Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A to Z: Isasi

Time for an experiment, as promised yesterday: a work that I have never heard before, by a composer I'd never heard of until yesterday. The composer? Andres Isasi. Who is he? Well, here is the biographical information on Isasi from Wikipedia. As of this writing, this is all that is written on Wikipedia about this composer:

Andrés Isasi Linares (Bilbao 1890-1940) was a Basque composer.[1] He studied with Humperdinck in Germany and was better known there than in Spain.[2] He was made a citizen of honour of Getxo district of Greater Bilbao.

That's it. He lived fifty years and studied with Engelbert Humperdinck (who is now pretty much known for one work, his opera Hansel und Gretel), and after doing further research, I found the following fleshed out information on Isasi:

Andrés Isasi y Linares (known as Andrés Isasi) was born in Bilbao on 28 October 1890. Towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century he went to study with that ardent Wagnerian, Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin. He returned to Bilbao in 1914 to a musical scene obsessed with song and the musical theatre. He stuck doggedly with romantic orchestral music and the style he had evolved while in Germany. The public were not supportive. Although his Second Symphony was performed throughout Spain during the period 1915-19, he found it increasingly difficult for his music to makes headway. Like Bax and Vaughan Williams he was not dependent on music to make a living. When his orchestral works found a lukewarm or cold reception he moved to the family home in Algorta where, in addition to acting as a Maecenas to various Basque artists, he continued to write orchestral works that found more success abroad than in Spain. His Second Symphony did well in Budapest in 1931. In total there are two symphonies, three suites, various tone poems, a piano concerto, many songs, choral items and piano solos. He died at Algorta, without the consolation of any musical revival, on 6 April 1940.

So he was basically like a lot of second-tier composers of that era: mildly prolific, and not much remembered today, outside of a few recordings. Composers like Isasi are really well-served by recording labels like Naxos, which put out cheaply-priced CDs by the armload; the 'premium' labels aren't going to put a lot of effort into having the great orchestras of the world record repertoire like this. I doubt very much if Isasi is going to turn up on any program by the Berlin Philharmonic any time soon.

Composers like Isasi represent a long-standing difficulty in classical music. Simply put, there's been more music written than can really be expected to be heard as much as it deserves to. Many, many composers languish in obscurity, their works either completely forgotten or only dusted off occasionally. That's a shame, but it's just the way things are. And it's not just in music; there is literature that doesn't deserve to disappear from bookshelves forever except for a few libraries where it only gets read by scholars who then lament its obscurity.

The 'test of time' can be a bit on the capricious side. When you dig into the history of classical music, you quickly learn this. The best example is Johann Sebastian Bach, who may well be the Isaac Newton of music, so towering was his genius and so long a shadow does he cast. But the thing is: Bach died in 1750 [edit -- error fixed], and then his music went mostly unperformed and unknown until 1830 or so, eighty years later, when Felix Mendelssohn championed a Bach revival. Eighty years, during which Bach was known to musicians but not to the main public. Eighty years have not yet passed since the death of Andres Isasi.

None of this is to argue that Isasi is a neglected genius, but rather just to note that the cream does not rise inexporably to the top. Sometimes it languishes, and after enough time has passed, the 'top' has calcified somewhat, which means that there's just no more room for more cream. This is why many works which people 'in the know' agree are works of true greatness never quite find their way into the standard repertoire. And it's also why it can be frustrating to thumb through the programs of major orchestras and see yet more performances of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and the Wagner overtures and so on. Try some music you've never heard before! You never know what you'll hear.

As for the work in question today, the Symphony No. 2 by Andres Isasi, it's a perfectly agreeable work. There's nothing earth-shaking here, and in all honesty, there's nothing about it to mark its composer's land of origin. There's nothing nationalistic here at all; this is just a nicely solid symphony in the Germanic tradition. The most interesting movement, for me, is the Scherzo, which starts with a fascinating segment for pizzicato (plucked) strings. There's really nothing much 'new' here...but I'm glad I'm hearing it, nonetheless.

Here's the symphony.

Tomorrow: Back to Czechoslovakia!


David said...

A marvelous symphony! A reviewer on Amazon labels Isasi "generic", citing similarities with Richard Straus (I also heard a bit of Mahler-like melody in the clarinet in the first movement), but then I can also hear bits of Mozart and Haydn in early Beethoven. It was brand new music to me, which I don't get to hear very often, and it tickled the fancy of my ear. For that, I thank you.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Yeah, I think that's my main problem with it. It's easy to hear a lot of other voices in the work -- so much so that it's hard to hear Isasi himself in the work. Still, for what it is, it's not a bad piece of music, by any means at all! Thanks for dropping by, as ever!

J.L. Campbell said...

Haven't come across Isasi before. Thanks for the intro.