21 discoveries in 21 years3:32, 22nd June 2020
As Scala Radio presenter and Classical Music columnist Jack Pepper turns 21, he reflects on 21 significant musical discoveries
The last few months have given us many reasons to reflect. The Black Lives Matter movement is rightly shining a light on long-standing prejudices, still to be tackled in the balance of our concert programmes and diversity of teams; lockdown has given us not only time to question ingrained practices and perceptions of our profession, but also the welcome opportunity to listen and read, taking a little more time for ourselves; and, for me personally, as my 21st birthday falls in June, I have been reflecting on how my life and the world around me has changed in little over two decades.
I wanted to curate a little playlist of neglected gems, names I have discovered in the last 21 years with whom I enjoyed an immediate light bulb moment: the frustration of having not known their work before, with the simultaneous joy of knowing I now have a whole new realm of music to discover. However, this isn’t just an exercise in birthday jollity. We must ask ourselves why these names are not more widely known. There are plenty of lesser composers who are remembered; even if not all these names rank with the very greatest in music history, surely they deserve a place in our concert halls and libraries? Why has a name fallen out of history where others remain? Serious questions lie beneath the joy of discovery.
With the pressures and fears so many are facing right now, I hope this little playlist might give you, for a moment at least, some musical relief. With grateful thanks to all who have supported me, I hope this list will bring you some much-needed and well-deserved musical joy.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson – Louisiana Blues Strut
This little-known composer deserves greater recognition for his pioneering social achievements, as well as his distinctive music. Perkinson created the first racially-integrated symphony orchestra in the US. His music draws on much of the world around him; he wrote a ballet inspired by jazz master Charlie Parker, a flute sonata and scored movies.
Agathe-Backer Grondahl – Piano Music
I first played her music on Scala Radio in 2019, and of all the names in the list, this is one that I feel should be heard most strongly. Grondahl was Norway’s first significant female composer, but let’s scrap that unhelpful label and just think of her as one of Norway’s significant composers. She studied with Liszt and was considered by Bernard Shaw to be one of the century’s greatest pianists. There’s a fabulous introduction to her piano music courtesy of an album from BIS.
Joly Braga Santos – Symphonic Prelude
The leading Portuguese symphonist of the 20th century, he penned four symphonies in his 20s, setting the bar rather high for the rest of us. In his own words, he was striving towards a “Latin symphonism”.
Mel Bonis – Carillon Mystique
Initially self-taught as a pianist, Mel Bonis was the not-so-convincing male pseudonym for female writer Melanie Bonis (it had me fooled…). Struggle was a feature in her life more widely; Bonis was forced to marry an older businessman despite her love for a young poet. I first played her music on my Scala show last month, having discovered her thanks to a wonderful album by pianist Sandra Mogensen, called ‘En Pleine Lumiere’; it shines a light on neglected women writers of the 1800s.
Rutland Boughton – Oboe Quartet No 2
Boughton has been described by some as better respected in his day than Vaughan Williams. A Wagner disciple, Boughton created an English Bayreuth at Glastonbury, launching a Festival in 1914 in the Assembly Rooms but with the intention of building a theatre to present his own works. Boughton’s opera The Immortal Hour was performed for an amazing 216 consecutive performances in London, yet since his death in 1960, Boughton’s name has become one of the many small-print historical footnotes. I’d also add the wonderfully eccentric Lord Berners to that list, one of many British composers that Britain itself seems tragically unaware of; although he dyed pigeons different colours and had a pet giraffe, Berners’s music itself is worth talking about too, packed full of orchestral colour.
Mary Lou Williams – Old Time Spiritual
Better known in jazz circles as one of the first female jazz solo instrumentalists, Mary Lou Williams bridged the gap between jazz, classical and popular music. She wrote for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and had her music played at Carnegie Hall, and even had a mass commissioned by the Vatican.
Leroy Anderson – Sandpaper Ballet
He’s best known for his amusing use of a typewriter in a work of the same name, and as the writer of one of my favourite Christmas pieces, ‘Sleigh Ride’ (what other Christmas pieces change key so frequently, and use such wonderfully appropriate streaks of orchestral colour, from whip cracks to bells?!). However, Anderson should be remembered for the full talents of his remarkable mind. He came to music because radio was in its infancy and, in his own words, ‘We had to make our own entertainment’. Anderson studied with Walter Piston; he originally intended to become a languages teacher and had a PHD in the subject (he was fluent in nine different languages, including Icelandic); he became an arranger for the Boston Pops Orchestra and Arthur Fiedler (another name to check out if you want a huge range of musical recordings – he’s the man who said that in music, you don’t just want ‘a hunk of beef’, but a ‘light dessert’); Anderson played the cello in a string quartet; among his works is a Piano Concerto and a musical. Anderson is the epitome of the multi-tasker, so typical of musicians through the centuries, from teacher-composer J S Bach through to conductor-composer Bernstein. For being a tremendous yet accessible brain and one of music’s great diversifiers, Anderson should be remembered. That and the fact his music can’t help but make you smile.
Anna Amalia – Fantasia No 3 in C minor
Amalia is a hard lady to track down on record or in the standard music history books, despite being a real-life princess. I first came across her name thanks to a wonderfully broad book called ‘Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found’, by Diane Peacock Jezic. Amalia was the youngest sister of Frederick the Great, and has the dubious accolade of having lived in a castle for her entire life. She wrote many of her pieces for her brother’s military regiments and state occasions, challenging the myth that women composers through history have embraced only small-scale chamber music.
Albert Ketelbey – Bank Holiday
Apparently Ketelbey’s music was performed more regularly in Britain than Beethoven at the turn of the 20th century. He was phenomenally successful financially, but seems to have passed into the back chapters of musical history. Yes, the music uses some woefully stereotypical musical evocations of the Middle East, but I don’t think that’s the only cause of his current neglect. Might it be a symptom of a wider suspicion of commercial success? It might be the same snobbery levelled at Andrew Lloyd Webber and Howard Blake, both of whom I hugely admire and who have had an undeniable impact and success. In a world that listens to music by playlists – by mood rather than by genre – surely it’s time we cast all those labels aside and embrace the phrase coined by many musicians, from Richard Strauss to Louis Armstrong: good music is good music. Ketelbey wrote for an audience, but so did Mozart. The audience isn’t to be feared or condemned.
Dora Pejacevic – Violin Sonatas
She’s believed to be the first Croatian to write a symphony. The daughter of a count, Pejacevic had written over 100 compositions by the time of her death in 1923; however, it would take until 2008 for the first all-Pejacevic CD to be released.
Joseph Marx – Piano Concerto
One of my first public compositions was played at a concert organised by EPTA UK, and I remember as an impressionable 14-year-old writer hearing one of the adult composers apologise for their latest work because it was a bit of a ‘pastiche’, a bit too ‘romantic’. That struck me as nothing to apologise for. Firstly, most composers write pastiches at some point in their life (everyone has their influences, and nobody exists in a bubble), and romantic shouldn’t be a dirty word in itself (rather, the more unpleasant excesses – needless runs up and down a piano and empty showmanship, perhaps). It might be surprising to learn that Joseph Marx was described by Toscanini as a ‘leading force in Austrian music’ in the 1950s. Riccardo Chailly has asked: ‘How could such a major composer fall into oblivion’; the speed of his decline is shocking, and we should ask ourselves why. Are we suspicious of the Romantic, associating it with the problems that boiled into global war? Are we scared of our past? Whatever the answer, Joseph Marx is wonderfully documented on the ever-open-minded Naxos and CPO labels. I’m so grateful to these labels for encouraging so much musical discovery, along with Chandos for their work championing neglected British writers; they are a shining example of what inventive, fearless programming and releases can look like. Our understanding of the past is shaped by the present; an angle of vision so often takes the place of objective and all-encompassing thought. For example, I’m shocked by how few of the women composers in this list are mentioned in standard reference works like the Grove Dictionaries, marvellous books though these are. Releases like these are an important counterbalance to the long-standing musical narrative.
Camille Pepin – The Sound of the Trees
A 29-year-old French contemporary composer inspired by the visual arts, from photography to cinema. With her The Sound of the Trees, think of it as a picture in sound.
Claude Bolling – Suite for Flute and Jazz Trio
A classically-trained jazz pianist, Bolling formed his own band aged 18 and then studied with Durufle. He’s the man behind more than 100 soundtracks; he’s written songs for stars like Brigitte Bardot; and – in his Suite for Flute and Jazz Trio – Bolling collaborated with flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal. I was introduced to this recording by a Scala Radio listener earlier this month, and with his colourful musical open-mindedness, Bolling immediately feels like a name I should have known about years ago. *Slaps wrist*.
Phyllis Tate – London Fields
Musical depictions of Hampstead Heath, St James’ Park, Hampton Court and Kew all figure in this dynamic collection of portraits in sound. I admire the fact that Phyllis Tate never shied away from talking about the challenges of creating. It’s not always rewarding, and it doesn’t always spark. Tate put it best when she said: ‘Writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme. But there’s one thing even worse; that is not writing it.’ She was also a passionate advocate of gender equality in music, saying: ‘I would like to feel that in the not-too-distant future, a female Wagner might arise (with, no doubt, a Mr. Wagner in the background meekly doing the household chores).’ We could start by playing her music.
Michael Kamen – Saxophone Concerto, 3rd mvt
Here’s a well-known name but an unfairly-neglected work. Kamen was one of the great versatile masters of the last century. Classically-trained at New York’s Juilliard School, he scored Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, arranged the original orchestral parts for Queen’s Who Wants To Live Forever, and wrote concertos for electric guitar and for saxophone. Did I also mention that he was a pioneer of symphonic rock, bringing Metallica together with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra? Imagine the guests he would bring to HIS Birthday parties… The live sets would have been varied. His Saxophone Concerto is a grand work, with moments of reflection balanced with a majestic flourish at the end.
Margaret Hubicki – Rigaudon
A pioneer of a colour-staff method to help dyslexic people read sheet music, Hubicki was a humanitarian as well as a fabulous composer. She stands as a shining example of the importance of making music accessible to all, regardless of background or disability. Thanks to the kind folk at Chandos, there’s a splendid summary of her chamber music with the album ‘Dedication In Time’; particularly toe-tapping is the Rigaudon from her Two Contrasting Pieces. I love how it spins long melodic lines from an initial short cell. Rhythmic, at times unexpected, and always dynamic in its use of the full span of the cello and piano, this was one of my first discoveries on this list and it always makes me smile.
Will Marion Cook – Swing Along!
I first discovered Cook thanks to Alex Ross’s masterful ‘The Rest Is Noise’, one of the few music books to dedicate significant sections to the full diversity of composers: BAME musicians, women writers, jazz and classical crossover, and more (albeit with a slight bias towards America). This was a crucial book in shaping my own musical outlook and love of discovery. As discussed in my Culture Bunker radio show, Will Marion Cook was a mentor to Duke Ellington. He’d take cab rides around New York and react to a young Ellington’s latest musical ideas, which Ellington would whistle to the older statesman of music. Cook played the violin in Carnegie Hall, and also embraced writing musicals (much to the shame of his family). He’s a name you’re more likely to come across in the history books compared to some of the other composers to grace this list, but that historic interest is rarely matched with performances in the concert hall or on record.
Luise Adolpha Le Beau – Prelude in B minor, op.12 no.4
Another recent discovery for me courtesy of Sandra Mogensen’s diversely-programmed ‘En Pleine Lumiere’ album. Le Beau was the writer of two operas and much piano music. I find her contemporary neglect particularly tragic given her family’s selfless dedication to her career; they repeatedly moved house to help their daughter find musical opportunities. Le Beau is proof nobody gets anywhere without the support and generosity of those around them.
Howard Blake – Piano Concerto
Howard has been a tremendous influence in my musical life. He has been generous with his time and insight, and – despite writing one of the great Christmas song hits of the last few decades, not to mention a long-running stage show – I passionately believe he is the victim of unfair musical neglect. He is celebrated for The Snowman and the hit song Walking In The Air, but is the man behind more than 700 works. His piano music has been recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Elsewhere, his Piano Concerto was recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir David Willcocks. The concerto was commissioned to celebrate the 30th birthday of Princess Diana. The opening movement combines the directness of popular song with the pianistic virtuosity of a great concerto; its unaffected song-like opening is a very striking introduction to a work in a form that so often evokes images of grandeur and epic scale. This, for me, is a wonderful combination of heart and mind, large and small. I’m immensely grateful to Howard for showing me there are many ways to write music, to not be afraid of tonality or the public, and not shy away from a good tune.
Peggy Glanville-Hicks – Etruscan Concerto
There’s a fabulous recording of this piano concerto by jazz-classical master Keith Jarrett. Australian composer Glanville-Hicks studied with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and was also a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She wrote operas for Athens and San Francisco, was a critic for the New York Herald Tribune, and was an author of American entries in the New Grove Dictionary. She died in 1990, and it’s about time her work was more consistently championed.
Duke Ellington – Black, Brown and Beige
Ellington was arguably a 20th-century Haydn, able to experiment with different sounds and colours through the luxury of having his own orchestra. Ellington is best known for his jazz work, but he embraced large-scale symphonic writing; his music was performed in venues like Carnegie Hall, where he inaugurated a series of annual concerts from 1943 with his orchestral ‘Black, Brown and Beige’. This suite tried to depict the history of the black American population. The son of a White House butler, Ellington went on to win the Presidential Medal of Honour.