posted on 16 Jan 2021

Good Works by Lesser-Known Composers

The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later on. “It is possible”, says the doorkeeper, “but not at the present time.”

– Franz Kafka[1]

It makes no sense for a contemporary composer to return to the style of the Romantics, say, or to that of the Moderns or of the heroes of the Renaissance. Composers are like explorers in that way. There’s no point trodding ground that’s already been mapped out since centuries. Hence we will never have another Wagner, another Sibelius or another Josquin des Prez, no matter how many people of their talent we produce.

That leaves those of us who admire that sort of music in a strange position. Because Wagner only wrote so many operas, Sibelius so many symphonies, des Prez so many masses. We discover them, we exhaust them, we go on listening to them … what then? Sooner or later we begin to crave new things. And so we move on to their less talented contemporaries & do the same thing to those. Anyone can see where this plot is heading: to the exact state of affairs we experience today, where we burst with enthusiasm over the discovery of some or another new but altogether insignificant work of one of the olds, where our critics talk not about the music but about performance & sound quality & where, in one year alone, we have lived through the release of no less than nine[2] new recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.[3]

However. It happens that the gods smile on us. It happens that we find in this lifelong search an overlooked composer who is nevertheless just as worthy as those we most admire. The four works I introduce below were written by just such composers. It should surprise me very much if you’ve heard even half of these works.

Each composer has for some or another reason not become quite as popular as they ought to have become. One of them looked back to the Romantics & Renaissance music when everyone around him was consumed by modernism; one did not have the hunger to carry on after getting a cushy lectorship; one wrote nearly all of his music for the organ & died young; & one was a woman who grew up on the periphery of Europe – I’ll begin with her.

Helena #

In 1877 in Paris, Helena Munktell met & began to study under Vincent d’Indy.[4] She was 25 then, a young woman. She spent years in Paris singing, performing on the piano & studying with d’Indy & Benjamin Godard, who both championed her works there.[5] Once, a colleague of hers commented that she was not a lady who composes, but a composer.[6] But d’Indy advised her to look for inspiration not in the Parisian salons but in the soil of her native land & in 1910 she returned permanently to Sweden, where she would spend her winters in Stockholm & her summers in Dalarna, the two places she’d grown up.[7]

Photograph of Helena Munktell.

That decade she wrote her last orchestral work, Valborgsmässoeld, or in English Walpurgis Night Fire, a tone poem inspired by Dalarna.[8] It’s a conservative piece, more backwards-looking than the earlier, more impressionistic & modern work Bränningar. But it is beautiful. It will remind you of Liszt & Wagner. It is largely taken up with a single theme which sounds like springtime, just like spring, full of hope & light, delicate, triumphant. It’s not quite as good as Les Preludes or Orpheus, maybe, but in my opinion every bit as good as Mazeppa & Hunnenschlacht.

Valborgsmässoeld was recorded by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra with Tobias Ringborg & released in 2005 on Sterling Records.

Jehan #

In June of 1940 the Wehrmacht broke in towards the Loire & the town of Saumur. A soldier who was on reconnoitre east of the town could hear a troop of Germans approach: he dismounted his bike & mowed down 16 of them before being killed himself. This man was Jehan Alain. He left behind a wife, Madeleine, & three young daughters. He also left behind some one hundred & forty odd compositions, most of them for the organ, which he played.

Photograph of Jehan Alain.

He wrote the Deux Chorals in 1935 at the age of 24. The first is a quiet, contemplative work in the Dorian mode[9]. It seems like a simple piece at first, but the graceful harmonies & chiasmically varying phrase lengths make it more than interesting; it sounds a little like Satie but with the organ substituted for the piano. The second is an eerily proceeding piece in the Phrygian mode[10] with a tentative, doleful melody. It reminds us, as we hear it, that no one was better able to explore the quieter, more mystical aspect of the organ than Jehan Alain.

Unlike the other works on this list, these ones have, like most of Alain’s organ works, been recorded quite a number of times. I recommend last year’s recording by Wolfgang Rübsam on Counterpoint Records.

Harold #

In his youth, Harold Shapero drew crowds with Leonard Bernstein, who was not yet famous then.[11] They were two young men going from place to place joyfully letting loose on whatever pianos they found.[12] Harold Shapero’s life was music & music was his life: he played, he studied, he composed. In 1948, when he was 27, Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra.

But Shapero’s is a sad story, in a way. His flame burned bright & quick. After he had joined the Brandeis University faculty in 1951, his output began to dry up. “There’s something about the teaching that is deadening to composition”, he said years later.[13]

Still from a documentary in which Harold Shapero was interviewed.

The Variations in C Minor could not be any less similar to the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, nor, for that matter, to Bernstein’s own music: whereas Bernstein exudes insecurity, the Variations are as natural & assured as a swift-running river. Like many of Shapero’s pieces, this one seems to me to adhere to a strict inner logic where a small set of motives receive extraordinarily inventive & beautiful treatment. It is mostly quiet, calm, gentle. It takes its time. But many things that are worth the while do.

The Variations in C Minor have been performed without fault by Sally Pinkas for Toccata Classics.

Arnold #

Around the time that Harold Shapero wrote his Variations, a Jewish boy named Arnold Rosner was born in New York City.[14] Arnold Rosner was an exile in his own land. He refused the fashions of the time – serialism, minimalism & all the others – & instead turned his eyes on the past, on the music of the Renaissance & the late Romantics.[15] He never got the breakthrough that he desired. The bitterness seeped into his music.

Photograph of Arnold Rosner.

The Parable of the Law is a long orchestral song, or maybe a tone poem for baritone & orchestra, or maybe a cantata in a single movement, without a choir & with just one character. That character is the narrator of a short passage taken from Franz Kafka’s The Trial[16]. The passage is a parable which goes like this. A man wants to get through the door of the Law but is rebuffed by the doorkeeper. He spends the remainder of his days waiting outside, uncertain if he will ever be allowed to enter. In the end, he dies & the door is shut forever … I suppose you, dear reader, are already thinking of the obvious comparison here, viz. with Rosner himself & the other composers I’ve mentioned, who similarly spent their days anxiously waiting outside the gates of Acceptance.

The composition begins with some angular motives that are developed for the remainder of the piece. The baritone soon enters with the line: “Before the Law there stands a doorkeeper” & then, accented now & again by erratic timpani hits, goes on taking turns in the foreground with the orchestra in a kind of antiphonal style. Gradually the brass section begins to dominate. Light woodwind trills remind me of Mahler, but there’s none of that one’s jocularity here: this is dark, threatening, wretched music of the best sort.

The Parable of the Law was recorded just a few years ago by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Nick Palmer conducting & Christopher Burchett singing, again for Toccata Classics.


  1. Simmons, W. “Five Ko-Ans for Orchestra; Unraveling Dances; The Parable of the Law.” Arnold Rosner, 2 Dec. 2018, https://walter-simmons.com/writings/1863. ↩︎

  2. I counted Daniel Barenboim, Martin Haselböck, Marek Janowski, Christoph König, Andrew Manze, Seiji Ozawa, Kirill Petrenko, Lahav Shani & Robert Trevino. I think at least that all of these are new & none are reissues. There may be some I haven’t thought of or come across. ↩︎

  3. It is a good thing that these recordings always improve on those that came before because otherwise there’d be no point to them, except of course to keep the wheels of industry turning. ↩︎

  4. Edling, A. “Biography.” Levande Musikarv, 2013, https://www.levandemusikarv.se/tonsattare/munktell-helena. ↩︎

  5. ibid. ↩︎

  6. ibid. ↩︎

  7. ibid. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. Actually, it’s in what we now call the Phrygian mode. But back then things were not so standardised & Alain followed Maurice Emmanuel in referring to this mode as the Dorian. I’ll keep that term here to not confuse you, dear reader. ↩︎

  10. The modern Dorian mode. See the previous footnote. ↩︎

  11. Interview with Shapero for a documentary. ↩︎

  12. ibid. ↩︎

  13. Interview with Shapero by Bruce Duffie. ↩︎

  14. Simmons, W. “Biography.” Arnold Rosner, 31 Oct. 2014, www.arnoldrosnermusic.com/biography/. ↩︎

  15. ibid. ↩︎

  16. In The Trial the passage is called Before the Law apparently, though I haven’t read the book myself. ↩︎