The Great Composers?

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Readers of the both New York Arts and the Berkshire Review will have enjoyed Keith Francis’ thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable reviews, enriched by roughly seventy years of listening, singing, teaching, and living with music.

He now offers a series of essays about the “great” composers—a concept he cordially doubts. In this account of his musical experiences, discussions, and changing preferences over the years, he presents us with his bracing agnosticism towards these human gods and invites us to listen and think for ourselves, as he has done.

These essays are, above all, about music and how music-lovers live with it—a welcome alternative to all the irrelevancies that stuff the musical journalism of our time: scandals, bankruptcies, strikes, egos, illnesses, and deaths, in particular, the demise of “classical” music itself. These dramatic events may inspire editors to think they may lure readers with them, but, if music is dying, isn’t it more helpful to encourage and to teach? As far as that goes, lists of the top ten dead composers or five hottest conductors seem to suffice. As it is, the notion that music is dying is absurd. I have not been to a single concert of any kind that was not well-attended by enthusiastic audiences. If you want to see an area of the world of art that is dying, look at the empty galleries of old master dealers this week and the scarcity of buyers. That looks and feels quite different from a packed Carnegie Hall.

In order to help you get better acquainted with Keith Francis, we begin with a double installment. I hope you enjoy it. What he has to say is important. [The Editor]


Bah, Humbug!

Keith Francis in the classroom, c. 1970

Keith Francis in the classroom, c. 1970

I became a music teacher more or less by accident. After graduating from Cambridge University in 1956, I went to work as an engineer in the Guided Weapons Department at Bristol Aircraft—my sons still like to refer to me as a rocket scientist. Finding that the life of a rocket scientist is extremely dull, I went back to Cambridge, did my post-graduate work in education and took a job at the Crypt School, Gloucester, preparing students for university entrance and scholarship exams. I enjoyed my work at the Crypt, but after six years I was ready for something else, and I moved to the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, supposedly as a teacher of mathematics and physics. My new colleagues soon discovered that I had been a cantor in my college chapel, that I had some experience as a church choir director and had frequently substituted for the music teacher at the Crypt, that I had sung in various semi-professional choral groups and that I had an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical repertoire; so when the high school music teacher disappeared in the course of the following summer, I was drafted to fill the gap. It seemed that I must have filled it quite effectively, since I continued in my multiple role of math, science and music teacher for the next thirty years, teaching music classes, including music history, directing the chorus and the community choir, and producing several highly successful musicals.

These essays are intended for anyone who loves music. I’m ready to quote anyone who has something interesting to say about music. It may be as well to note that, having been a visiting teacher and consultant at six other schools and taken part in faculty discussions of many different topics, I can confidently assert that there is more nonsense talked per unit time about music than about any other subject; hence the somewhat curmudgeonly tone of some of my remarks. It is only fair to add that such nonsense is by no means confined to the Waldorf Schools. I do not claim that these articles are entirely free of nonsense—only that any nonsense they contain is deeply considered and vividly experienced nonsense.*

As far as I can remember, I was about eleven when I first heard the word “great” applied to certain composers and their music. When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to argue about the relative merits, or “greatness,” of our favorite composers and the reasons why classical music was or was not better than jazz. Fortunately, there was no superior person around to tell us to define our terms and establish our criteria, and the arguments remained obstinately and amiably inconclusive. I say, “fortunately,” because we were much too young and inexperienced to realize that defining a term is no use unless some substantial reality has been found for the term to convey. Fifty-odd years later, when I started on this project, one of my intentions was to come to some understanding of what is meant, or might possibly be meant, by “great,” as applied to composers and their compositions; in other words, I was looking for the “substantial reality” mentioned above. At that time I had little hope of arriving at any precise statement, let alone an incontrovertible one, but I did have a pretty clear idea of how I was going to proceed. Now, after another ten years, 120,000 words and several complete re-writings, I find that the best I can do is to invite the reader to accompany me along some of the highways and byways that I have explored. My El Dorado, even if it has some kind of potential existence, may well be unattainable, but the views (vistas, not opinions) along the way are magnificent.

The composers I had in mind are all part of what is known as “the classical music scene,” but the word classical is a problem in itself. When musical historians use the phrase “the classical period” as a technical term, they mean the period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. What is played by “classical” FM stations and found in the “classical” sections of record stores includes anything from Hildegard to Henze and from Anonymus I to Zwillich. In all that follows I refer to the technical sense as classical (no quotation marks) and to the non-technical, popular sense as “classical.”

The difficulty of explaining what classical means when applied to music is exemplified by Laurie Calhoun’s attempt in Philosophy Unmasked (University Press of Kansas, 1997): “[Classical music] is distinguished from popular music in its having a relatively stable core canon, comprising the compositions of what are deemed by the experts to be the “great” [Ms Calhoun’s quotation marks] composers of the past, and its being performed by professional musicians who have been trained ‘classically’, i.e. in tonal music, usually commencing with J. S. Bach.” I strongly suspect Ms Calhoun of having had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she wrote this definition, and I shall not insult the reader’s intelligence by pointing out its deficiencies. I shall also not try to explain what classical means when applied to ancient civilizations, Indian music, jazz, rock and so on. Every genre has its classics.

In common usage a classic is something excellent and worthy of emulation. I add only the following quotation from the nineteenth century dramatist-comedian Johann Nestroy (1801-1862), “the most popular man in Vienna,” according to Oscar Pausch of the Austrian Theater Museum, Vienna. This quotation, which I found at the head of Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, comes from Einen Jux will er sich machen, an adaptation of which by Thornton Wilder became the basis for Guys and Dolls.

Zangler: Why do you keep repeating that idiotic word “classic”?
Melchior: Oh, the word isn’t idiotic, it’s just often used idiotically.


Unless one restricts oneself to purely technical matters it is difficult to make verifiable or even meaningful statements about music. If I were to say, for instance, that the melodic freedom of traditional jazz comes at the expense of a rigid harmonic system, you would be able to look into the matter and find out whether or not what I am saying is true. If I were to say that the music of Beethoven is on a higher plane than the music of New Orleans you might object on two grounds: that such statements are based on individual responses—in other words, they are matters of opinion—and that such statements are without clearly discoverable meaning. There are other grounds on which you might object, but these will do to be going on with. Since most of the statements people make about music are not of a technical nature, discussions tend to become overcrowded with personal opinions masquerading as objective responses, and declarations of principle that sound grand until you try to figure out what they mean in terms of actual music. The difficulty of saying anything sensible or meaningful about music makes it very easy for the charlatans to take over.

It is probably a good idea to point out that none of what I have just said affects the question of whether it is possible to make objective judgements about artistic matters. One of the fruits of a discussion of this question might be some general understanding of what we mean by “objective.”  According to Webster, “objective” carries the implication of a tendency “to view events, phenomena, ideas and so on as external and apart from self-consciousness; hence, detached; impersonal; unprejudiced…” Since the whole point of art is its interaction with individual consciousness, Webster seems to put “objective” consideration out of court. The problem with this definition is that it puts everything out of court. After struggling mightily to produce a science that was objective in Webster’s sense, the physicists finally had to admit defeat. Recognition that the observer is part of the experiment is a basic element in modern physics, as it is also in the kind of scientific work developed by Goethe two hundred years ago. It seems clear that I can get to know a work of art or a piece of nature more intimately by uniting my consciousness with it than by separating myself from it, but achieving this unity is a process not to be accomplished simply by throwing a switch. It took Goethe years of contemplation to grasp, or perhaps to be grasped by, the metamorphoses of plants. A work of art may reach out and grab you in a way that a natural phenomenon rarely does, but that is only the beginning of a relationship which involves both penetrating and being penetrated.

One of the functions of music is to pull you out of your mundane preoccupations and transport you into a magical world. Beethoven sometimes takes you by the scruff of the neck and leaves you no option, but people who are immediately captured by the Fifth Symphony often take longer to penetrate the world of the C-sharp Minor Quartet. It is my experience that the difficulty and impenetrability of the late quartets has been grossly exaggerated—Op. 135 was always a great hit with my high school music history class—but there is little doubt that they occupy a different kind of space from that of the symphonies. Those who have gained admittance to that space often esteem the quartets more highly than the symphonies, but it is very hard to explain why this is to anyone who is still on the outside. Such situations not only make judgements of relative artistic worth very difficult to form and even more difficult to communicate, but also make one feel that the effort may be pointless, in whatever sense one is trying to be objective. The following long and painful discussions may well strengthen that feeling.


The Major League

One day in August of 1945 a schoolboy wandered out of his home on Blandford Road in a small village in Dorset, turned down Albert Avenue, still pock-marked by a string of incendiary bombs, avoided Victoria Crescent, where the slightly more well-to-do lived, crossed the railway lines on which small tank engines shunted undistinguished goods waggons, and entered the public park. The greatest attraction of the park was that it bordered Poole Harbour, and, now that the flying-boats and other signs of war had gone, the beach and the water and the views of Purbeck and Brownsea were sources of endless delight. On this particular day, however, there was an unexpected and even more intense experience awaiting the boy. As he crossed the lines he heard music and saw that there was a crowd of people round the bandstand. Worming his way through the crowd he saw bright red and yellow uniforms and gleaming golden instruments, whose sounds filled his whole being with ecstasy. His face broke into a smile so uncontrollably broad that his cheeks began to ache and he wondered if people would stare at him; but he was standing close to the great grunting tubas and the smile wouldn’t go away.

Chopin's Death

Chopin’s Death

John Stainer (Vanity Fair, 29 August 1891)

John Stainer (Vanity Fair, 29 August 1891)

When I was an eleven-year-old choirboy I enjoyed Stainer’s Crucifixion and Handel’s Messiah equally, and was very annoyed to hear that Stainer was not regarded as a very good composer. My favorite composer, however, was Chopin. The excitement of Fling wide the gates and the Hallelujah Chorus was nothing to the physically palpable Sehnsucht of the Chopin Nocturnes. Novello, who published vocal scores of all the major oratorios, used an ornate cover with the names Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Elgar and so on, printed in large capital letters and surrounded by curlicues. Since Chopin had not bothered to give the world any choral masterpieces he was not represented, but I did not realize that that was the reason, so I printed CHOPIN in large block capitals right in the middle of the cover of my copy of the Crucifixion. The Vicar, who was also the choirmaster, was not pleased, and I was demoted to the second row in the hope that no one in the congregation would notice.

Over the next two or three years I developed a certain disdain for Stainer. I still loved Chopin but, like me, he had to move into the second row, and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov took over the front seats. Apart from the church choir, the brass band and the annual performance of the Messiah at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth, my only source of music was the BBC, and I must say they did me proud. I scanned the Radio Times every week in the hope of finding performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth or Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. It is not possible to convey the intensity of the feelings aroused in me by these works. The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth was like a twenty minute orgasm, and I truly believe that if I had heard it in the concert hall or even on a modern sound system instead of an antiquated radio I might have died of it. While waiting for these pieces to reappear I listened to everything else and endured agonies of frustration when the rest of the family rebelled and insisted on switching to Bing Sings or Music While You Work on the only radio we possessed.

Adrian Boult

Adrian Boult

I got away with quite a bit, however. Sir Adrian Boult, the conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, became my hero and in the course of a few years I became familiar with most of the standard repertoire from Bach to Richard Strauss. Remarkably enough, Boult conducted most of Mahler’s symphonies in a complete series given by the BBC in 1947 and 1948, long before the ‘Mahler revival’ got under way. He also conducted a great deal of more modern stuff, including, for instance, the British premieres of Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Orchestral Variations. In 1936 Boult had conducted the first public performance of the Schoenberg Variations in Vienna, while on tour with the BBC Orchestra. It seems that the President of Austria had never heard of Schoenberg. After the performance he appeared quite shell-shocked and asked Boult, “Who is this Schoenberg, anyway?” As a teenager, I would have had some sympathy for the poor man, since at that time in my life I still resented the activities of composers who, as we used to express things in those distant times, did not use a good Christian key signature.

Beethoven and Nature, by N. C. Wyeth

Beethoven and Nature, by N. C. Wyeth

When I was sixteen my aunt gave us a gramophone that was already an antique—this was in 1949, the very beginning of the LP era. Naturally the gramophone played only 78’s and it played them at a somewhat variable speed. It had to be wound up every five minutes, so I listened to my Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies one side at a time. Records were incredibly expensive. My recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto occupied eleven sides and came with a price tag of two pounds fifteen shillings. This was almost a third of my father’s weekly income as a sawmill manager, and it took me almost a year to save it up. The recording, by Menuhin, Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, has recently been reissued on CD on the Testament label. It is a wonderful performance and the funny thing is that it sounds exactly the same to me now as it did fifty years ago on that little wind-up gramophone. The main difference is economic—you can get it for $16. Even if you were on minimum wage this would only be about one fifteenth of your weekly income.

My interest in music became so consuming that I not only listened to it and spent all my money on records, but I also haunted libraries and used book shops and devoured everything I could find about my favorite composers. Some of what I learnt in a few weeks from these books took years to unlearn. Not, of course, that I believed everything I read, but I did believe a great deal too much of it. I had, among other things, been taken in by the baleful ideology of sonata form and the insidious myth of progress. It took the combined efforts of Joseph Haydn, Donald Tovey, Charles Rosen, Roger Sessions and several others to help me to shake off the effects of these bad influences. Another piece of nonsense that was wished on me in my most impressionable years was the doctrine of the Great Composer.

To start with, there were the three B’s—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. You must remember that seventy years ago music before Bach was virtually unknown to all but a few specialists, madrigal groups and church musicians. Beethoven seemed to me to be part of the modern world whereas Bach belonged to a remote region of time before sonata form, as I then misunderstood it, and the tonal schemes that made it possible, had been developed. I had heard the B-minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion and I was fairly familiar with the Brandenburgs and the orchestral suites. They didn’t do it for me quite the way Beethoven and Tchaikovsky did, but I was willing in principle to accept Bach’s greatness. Beethoven, of course, was not a problem and I found Brahms’s first and third symphonies electrifying at the first hearing. So the three B’s passed muster.

Presentation of the Young Mozart to Mme de Pompadour at-Versailles by Vicente de Parades

Presentation of the Young Mozart to Mme de Pompadour at-Versailles by Vicente de Parades

Like some of the authors whose ideas I was absorbing, I was a shade condescending about Haydn and Mozart. They belonged in the Pantheon, but not, perhaps, in the best seats. In my teenaged wisdom, it seemed to me that, unlike Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, they had not tackled the Great Issues of Life, had not noticed the “forces of Destiny striding over the world,” and had not written any “Fate Symphonies.” Beethoven, according to received opinion, had “continued and improved their work.” I would never have dreamt of using Beethoven for background music, but I have to admit that I sometimes did my homework to the accompaniment of a Haydn or Mozart symphony. Schubert was somewhat grudgingly admitted to the company of the big boys—being the acknowledged master of song did not quite compensate for what was generally considered to be a rather patchy record in handling “sonata form.” Schumann was evidently a little more problematical and Mendelssohn, whose music was not heroic, revolutionary or angst-ridden, was not a contender at all. Chopin was a something of an enigma. The Authorities admitted that he was a great composer, but the perception of his greatness was clouded by the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to produce the strings of symphonies and quartets that constituted the major qualifications for a seat on Parnassus. Wagner didn’t do this either but he was excused by some on the ground that he had transformed the symphony into the opera, and by others on the ground that he had transformed the opera into the symphony. In any case, if you examined these monsters carefully you could detect enough expositions, developments and recapitulations to gladden any form-analyst’s heart.

Tchaikovsky's Inspiration According to Walt Disney

Tchaikovsky’s Inspiration According to Walt Disney

What really upset me was the discovery that Tchaikovsky was not a great composer. Some critics attacked his handling of form and others his taste. Frequently they contradicted each other; of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, Herbert Weinstock wrote, “the abstract form is perfect but the music is coarse and tasteless,” whereas Martin Cooper thought the music was fine but the movement was formless. They did agree on one point—there was something seriously wrong with Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and he ought to have stuck to ballet, which the critics evidently believed to be a lesser art form not qualifying the exponent for deification.

Tchaikovsky made things more difficult by referring to the “mountain of padding” that he felt unable to get rid of. Composers shouldn’t make self-deprecating remarks—they only cause pain to their admirers and give free ammunition to critics who might otherwise be stumped for something to say. Critical writing has changed greatly over the past fifty years, mostly for the worse as far as literary standards are concerned, but it has to some extent freed itself from the overwhelming eminence and sanctity of the three B’s.

Part of the Tchaikovsky problem was the a priori need to demonstrate his inferiority in the face of enormous public enthusiasm; hence the subjectivity and inconsistency of much of the writing. As far as I was concerned every note in every one of his scores had an indispensable meaning. I used to sit with my head as far under the lid of the little gramophone as I could get it and my fingers at the ready on the handle, and absorb them all. Sometimes as the dramatic eruptions in the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony died away I had the feeling that Piotr Ilyich was in the room with me, and I was deeply hurt when one of the critics described this movement as the “song of a lovesick dinosaur.” I became so incensed that when it was my turn to speak at my high school Lecture Society I gave a talk entitled “In Defence of Tchaikovsky.” Afterwards I discovered that no one else in the building knew that Tchaikovsky had been attacked. The only result was that I acquired a new nickname. Previously I had been known as Casey, but now it became “Tchaicaseky.”

It appeared that after Brahms the Pantheon was not admitting any new members. In 1949 Bruckner was about as well known as Josquin is now, and Mahler was only a little better off. Some of Richard Strauss’s music was quite popular but the critics regarded him with grave suspicion. Don Juan and Der Rosenkavalier were respectable enough, but there must be something wrong with the boilerplate of the man responsible for Salome, Electra and the Sinfonia Domestica. Debussy, Ravel and Sibelius had some ardent supporters but most people I knew thought that their music was too modern.

The message I received from books, magazines, radio talks and well-meaning friends was that there was a Major League of Great Composers and that it consisted of two divisions with a vague region in between where certain composers were subject to promotion or relegation depending on current fashion and on who happened to be pontificating. This, very roughly speaking is the 1949 version, as perceived in youth and remembered in old age:

First Division: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.

In-betweens: Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner.

Second Division: Haydn, Schumann, Chopin, Dvořak.

Honorable mention: Weber, Verdi, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Borodin.

Condescending reference: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov

Omitted on the grounds of prolixity and incomprehensibility: Bruckner, Mahler.

Also ran: Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, Puccini, Strauss.

Left at the post: Rossini.

Interesting Historical Figures: Palestrina, Monteverdi.

Primitives: Everyone before Palestrina.

Music is a very serious matter so only very serious composers could be in the First Division. Haydn’s tendency to couple the sublime with the ridiculous and let hilarity take over was a serious disadvantage, as was Mozart’s propensity to indulge in spells of rococo prettiness. Beethoven’s bad manners and much-publicized contempt for the aristocracy helped to give him the favored status of a romantic revolutionary in spite of the fact that he had been very happy to continue with the compositional techniques already developed and put to brilliant use by Haydn and Mozart. Popular opinion favored big works, but they shouldn’t be too big. Haydn’s symphonies were too short to be taken really seriously, while Bruckner’s and Mahler’s were too long to be taken at all. Those of Beethoven and Brahms were just right except for the Choral Symphony. There was a significant body of opinion to the effect that the choral part of the Beethoven’s Ninth was a mistake. What was missing from the mountain of verbiage was any definite idea of what the writers meant by “great.” The only thing that seemed clear was that it was extremely difficult to be “great” without being German or Austrian. Some people regarded the Hungarian side of Haydn’s heritage as extremely suspect, while Chopin only made it into the second division by the skin of his teeth and was in constant danger of relegation. This ridiculous state of affairs owed something to Chopin’s strong and very direct appeal to young listeners. Popularity among the young always causes uneasiness among the elder cognoscenti.

To be continued…

*I hope that occasional references to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf School movement and the Anthroposophical Society, will not be an obstacle for anyone who has not heard of Steiner or is deeply suspicious of spiritually based movements.

About the author

Keith Francis

Keith Francis was born in Suffolk, England, in 1933. He was educated at the Crypt School, Gloucester and the University of Cambridge, where he read Natural Science, specializing in Atomic Physics, and served as a cantor in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College. After graduating in 1956 he worked as an engineer for Bristol Aircraft before going back to Cambridge to get his teaching diploma and subsequently returning to the Crypt School to teach physics and mathematics at the college entrance level. He also frequently substituted for an ailing music teacher.

In 1965 he joined the faculty of the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan and stayed there until his retirement in 1996. He was hired to teach physics and math, but he soon took over most of the music program in the high school, and was also responsible for organizing an earth science/ecology program and doing most of the teaching. Later on he taught quite a bit of English and held various administrative positions including High School Administrator and Faculty Chair.

Since his retirement he has published a memoir (The Education of a Waldorf Teacher), several novels, a history of the atomic theory (From Abdera to Copenhagen) and Rudolf Steiner and the Atom. In 2001 he founded the Fifteenth Street Singers and directed the group for the following eight years.

Keith is married, has two sons and four granddaughters, and divides his time between New York City and Southern Berkshire County.

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