long time, whereas today rehabilitated, he is widely recognised the musical mastermind he was. His works are not performed very extensively, though.
So, if they where so great, why are they forgotten at all ?
There are numerous reasons to speculate upon, for sure.
Changing Zeitgeist, the prevailing taste, might be one. Some composers simply fell out of favour for different causes. Also the ability to promote themselves and their scores with publishers, courts and people, in short: their marketing, is not to be underestimated. A composer employed in a provincial or secluded courtyard could be very isolated from the remaining musical world.
Another, obvious reason, is the fact, that many oeuvres are lost or destroyed by fires, accidents, wars and so on, which leaves very little to be rediscovered in the first place. This observation could be the subject of its own article, so we leave it here for now and have a look at some examples. One thing remains to be said, though; the well-established names, including the measure-of-all-things triumvirate Bach-Mozart-Beethoven, can only be viewed and understood in context with the other composers they knew and were influenced by.
Here is a short list of composers, wrongly forgotten and worth investigating further. The list is non-chronologic, makes no claim to be complete and is solely the opinion of the author of this article.
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749)
-Hofkapellmeister in Gotha
-very productive, numerous cantatas, some operas and instrumental music
-the major part of his oeuvre is lost
-melodic, colourful style, inventive with original phrases
Christoph Graupner (1683-1760)
-Hofkapellmeister in Darmstadt
-extensive sacred works, plenty of cantatas, concertos, symphonies and operas; also piano music
-very individual style, with some unexpected turns and passages
Friedrich Kuhlau (1786-1832)
-Hofkomponist in Copenhagen
-was a known composer of operas
-is deemed to be one of the most important figures in Danish music
-today his piano sonatas and pieces for flutes are more commonly known
-most of his works are lost to a fire
-lyrical and melodic style, some similarities with same year born
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
-teacher of composition, music critic
-not actually forgotten; his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is widely performed and shows his mastery; besides that particular work largely unknown, though
-only a few works remain, because he destroyed the most part of his oeuvre himself
Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739)
-was a very famous and influential opera composer
-at the Hamburg opera house, under his direction, performed names like Händel, Telemann, Graupner and Molter
Johann Rosenmüller (1617-1684)
-mainly sacred, vocal music, some instrumental pieces
-first career in Leipzig; he escaped to Venice from a trial, where he was accused of lewd conduct with choir boys
-second career in Italy, his compositions were very respected there
-“wrongly forgotten” refers to his music only
Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759)
-was one of the most eminent opera composers, some contemporaries even called him one of the greatest composers of all times; today his works are rarely performed
Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845)
-more known in Italy, where he mainly operated
-famous opera composer, also numerous sacred works and some
-many of his arias are accompanied by obbligato solo instruments,
like clarinet or horn
Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1757)
-Hofkapellmeister in Zerbst
-very respected composer of instrumental music; wrote also many cantatas and operas