Musical anniversaries: composers and music

Composer Anniversaries

Composer-related dates interest me

This bit of pointless research began as an appendix to my review of Supertonic’s concert on Sunday 20 May in the Pipitea Marae. It was prompted in that review by the death in 1918 of Lili Boulanger, one of whose songs was performed there.

In an appendix to that review I mentioned the obvious ones: Debussy’s death 100 years ago, Bernstein’s birth 100 years ago, Gounod’s birth 200 years ago, Rossini’s death 150 years ago.

I was half aware of several other composers who were born or died in these years. There’s Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff and also the composer of Mephistophele, which was produced in 1868), and Hubert Parry, both of whom died in 1918.

Then I came upon a contribution to the topic from a kindred spirit who writes a column in the French Opéra Magazine, Renaud Machart. He wrote about Lili Boulanger, naturally, and he also noted Charles Lecocq (1832-1918) who was Offenbach’s successor, even his rival towards the end of his career in the post Franco-Prussian war period (1870 – 1880). His best known pieces were La fille de Madame Angot and Le petit Duc.

More and more obscure
And very tongue-in-cheek, Machart also pointed to one Procida Bucalossi (1832-1918), a British/Italian composer of light music; with that background, naturally, he wrote a successful operetta for London in neither language, entitled Les Manteaux Noirs (The Black Cloaks).

Looking back to 1868, as well as Rossini’s death, Swedish composer Berwald died. Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn (Overture: Land of the Mountain and the Flood) and English composer Granville Bantock were born. And in 1668 both François Couperin and interesting English composer John Eccles, were born, 250 years ago.

Gottfried von Einem was born the same year as Bernstein. Austrian, his best-known operas were Dantons Tod and Der Besuch der alten Dame, based on a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a biting satire dealing with what a lot of money will do to overcome all moral scruples. I stumbled on a performance in Vienna around 1990; not rich in tunes but musically gripping and damn good theatre.

And now I’m prompted to add another curiosity who has made this year propitious.

Two are the result of a picking up a CD in Sydney a year or so ago, from the splendid record shop, Fish, which used to be in the Queen Victoria Building. A release by a rather recondite French recording company, Gaieté Lyrique, which specialised in the recording of opéra-comique and opérette (which experts take pains to distinguish).

Nicolas Isouard
The CD I picked up contained two short pieces, one by Nicolas Isouard, the other by Ferdinand Poise. Isouard, died in 1818 (Poise was born in 1828). Isouard was born, probably in 1775, in Malta of part French descent, studied in Paris till the Revolution when he returned to Malta. Later, he studied in Palermo and Naples, ostensibly to pursue a banking career but he continued piano studies and counterpoint, and opera composition. His first opera, a drama giocoso, was produced in Florence in 1794.

After returning to Malta he composed four more operas, was favoured by Napoléon when the French occupied Malta from 1798 to 1800. But because he had become a conspicuous Francophile, a problematic attitude after Napoléon was ousted, caution suggested he get out of Malta and he went to Paris where he called himself Nicolo de Malte. There he became a successful composer of some 40 operettas and opéras-comiques, achieving such fame as to be celebrated among the busts that grace the façades of both the Opéra Garnier and the Opéra-Comique in Paris.

And now I see in both the UK opera magazines, Opera and Opera Now, that his home town, Valetta in Malta is reviving his fame with a production of his Cendrillon (which Rossini played round with a few years later as La cenerentola; it was Massenet who wrote the next French version of Cendrillon at the end of the century).

Isouard was among the till recently, totally forgotten composers who flourished around the Revolution between the death of Rameau and the arrival of reasonably well known composers Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and so on.

French composers of the Revolution
Opera composers earlier in that inter-regnum – 20 years or so on either side of the Revolution – were Philidor, Gossec, Grétry, Dalayrac, Lesueur, Méhul, Kreutzer, all of whom are now being explored and performed in an upsurge of interest by the French in their many neglected composers. The thrust to discover is substantially driven by a highly enterprising French, Venice-domiciled foundation, Palazzetto Bru Zane – centre de musique romantique française. They are funding the production of many neglected operas, both by totally obscure composers but also by famous composers known by only one or two operas, like Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Massenet, Delibes …

Not composers – their works
Apart from composer anniversaries, 2018 is also the sesquicentenary of the premiere of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in the Court Theatre, Munich, 1868. Brahms’s German Requiem was performed that year too. There were other significant opera premieres in 1868, perhaps considered by some to inhabit the second rank: Boito’s Mefistofele, Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, Smetana’s Dalibor, La périchole by Offenbach.

Just 100 years ago, as the First World War was ending, Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was premiered in Budapest, and Puccini’s Trilogy (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) premiered in New York.

The only important composers active around 1818 were Beethoven, Weber and Rossini; and Cherubini, whom Beethoven thought the greatest composer (after himself, implicitly), after Haydn had died and Schubert hadn’t quite achieved fame . It was a very unproductive period for Beethoven, though he was probably at work on the Hammerklavier sonata. And Rossini was specialising that year in operas that would earn the titles ‘obscure’ or ‘neglected’, though all have of course been revived in recent years. Mosè in Egitto, Adina or Il califfo di Bagdad (though not performed till 1826), and Ricciardo e Zoraide.



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