"Composer's Datebook," a daily feature on classical radio station KCSC-FM, ends each broadcast with a reminder that all music was once new.
Compositions that are accepted today as unqualified masterworks weren't always considered as such. To underscore the full impact of such a statement, one need only read a few passages from Nicolas Slonimsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective," first published in 1953.
The book is a collection of reviews written following the premieres of works by well-known composers, from Beethoven and Brahms to Verdi and Varese. As the book's title suggests, the comments range from mildly negative to venomous.
The Oklahoma City Philharmonic continues its 2002-03 classics season this week with a program subtitled "A Hero's Life." The concert combines two late 19th century works that weren't so kindly received following their premieres.
Music director Joel Levine has programmed Richard Strauss' symphonic poem "Ein Heldenleben" and Tchaikovsky's "Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra." Soloist in the latter will be Itzhak Perlman. The Israeli-born violinist turned down a request for an interview.
"Ein Heldenleben," which translates as "A Hero's Life," is a musical autobiography of Strauss. Critics of the late 19th century deplored self-glorification and generally had harsh words to say about this work.
Writing in New York's Musical Courier, Otto Floersheim called Strauss' work "revolutionary in every sense of the word. The climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter 'The Hero's Battlefield.' The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy."
Arthur Bird of Boston's Musical Record was equally caustic: "For every second of really beautiful music, there are minutes which often seem hours of the most unheard-of discord, which some people call 'clever counterpoint.' But what is the use of counterpoint when, if played, one imagines that four different orchestras are playing at the same time four different tunes in four different keys and measures? A veritable nightmare!"
An unnamed critic writing for the Boston Herald said that "at the end of the forty minutes exacted by the performance of Richard Strauss' latest tone poem, one is inclined to pull himself together and be thankful to the friend who will assure him of his continued sanity."
Despite such remarks, "Ein Heldenleben" became a repertory classic whose popularity remains undimmed today.
Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is perhaps even more beloved, yet it, too, suffered initially at the hands of the critics.
Eduard Hanslick, writing in Vienna's Neue Freie Presse, called the Russian composer "not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste.
"Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a while it moves soberly, musically, and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains upper hand and asserts itself to the end of the first movement.