25 February 2015

One-Work Composers

The phenomenon of the One-Work Composer seems be dying out.  Forty, thirty, maybe twenty-five years ago most music-lovers could have easily listed a half-dozen composers whose names were familiar only through a single work.  Pachelbel was synonymous with the Canon, Boccherini with the Minuet, Dukas with Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bax with Tintagel, Sinding with Rustle of Spring, MacDowell with To A Wild Rose, and many more.  I recall from my student days taking part in a double-bill of operas – The Telephone and Savitri – for which the programme booklet (authored by a leading musicologist of the time) suggested that the audience was being shown that two composers were being revealed as writing more than just the one work by which everyone knew them then (Menotti Amahl and the Night Visitors and Holst The Planets).  It was a post-graduate student colleague researching into the music of E J Moeran who, goaded by a silly comment from me about the G minor Symphony (the first movement of which I absolutely adore), surprised me by rattling off a whole catalogue of other compositions from this much-underrated English composer of the early 20th century, and when I stumbled across an old Supraphon LP of Trionfo di Afrodite in a second-hand record-shop in the English midlands back in the late 1970s I realised, for the first time, that Carl Orff had composed something other than Carmina Burana (although even today most music-lovers only know his work in music education beyond that astonishingly popular choral extravaganza).  Max Bruch used to rile against the fact that everyone knew him only for his G minor Violin Concerto, while Percy Grainger was appalled at the popularity of his Country Gardens and would tell anyone who asked that the piece reminded him of cow pats and compost heaps.

The demise of the One-Work Composer seems to have begun with the tercentenary of J S Bach in 1985.  Never known himself as a One-Work Composer, Bach nevertheless has long suffered from a widespread ignorance of the totality of his output.  (Only a few years ago I was doing a presentation to students in Hong Kong and after hearing several of them perform one of the 48 asked them to list other works by Bach; they ummed and ahhed for a while before coming up with “another Prelude and Fugue” and “Toccata and Fugue”, although details of tonality were not known.)  Coming just two years after the first commercial CDs had appeared on the market, enterprising recording companies took advantage of the handy size of the medium, its extended playing time, the ease and relative inexpensiveness of its production, its dazzling aural qualities which sometimes encouraged listeners to focus more on the sound than the music itself and, perhaps most significantly, the opportunities its packaging gave for extended written support materials, to go for comprehensivity.  Quite literally they unearthed everything they could find that Bach had - or may have – written, and committed it all to disc.  That seemed to open the floodgates, and the culture of exhaustive comprehensivity was born.  We now have more CDs bearing the motto “The Complete Works of…” than one would have thought possible, while the one or two tiny gaps which the CDs do not cover have been plugged by the likes of tiny Timmy Tots thumping tunes to tinny sounds (I’ve run out of teasing alliterative Ts) on YouTube.  Bad sound, bad performances, non-existent background information, inane comments from pig-ignorant listeners, but at least bringing into the public arena music which nobody would otherwise have heard.
So today even the most peripheral music-lover will know that Pachelbel was a prolific writer of chorale preludes, Boccherini wrote some lovely chamber works as well as a cello concerto or two, Dukas produced La Peri and MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches contain a lot more charming pieces beyond the opening To a Wild Rose.  On top of that music scholarship has denied some composers their One-Work status; luckily we all now know Albinoni’s numerous concertos since the Adagio by which his name was uniquely preserved for decades turns out not to have been by him at all. 

Yet there remain several composers whose reputations cannot seem to break through the One-Work barrier.  When we see that Litolff’s Scherzo comes from a work listed as his Op.103 we might reasonably expect that, by now, several dozen of his works would, at the very least, have got an airing on YouTube (although that can be a curse; follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojcu-g5soPY for a ghastly experience seemingly filmed on a cheap webcam in an adolescent’s bedroom - thank God he remembered to put his trousers on before switching on the camera).  On top of that, a truncated work-list in Grove suggests opus numbers for Litolff reach as high as Op.106 and that among his published compositions are no less than 12 operas, five piano concertos and “117 characteristic pieces” for piano solo.  Where are they?  I can find just two of the four listed Concert Overtures on YouTube (notably Maximilian Robespierre, Op.55, and Chant des Belges, Op.101, the latter of which appears as a bad regurgitation of an existing recording and an unexplained black-and-white photograph yet no acknowledgment about the origins of the sounds we hear - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6p3dwwR494w.  In proper recorded sound, in coherent performances and supported by generous and informative documentation, Hyperion have unearthed the remaining extant piano concertos (CDA67210 and CDA66889), but that’s it.  Litolff remains, firmly, a One-Work Composer.

As does Hamish MacCunn.  A fantastic new disc of organ music recorded on the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and played with great verve by John Kitchen, boasts music by MacCunn, and this got me very excited.  Having fallen in love with MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood (his Op.3 written when he was just 19) from a marvellous HMV LP called “Music of the Four Countries”, I have many times tried to delve deeper into MacCunn’s output, but have largely drawn a blank. Hyperion have, as ever, done more than most by recording a couple of his other pieces and some extracts from his opera Jeanie Deans, but on YouTube you find just a profusion of Land of the Mountain and the Flood (mostly stolen from the existing commercial recordings), some of which include the deeply perceptive critical comments of your average YouTube reader (usually as grammatically conscious as a garden slug) including this dazzling bit of insight from a certain James Ginn; “I liked the part where the cymbals woke me up” or this hugely relevant comparison from Zrak23 “part of the song reminds me of Batman 1989 soundtrack?” (Nice one, Zrak23; after that intellectual effort you can go back to snorting your cocaine now.) MacCunn was by no means as prolific as Litolff, the worklist on Grove showing nothing higher than an Op.30, but surely something should have emerged to rival this one work’s popularity.  A piano recital on Divine Arts by Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan (dda25003) finds a few piano dances, and there is a setting of “O Mistress Mine” on an obscure CD on the Atma label, but that’s it. Kitchen’s organ piece, far from being a new discovery of a hitherto unknown work by MacCunn, turns out to be a masterly transcription by Jeremy Cull of - yes you’ve guessed it - Land of the Mountain and the Flood.


So we are left with the inescapable conclusion that, despite all the efforts to release into the public domain recordings of every note written by every composer, some composers must forever languish under the heading of One-Work Composers.  And, as that category continues to shrink, it lends a certain distinction to those, like Litolff and MacCunn, who remain known to the world through one dazzling and, it would seem, unrepeatable moment of creative genius.




  1. Dear Dr Marc,

    Great to see you are back on line !

    Your article reminded me of the (probably apocryphal) remark attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham (and doubtless to others too) that “Bach really only wrote two works: a slow one and a fast one, and if you listen carefully you will hear that the fast one is just the slow one speeded up”.

    In literature, you do indeed get one-work writers such as J D Salinger or Harper Lee. Strictly they are one-published-novel-writers, and they may have produced a copious output of non-published non-novels, such as essays, letters or other writings. In music, it is hard to think how someone could write a major work without having learned their trade through vast numbers of earlier minor works. If we count small works, and the Greensleeves legend is to be believed, perhaps Henry VIII would literally be a one-work composer. But in general, we must be saying that a one-work composer is a composer who has one work that is far more widely known than the rest of their output.

    Your article gives two possibilities, and I would raise that to two-and-a-half:
    1) Some composers were inspired to write one piece whose quality is way ahead of all the rest of their output, and this is all that deserves to be remembered, or
    2) Public attention has focused on one piece and ignored others of equal quality by the same composer, for some largely random reason.
    The “and a half” possibility is the tragic case of the silver swan: composers such as Juliusz Zarebski who fell ill and died just as he seemed to be finding his voice. After a decade of increasingly mature piano works, his last work was a single outstanding piano quntet.

    Your observations of Litolff and McCann point towards the first possibility, while the case of Bruch might be the second. But I suppose until someone takes the time to unearth, learn and record more of these obscure works, we will never really know. I was delighted when recordings came out of C V Stanford’s symphonies, and his cello concerto on Naxos and Hyperion a few years ago, but I cant find anyone else with much enthusiasm for them. I’m equally keen when recordings of Miaskovsky’s sometimes rather “wacky” symphonies come out, but he does not seem to be growing in popularity - it is hard work getting anyone that even wants to play through his chamber music.

    As an optimist, I lean towards the second explanation for public popularity of music. I think that most people need to hear a piece several times before it grabs them and, consequently, works that are more played are going to be more heard, and therefore more popular. This creates a snowball effect. A widely repeated public event, or a TV series or film will feature a work, and its popularity will mushroom. Obvious examples are the first few bars of Also Spracht Zarathustra, the “Rach 3” for a while after the film Shine, or his 2nd piano concerto after Close Encounters. For me, long ago, the last movement of Beethoven’s first symphony was introduced via a very odd children’s TV programme in the 1970’s about an egg called Ludvig.

    Anyway, if true, this snowball theory is good news, because it suggests that the popular repertoire is just an almost-random selection from an equally rich sea of less well-known works. So, just like Amazon points out, if you like Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, you might enjoy Coleridge-Taylor’s late violin concerto. And if you like Murrill in E, you may want to try his second cello concerto.

    Yours Dr Peter.

    1. Great to hear from you again.
      In the interests of accuracy;
      1. Harper Lee's second published novel - "Go Set A Watchman" - is being publihsed amidst much controversy.
      2. King Henry VIII did not compose Greensleeves.
      3. Whatever Amazon.com might say in its inane computer-generated preferences, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast is only part of a trilogy which is rather more relevant to those who like choral music than any of his many purely instrumental works.Just because Amazon don't have a copy in their warehouse does not mean to say that it does not exist. (Search out A Tale of Old Japan for Coleridge Taylor choral music at its most exotic.)
      4. To be a one-work composer, that work needs to be widely known and, frankly, I don't think Juliusz Zarebski's Quintet falls into that category nor, indeed, the music of Herbert Murrill whose organ Carillon is the only work by which organists know him, while his Evening Service in E is the only work by which cathedral choirs know him, and who is pretty well unknown by just about everybody else!.

  2. Wow, you must have had a bad day !

    Another one-work composer has just come to mind: Hely-Hutchison and his Carol Symphony.
    A very Merry Christmas to you Dr Marc.

    Dr Peter

  3. How about Richard Addinsell and his so called "Warsaw Concerto".
    Reasonably popular, generally nothing else by him known at all.