x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The classical B-listers

If you've had your fill of Bach and Beethoven, the works of some lesser-known composers may come as a pleasant surprise.

The composer Henri Duparc was at the heart of 19th-century Parisian culture before mental illness overcame him.
The composer Henri Duparc was at the heart of 19th-century Parisian culture before mental illness overcame him.

While the classical repertoire's greatest hits are popular for a reason, even avid music lovers sometimes crave more than Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But with hundreds of years behind it, there is plenty of music in the classical canon that gets little exposure in the wider world yet is still beautiful, interesting and often uplifting in its expressive power. For readers interested in digging a little deeper, here is a small collection of some of the greatest composers you've probably never heard of. While true musicophiles might scoff at the idea that the figures below are genuinely obscure (every one of them, after all, has recordings available on Amazon), their music is only uncommonly performed in Europe and almost never in the Middle East. As even a brief listen to each composer will show, however, the world at large is missing out on something wonderful.

Giving up music after a mental illness at the age of just 37, Duparc still managed to write some of the most beautiful songs in the classical repertoire. Intimate, melancholy and utterly French, there is a strange moonlit atmosphere to his best music, often featuring delicate soprano voices set against a background of rippling piano. Despite his relative lack of fame later on, Duparc was no isolated figure. His work was at the centre of cultural trends in late 19th-century Paris. While it echoes faintly that of his better-known contemporaries Gabriel Fauré and Jules Massenet, some of his best songs feature works by (roughly) contemporary poets Baudelaire, Gautier and Leconte de Lisle set to music. These songs - L'Invitation au Voyage and Extase among them - are the best place to start in discovering Duparc, their cool sensuality attracting a passionate cult following.

Fashion and politics are more to blame than lack of talent for the Norwegian composer Tveitt's obscurity. Writing his best music around the middle of the 20th century, his lush, evocative romanticism was at odds with a musical period where spiky atonality was in vogue. Likewise, Tveitt's obsession with Norwegian folk tradition seemed suspiciously close to nationalist kitsch in a country recovering from brutal Nazi occupation. Lately, however, his beautiful, tuneful music is being rediscovered. With its rippling dreamy tones and use of folk melodies, it contains hints of Bartók, Debussy and Sibelius, while its brilliant evocation of the cool, mysterious beauty of the Norwegian landscape makes it a wonderful escape from summer in the UAE. For a start, try Tveitt's lyrical 100 Folk Tunesfrom Hardanger.

You might be forgiven for expecting music by one of the most important musical theorists of the Baroque era to be dry and rather mathematical. In fact, the French composer Rameau's work is exceedingly varied and charming, by turns elegant and gutsy. Dominating French opera for decades, Rameau was a great musical reformer, insisting his arias be sung with clearly intelligible words and creating much punchy, rhythmic dance music that was worlds away from the staid conventions of his predecessors. Despite a relative lack of posthumous fame (though he has always remained popular in France), Rameau shaped the future of opera, showing the way towards the classicism of Gluck and Mozart. To find out why his music has become popular again, check out his lively, episodic opera ballet, Les Indes Galantes.

Still active today, the half-Russian, half-Tartar Gubaidulina's work bridges the gap between European and eastern traditions with haunting results. Often using traditional Russian and Japanese folk instruments, her work takes in the influence of western modernism, Orthodox church music and Japanese Gagaku to create music that, while minimal and raw at times, is always lyrical and emotive. The mysticism of her work made it unpopular with the Soviet musical establishment, but has since gained her a worldwide reputation. Internationally feted, it is the marginal place most contemporary composers hold in world culture (only a handful are genuinely well known), rather than a lack of individual success that makes her name still largely unfamiliar. Her eerie but passionate writing for strings, including string quartets and violin and viola concertos, is a good place to start exploring her work.

Granted, Weber hardly counts as an obscure composer. Arguably the best-known figure on this list, his brilliant, influential 1821 opera Der Freischutz (The Marksman) has never dropped out of the repertoire. The rest of his work, however, remains criminally underperformed, a surprising omission given his widespread influence. Dead at the age of just 39, Weber was one of the pioneering composers of the romantic era, up there with Beethoven and Schubert in laying out the possibilities of the genre. His interest in creating folk-based, specifically German music was central in showing the way to future trends in Romantic nationalism (Geirr Tveitt, mentioned above, was at the tail end of this movement more than a century later). While little known, this music is utterly delightful, with an expressive power that veers between the bucolic and the forbidding. Beyond his operas, he also created delicate, fiercely difficult piano music whose flowing cascades of notes test the performer but still create an impression of easy elegance. While the superlative Freischutz is still the core of Weber's fame, his operas Euryanthe and Oberon are coming back into performance, their brilliant overtures in particular foreshadowing early Wagner.

It's hard to believe that something as vast and, well, operatic as the opera genre stemmed from the delicate, minimal work of Jacopo Peri. Composing around 1600 in Florence, Peri was at the centre of a group of artists trying to revive the glories of Ancient Greek drama, believed at the time to have been sung. Rejecting the ornate, complex polyphony of his contemporaries, Peri's music went back to basics, setting poetry that retold classical myths to pure, simple melodies. Sung at court festivities accompanied by a small ensemble, these restrained but charming musical dramas barely hinted at the bravura and passion of the genre they came to inspire. But despite a restrained musical and dramatic palette compared with his successors, Peri's music can be irresistible to opera lovers, a delightful chrysalis full of poignancy and elegant melancholy. While his first opera, Dafne, has been lost, several fine recordings exist of Peri's Euridice, which follows Orpheus's journey to the underworld.

The elaborate and exquisite polyphony of Orlande De Lassus exemplifies exactly the sort of thing Peri was keen to move on from. Sometimes called Orlando di Lasso, this Flemish composer's singing voice was reportedly so beautiful that one often repeated story about him tells of how he was kidnapped three times as a boy. After becoming the chorus master at the Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano at the extraordinarily young age of 21, Orlande de Lassus went from strength to strength to become a composer second only to Palestrina in international renown. He's left behind a stunning variety of vocal music, including 60 masses and delightful collections of madrigals. His Trionfo dell'Amore is perhaps the best place to start exploring his work.