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.



An intriguing anniversary concert from Jonathan Berkahn and Heather Easting at St Andrew’s

1816 on the piano
Jonathan Berkahn and Heather Easting solo and duet piano

Music by Clementi, John Field, Weber, Schubert, Diabelli and Beethoven

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 July, 12:15 pm

For me, there is a rather compulsive fascination with musical and other anniversaries, and with the fitting of events, of births and deaths, into a time-frame. Here I’d met a kindred spirit who introduced the programme by referring to some of the major events of around two hundred years ago. They had mainly to do with war – the Napoleonic Wars and most closely, the Battle of Waterloo, which took place six months before the year in question. The Congress of Vienna too, had run from the end of 1814 to the June in which Waterloo had taken place. The Congress was intended to and largely did dismantle everything that Napoleon had achieved, and effectively restored absolute monarchy wherever it had prevailed before. It was in the city where the waltz was becoming a craze and where someone responded to an enquiry how the Congress was faring, saying “il ne marche pas, il danse” (a play upon the dual senses of ‘marcher’, being both, literally, to march and to come along or to progress.

Jonathan Berkahn’s contribution to Congress lore was to remark that it experienced much but learned nothing, a variant on ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ (how many egregious examples could we find today!).

There were one or two names we’d heard of, like Schubert and Beethoven, and others like Weber (no not Webern) known to the scholars, and others who might have become more famous if their names had started with B or S.

Clementi, for example, opened and closed the show. Those who’d learned the piano for a couple of years knew his name on account of nice if somewhat unmemorable pieces, probably called sonatinas, that were regarded half a century ago as good for children. There were flashy bits that were not very hard but could, in the right hands, sound impressive; but Jonathan played a piece from a huge collection of exercises called Gradus ad Parnassum (Latin: ’steps to the home of the Muses’); No 18, comprising an Introduction and a Fugal allegro, first a series of arresting flourishes and then a not very fugal but confident and courtly number. He captured the spirit, serious and a little tongue-in-cheek.

The final piece, also by Clementi, was a Waltz in C, Op 38 No 9 which Berkahn characterized learnedly as cheeky and cheezy; indeed it gave one renewed respect for the composer as someone who could be flippant and playful, and excellent at writing ideal pieces to end concerts with.

One of Clementi’s students was Irishman John Field, famous for inventing the Nocturne, one of which Berkahn played, the second, in C minor: rolling arpeggios and a melody that might indeed have had a trace of the blarney.

The arrival on stage of Heather Easting to take her cosy place at the bass end of the piano, provided the occasion for some pertinent and amusing musico-political asides. Weber was not one of Clementi’s pupils but was nevertheless a brilliant pianist who wrote a lot of often showy music for his instrument (his most famous piano piece today might well be Invitation to the Dance which we know almost solely through Berlioz’s orchestration). His Rondo from a set of pieces for piano-four-hands, Op 60, was lively and entertaining, for both the players (evidently) and the audience.

Jonathan assumed in his audience a depth of musicological erudition when he said that Diabelli had written more than just the tune that Beethoven set to a massive and famous set of variations in his latter years. He was also a music publisher and a decent pianist who, remarked Jonathan, wrote music for four hands on an industrial scale, and he referred to blood and thunder as elements of his armory which we could discern in the spirited playing by both keyboardists, and which we could agree was all in good fun.

Schubert and Beethoven
Then came the composer who in 1816 was, i) only 19, and ii) probably considered during most of his life, inferior to all those whom we had already heard: Schubert. The piece Berkahn played (by himself now) was an Adagio from what seems to be a musicological conundrum; D 459 was earlier thought to be perhaps a five-movement sonata, but its third movement (this one), together with movements 4 and 5, was later amputated and then called ‘Three Piano Pieces’, D 459A. That left the first two movements as a putative two-movement sonata in E.

It was here that Berkahn engrossed his audience with an autobiographical snippet about a 17-year-old, grade 7 level piano player who discovered volumes of Schubert’s sonatas in the Wellington Public Library (probably still there: have a look), which included this. It was an immediate epiphany, a Road to Damascus, leaving the pianist with a permanent affliction with which to titillate his listeners ever after.

As with most of Schubert, every exposure is a fresh, profoundly musical discovery, and Jonathan’s playing supported his story.

It might be hard to insist that was on a par with the Beethoven sonata that followed and one would not try. This was one of the four that form a sort of inter-regnum between the ‘Middle’ and ‘Late’ periods, between the Appassionata and Op 101. In fact, he could have played the sonata Op 101 here as it was actually written in 1816, but Berkahn clearly wanted to make a case for the three or four somewhat wayward sonatas, Opp 78, 79, 81a and 90; it was the last, Op 90, in E that he played, and in the context of the other more or less contemporary music played, perhaps we listened through altered ears and musical associations. It also allowed Berkahn to quote Beethoven’s perhaps apocryphal remark that its two movements represented first, a battle between head and heart and second, a love-song between the two. It was a delightful image which the music seemed to be in accord with.

The entire programme delivered a liveliness and spirit of delight, perhaps not always note perfect but which had the far greater virtue, on the part of both pianists, of being contagiously persuasive and fun.

If you were to get the impression that I’d rather enjoyed myself, in both the head and the heart, throughout the concert, I would have to plead guilty.




Mostly musical anniversaries of 2012

Earlier in the year we threatened to publish a list of significant musical anniversaries that deserved to be celebrated in 2012. It’s not too late.

This has obviously been a work in progress, constantly being added to, and it will never be exhaustive; we would welcome being told of omissions or corrections from others whose minds are bent in a similar way.

In addition to musical references are some to writers with (or without) musical connections.


Supposed birth of Jacob Clemens non Papa, Flemish Renaissance polyphonist. Died c. 1555.



John Bull and Jan Sweelinck were born this year.

Adriaan Willaert (Flemish composer) died in Venice in 1562, where Giovanni Gabrieli lived and died in the same year.



Poet Richard Crashaw was born in 1612. He was one of the religious poets of the 17th century, so-called metaphysical poets.



Francesco Cavalli (born 1602) was invited to Paris by Cardinal Mazarin where, in 1662, he produced Ercole amante at the Théâtre des Tuileries in Paris with Louis XIV taking part, dressed as the Sun King.  Cavalli’s opera career began in 1639, near the end of Monteverdi’s.



John Stanley was born; a blind English organist and composer.

Corelli’s 12 concerti grossi were published in 1712

Handel’s first opera in London was Rinaldo in February 1711. In 1712 he composed Il pastor fido.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Ciro was premiered in 1712.

Frederick the Great, the enlightened Prussian monarch, was born in 1712. He was both a brilliant leader, military strategist, arts and music lover. He was a flutist and employed Bach’s son Carl Philip Emmanuel who perhaps, in 1747, encouraged the king to invite his father to Potsdam. For father Bach it was an often discomfitting experience.



Two Italian instrumental composers, Francesco Manfredini and Francesco Geminiani died.

André Chénier, the French poet, was born; though a supporter of the Revolution, he wound up on the wrong side of the leaders of The Terror and was guillotined just two days before the fall of Robespierre. Librettist, Luigi Illica, used the facts of Chénier’s life to write a libretto that inspired Umberto Giordano to write his best, or at least his most famous, opera, Andrea Chénier.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, premeired in 1762 One of the most important operas in the sense of changing the idea of what opera was.

And Thomas Arne’s best-known surviving opera, Artaxerxes was produced in 1762 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. It used a Metastasio libretto which had been set by J C Bach the year before, for Turin.


Friedrich von Flotow was born (Martha, of 1847, whose most famous aria is the lovely ‘Ach, so fromm’, better known in the Italian version, ‘M’appari’; it’s also famous for its version of ‘The last rose of summer’).

Pianist, Liszt’s rival, Thalberg born

And these died:

Franz Hoffmeister. Music publisher and prolific composer, contemporary of Mozart in Vienna (see Mozart’s Hoffmeister Quartet, K 499)

Jan Ladislav Dussek: Bohemian-born composer and pianist, peripatetic: Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, France, England.

The 1812 Overture was not, of course, written in 1812, but in 1880.

In 1812 Rossini’s career had just begun. His first opera was La cambuiale di matrimonio in 1810, not a success. But by 1812 he was turning 20 and getting into his stride; he premiered four operas in 1812:

L’inganno felcie, in January
Ciro in Babilonia in March
La scala di seta
in April
La pietra del paragone
on my birthday 26 September

First performance by Carl Czerny of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto in Vienna


Literature in 1812:

Byron’s Childe Harold published in 1812

Russian novelist Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born in 1812. Famous mainly for Oblomov, whose chief character is a paragon of sloth.

Two of the greatest literary figures in 19th century Britain were born just 200 years ago: Charles Dickens and poet Robert Browning. I don’t know whether Dickens was particularly interested in music, but Browning was. A poem I came across at school has continued to fascinate me: A Toccata of Galuppi’s. in which Browning’s familiarity with music and its technical elements is clear.

Pertinent lines:

“Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ‘tis with such a heavy mind!

“Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.…

While you sat and played toccatas, stately at the clavichord?

“What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions – ‘must we die?’
Those commiserating sevenths – ‘Life might last! We can but try!’

Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!

“So an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
‘Brave Galuppi! That was music! good alike at grave and gay!
‘I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!’”

When I read it in the 1950s, the name Galuppi (1706 – 1785) meant nothing to me and 30 years later it still meant very little, till the arrival of the CD and the desire for new music that was, in general, not satisfied by most contemporary music, stimulated the exploration of early music, including a lot of Galuppi’s music – operas, concertos, chamber and organ music.

And now we find Galuppi, just one of a host of Italian composers who flourished through the 18th century, filling the previously empty years between the death of Vivaldi and the arrival of Rossini and Paganini who heralded a revival of Italian music. Some of the reappearing composers of the 18th century: Sammartini, Tartini, Locatelli, Geminiani, Salieri, Piccinni, Sacchini, Paisiello, Martini, Cimarosa, Jommelli, Traetta, Sarti…


Delius and Debussy born

As well as: Edward German – composer of English operetta, Merrie England

Alphons Diepenbrock, one of the rare race of Dutch composers

Léon Boëllmann, organist and composer: his best known work is Suite Gothique.

Ludovic Halévy (La Juive) died in 1862.

Two major operas were premiered in 1862:

Béatrice et Bénédict (Berlioz) at Baden-Baden

La forza del destino (Verdi) at St Petersburg


Two German poets died in 1862:

Ludwig Uhland and Justinius Kerner

And Gerhart Hauptmann was born, a playwright, best known for Die Weber (The weavers). He was Silesian and his end was poignant and barbaric. He was among the millions of Germans forcibly expelled at the end of World War II from the countries of Eastern Europe and the former eastern provinces of the pre-war Germany, such as East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. The fact of being a great writer, a Nobel Prize winner (1912), now 84 years of age, made no difference to the orders of the Soviet colonel charged with the task of expelling all Germans from Hauptmann’s town. Faced with the finality of the order, Hauptmann fell ill and died and was buried, not according to his wishes, but on an island in the Soviet occupied zone of Germany, near Stralsund in the North Sea.

Maurice Maeterlinck, playwright, was born in 1862; in my childhood I remember being taken to a play called The Bluebird in the Opera House in Wellington. But he’s most famous for writing a play that inspired a composer born in the same year as he was – Debussy, who set Pelléas et Mélisande as an opera which led to considerable animosity between poet and composer.



The following composers born :

Xavier Montsalvatge, many singers are attracted to his Cinco canciones negras

Carlos Guastavino, the fourth best-known Argentinian composer after Ginastera, Piazzolla and Golijov.

Jean Françaix 

José Moncayo –he wrote the exciting ‘Huapango’

Igor Markevitch – conductor/composer

Two radical American composers: John Cage and Conrad Nancarrow

Hugo Weisgall: Moravia-Jewish-born American composer, of mainly vocal music and opera.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Australian woman composer, much earlier than any comparable New Zealand woman composer.


Jules Massenet and

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Franz Schreker wrote Der ferner Klang in 1912, the best known of his operas, several of which have regained popularity recently.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé first performed by Ballet Russes at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire first performed, in Berlin

In Stuttgart, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, initially just a 30minute opera, libretto by Hugo von Hofmansthal, was given as double bill with Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme: a thank-you to the great stage director Max Reinhardt who had directed Der Rosenkavalier. Hofmannsthal reworked the two elements, opera and play, into a new, integrated opera which Strauss set in 1916.

Mahler‘s Ninth Symphony was premiered in Vienna in June 1912, a year after his death.

Laurence Durrell was born in 1912: His Alexandria Quartet was a sensation when it appeared in the late 1950s, among students of literature anyway. (I re-read copies which are to be found both at home in Wellington and our beach bach). I wonder what its reputation is today.



Britten’s War Requiem first performed at Coventry Cathedral

These composers died in 1962:

Fritz Kreisler – a number of works written ‘in the style of’, and initially published as by those mainly 18th century composers.

Jacques Ibert – his most popular pieces are Divertissement, based on his incidental music for the play Le chapeau de paille d’Italie, later a film by René Clair; and Escales (Ports of Call).

John Ireland, who, long after his death has been favourably re-assessed after decades of neglect.

Eugene Goosens. Best known as conductor but regarded himself more as a composer.

Hanns Eisler. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany to the United States, but after being accused of Communist connections by the McCarthy committee (look at Wikipedia: ‘Hollywood Blacklist’) returned to East Germany in 1948. Berlin’s principal music academy is named for him: Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler”