Judging conservative composers

This morning, for a project with an orchestra, I’m listening to the Sibelius Fourth Symphony (in a moving performance by the Slovak Philharmonic, conducted by Adrian Leaper, streamed from the Naxos website). I find it riveting. And I remember having the same experience a year or so ago with the Sibelius Fifth, which I think I also blogged about.

But now I think of how despised Sibelius used to be, among many serious musicians and, above all, by anyone who took new music seriously. Virgil Thomson, for instance, in a review of the Second Symphony that he wrote in 1940, said the piece was “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description. I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I’ve never met one among educated professional musicians. I realize also that this work has a kind of popular power unusual in symphonic literature. Even Wagner scarcely goes over so big on the radio. That populace-pleasing power is not unlike the power of a Hollywood class-A picture. Sibelius is in no sense a naif; he is merely provincial.”

George Bernard Shaw, my other favorite critic, made similar mistakes about Brahms. Both critics went to bat for the advanced new music of their time (Thomson also wrote it), which in Shaw’s case was Wagner. And what their evident mistakes about Sibelius and Brahms might show is that — while we laugh at a lot at critics who can’t understand advanced new music — critics who can’t understand the conservatives of their time can be equally absurd. Who are we misunderstanding now?

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