Saved From Oblivion

When people debate whether a contemporary work of art is truly great or not, someone is sure to put off the final assessment into the future by appealing to the test of time. “History will judge.”

And so History has rendered a verdict on the music of Joseph Haydn. “You will live on. Wherever great music is being performed, your works will be played.” History surveyed the output of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and pronounced, “This is the product of genius. People will hold up your work as a beacon for generations to come.”

In the course of History, we arrive at January 12, 2019, one day in a seemingly endless parade of days identified by a name and two numbers. The Diderot String Quartet has come to Abbotsford at the invitation of The Valley Concert Society. The society’s board has been sure to mention Haydn and Mozart repeatedly in their advertising in the hopes that people will flock to this concert to hear the music of those whom History has deemed to be “Great.”

But the members of the Diderot Quartet have smuggled into the program another obscure work, wedged between one of Papa Haydn’s “Great” Opus 20’s and the “Great” Dissonance from the pen of Mozart. It is a string quartet whose name consists of a few nondescript numbers by someone named Jadin. This was an act of defiance by the Diderot Quartet.

Was Hyacinthe Jadin “Great?” His parents clearly had high hopes for him when they christened him. Was his String Quartet Op. 2, No. 1 “Great?” History, that wise, impartial, and all-knowing arbiter, has clearly rendered a decisive verdict: “No.” His name has not lived on. In a lifetime of listening to music, of hearing Haydn and Mozart too many times to count, I have reached a pensionable age without ever hearing his name—until this act of defiance by our performers.

Diderot refused to accept the verdict of the “Greatest” Judge of them all, History. The quartet engineered a jailbreak for the unfortunate Jadin from his imprisonment in Oblivion. The caper involved a getaway vehicle which they drove to such disparate places as Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and Washington, D.C. They disguised their accomplice, hoping he would not stand out as different from the “Greats” around him.

From the moment that cellist Paul Dwyer demanded our attention with a single note repeated five times, from Kyle Miller’s introduction of a plaintive rising melody on his viola, to be followed and layered in turn by Adriane Post and Johanna Novom on their violins, the quartet poured the same passion and artistry into Jadin’s nondescript work that they gave to the “Great” works before and after it.

If The Valley Concert Society had not announced the program ahead of time or printed it out for the audience to read, if the Diderot String Quartet had simply showed up and said, “Here’s some music we’d like to play for you. We hope you enjoy it”, and if they had played through the concert without comment, would we have noticed that the evening began and ended with two “Great” works and that there was something inferior between them?

When the Diderot Quartet rescued Jadin from Oblivion, they did not merely lobby for an appeal of the judgment rendered by History in the case of the luckless composer. They questioned the legitimacy of History as an impartial and all-knowing Judge.

History has made so many wise decisions that we have begun to consider It infallible. But have we taken the time to question History’s faulty verdicts?

History almost blew it in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach. The composer was fading from the public eye, eclipsed by his more popular sons, until Mendelssohn intervened with his performance of Bach’s “Great” St. Matthew Passion to change the trajectory of his reputation into a path that has taken him virtually to the pinnacle of musical “Greatness.” History needed some help on that one.

Bach is only one case of many. Countless artists, scholars, musicians, or inventors have, by a tiny twist here or a chance occurrence there, either avoided or succumbed to History’s sentence of Life in Oblivion. Many of History’s mistakes are languishing, waiting for a Diderot Quartet to plot an escape for them.

So here’s to those who never had a Mendelssohn to halt their downhill slide. Here’s to those like Jadin, whose life was cut short by tuberculosis and who was prevented from ever producing that “Great” work of mature genius that could have come twenty or thirty years later. History doesn’t get everything right.

With that, I will, in defiance of History and his vaunted “test of time”, pronounce the Diderot String Quartet “Great.” The virtuosity of their musicianship, the passion with which they shared their love of this art, and the sheer beauty they created on a random evening in Abbotsford leave me with no other verdict to render.

John Wiebe
Valley Concert Society