Sunday, 8 January 2012

2012: A Poor Vintage?

The Classical Music world (well, most of it) loves anniversaries. Births, deaths, centenaries, even half-centenaries (at a push), they'll all do for programmers of concerts, radio stations, record companies, writers, bloggers...

Though not exhaustive, this is a list of some of the composer anniversaries of 2012. The stand-out name is obviously Debussy, by far the greatest composer on the list. The next level down brings a couple of famous names, Cage and Delius, though both are controversial characters in the Classical Music world - you either love 'em or hate 'em. Quite a few of the other names are familiar, to varying degrees - though their status can be argued about till the cows come home. The rest are unfamiliar, even to me (and I like hunting out obscure composers). So, it's not a vintage year for stand-out anniversaries - to say the least. I don't even think Debussy and Delius will get much attention as 150-year anniversaries aren't quite the same as centenaries or bi-centenaries. Cage might do best of all, though he'd have been better dying in 1912 that being born! 

How different 2013 will be! The Classical Music world will go into overdrive, because it will be 200 years since the births of both Wagner and Verdi. I suspect we are going to hear a LOT of opera in 2013. The great Corelli died in 1713 so, hopefully, we'll hear lots from one of my favourite Baroque masters. I also expect a huge fuss over Britten's centenary but much less (sadly) over Lutoslawski and Alkan. 

OK, here's the list. How many names do you recognise?

Jacques Ibert  (d.1962)
Fritz Kreisler  (d.1962)
John Ireland (d.1962)
Jean Françaix  (b.1912)
Conlon Nancarrow (b. 1912)
John Cage (b.1912)
Vadim Salmanov (b.1912)
Arthur Berger (b.1912)
Igor Markevitch (b.1912)
Yuri Levitin (b.1912)
Daniel Jones  (b.1912)
Jan Gall (d.1912)
Jules Massenet (d.1912)
Claude Debussy (b.1862)
Sigismond Thalberg (b.1812)
William Wallace (b.1812)
Julius Rietz (b.1812)
Joseph Schuster (d.1812)
Francesco Geminiani (d.1762)
John Stanley (b.1712)
Giovanni Gabrieli (d.1612)
Adrian Willaert (d.1562)

The thing about lists like this is that they make me want to explore some of the unfamiliar names. What does John Stanley's music sound like? Are those Soviet-era composers any good? Who's Julius Rietz? Why have I never heard anything by Dussek? Johann Rufinatscha???

Obviously being something of an obsessive blogger, I've linked each composer's name to a piece of music on YouTube should you wish to check any of them out for yourself.

I've been checking out John Stanley, the virtually blind organist-composer. Handel, we are told, used to make regular trips to his church to hear him play. When you hear some of his music you can probably guess why. If you clicked on the link from his name above to the Concerto for Strings in G major, Op.2 No.3 you'll have heard  a concerto grosso in the manner of Handel. Am I right in assuming you were as surprised as me at just how good it is?  The opening Adagio has an eloquent melody, the following fugue is a delight from start to finish, the third movement Andante begins like an accompanied duet for two violins with some sumptuous suspensions to follow, and the closing Allegro is dashing and tuneful. Handel surely would have been proud to have written it himself. One piece doesn't make a great composer though, so I'll have to check out more.

I'm reassured by my first attempt to do so because his Organ Voluntary in D minorOp.5 No.8 is an absolute corker with a first movement that begins with music that sounds rather like Handel's Polyphemus striding on stage and which is contrasted with fast flute-like writing. This is followed by an Adagio where the melody is played out against a steady tread of chords and where there are attractive dissonances and pleasing imitative touches. Finally, there's another delightful Handelian fugue that, like so much of the work, sounds almost orchestral in its use of organ colour.

I will keep my ears alert for more John Stanley. We English seem to keep hiding our musical lights under a bushel. Now just why is he virtually unknown again?

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