Third ear

Naming the tunes, tuning the names

The frieze near the ceiling at Harvard’s Paine Concert Hall is etched with names of great composers.
The frieze near the ceiling at Harvard’s Paine Concert Hall is etched with names of great composers.


They look rather stately, there in the frieze of Harvard’s Paine Concert Hall - the names of the great composers, standing sentry above the stage, reminding all who pass below of musical values once deemed timeless.

Composer names are encountered more often than one might think in public spaces around town - not as plaques testifying to anything in particular but more likely as talismans looming silently. At the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building on St. Botolph Street, they hold forth from above the windows, as if manning the ramparts of a castle. In Symphony Hall, one name - BEETHOVEN - graces the top of the proscenium, as if distilling music’s grand past to its purest essence. The most expansive and perhaps democratic of the composer friezes in Boston adorns the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, where almost 90 names have been etched into the granite, and, as we’ll return to shortly, a few more may one day join.


Is there any other art form that marks - consecrates, entombs? - its public spaces in this way? What does it mean to have a canon not just symbolically but literally inscribed in the walls of the places we hear music? Who chose the names in each case, and what were the criteria?

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These were a few questions on my mind recently when I dropped by Paine Hall, which, after last year’s music building renovation, will reopen with a performance by the Portland Quartet on Feb. 24 featuring a work by John Knowles Paine, founder of Harvard’s music department. Paine’s music is rarely encountered these days, yet it is Paine’s core musical outlook that is most likely preserved, we are told, in the hall’s composer frieze. (He died at 67, eight years before the building opened in 1914.)

Over the years, among the many eyes drawn to this frieze were those of Reinhold Brinkmann, the distinguished German musicologist who taught at Harvard for almost two decades. His gaze was not solemn but inquisitive, and after he retired, Brinkmann researched and wrote, purely for pleasure, a wise and wry little book about the construction of Paine Hall and its American paean to European composers. Completed with help from the music department’s Lesley Bannatyne, it turned out to be his last piece of writing before his death, in 2010.

The names in Paine Hall, 26 of them stretching over three walls, had always fascinated Brinkmann - their order and placement in the hall, and especially who was in or out (no Dvorak, no Mussorgsky, no Rossini, no Americans, no Brits, no women, no one from the Renaissance on the front wall - and really, Tartini?) It was a conservative, heavily Germanic canon, with its most recently deceased composer the tradition-minded Cesar Franck. Brinkmann found no clear evidence of exactly who chose the names, but he suspects that Franck was on some level a stand-in for Paine.

The Hatch Shell names by contrast have a known history. The decision of which names to chisel into the granite of the new shell, which opened in 1940, fell to Arthur Fiedler and Serge Koussevitzky, who put 97 composers on a ballot and accepted rankings from some 67 local musicians, music writers, and concertgoers as to who was the greatest. A press report from the time explained that “in a commendable effort to avoid any more controversy than necessary, no living composers were included.’’ There was apparently unanimous consensus on Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, and Wagner. But look deeper in the list for some surprises. All but two of the ballots cast included Edward MacDowell, a name obscure to most concertgoers today.


Also on the Hatch Shell are the less immortally beloved names AUBER, DELIBES, GRETRY, and MASON - coming no time soon to a BSO program near you. As befits the populist aura of the amphitheater, its frieze casts a less austere glare (note its SULLIVAN and SOUSA inclusions) than Paine Hall’s. And the presence of forgotten composers can be both an enticement to explore their music and a reminder of the porousness of canons themselves, despite their claims to permanence and universality. (In this spirit, my favorite composer row at the Hatch Shell reads: MOZART. TCHAIKOVSKY. BIZET. CHADWICK.)

Still, incredible exclusions remain, even at the shell. While fans of Henry Kimball Hadley have no reason to worry, you find only one woman in the entire group - Amy Beach, added in 2000 - and only one living composer - John Williams, added in 1993.

Over the years, enough groups have lobbied the Department of Conservation and Recreation to add more names that the DCR assembled a committee of local music experts in 2010 to address the gaps. It generated dozens more names and narrowed them down to a top 10: Copland, Ellington, Bernstein, Ives, Joplin, Schoenberg, Bartok, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, and Leroy Anderson. A DCR spokeswoman said last week that the project has stalled due to the fiscal climate.

The list is an eclectic group in keeping with the shell’s history and purpose, and no one could argue against including figures like Copland and Ellington. It must be said, though, that when no living composers except Williams - the equivalent of a recess appointment - are permitted a spot even within this most inclusive of friezes, it sends a clear message about the place of contemporary music. The composer frieze as a memorial genre, it turns out, is a not-too-distant relative of the tombstone.

It’s nice on these occasions to remember that before great composers were dead, they were living. Not as individuals but as a musical species. Through the 18th century it was uncommon to have music from the distant past on any orchestral program, and close analyses of works performed in cities like Leipzig suggest it was not until the middle decades of the 19th century that the balance began shifting toward the music of the dead. It was also during these decades that Beethoven emerged at the top of the pantheon. Any art becoming a surrogate religion needed its deity in chief.


Returning to the Paine Hall frieze last week, I couldn’t help but notice something Brinkmann doesn’t mention in his booklet: The entire back wall is blank. Perhaps this was an aesthetic choice, or perhaps it reflects a kind of gratuitous narrowing by the Harvard designers, winnowing the chosen names to a group even smaller than necessary. Or on a more hopeful note, we might think of the blank wall, not unlike the vast space around Beethoven’s name in Symphony Hall, as an invitation to project one’s own personal canons, reclamation projects, unsung heroes.

The details of our best-of lists seem anyway to say as much about us as they do about music’s past. And isn’t the impulse to inscribe composer names in the first place some kind of reaction against music’s very incorporeality, the fact that it cannot be pinned down on any wall? Perhaps it’s only right to give the last word here to Brinkmann, who on this point, felicitously quotes Adorno: “Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at