Top 5 composer anniversaries of 2012

Happy birthday to five great composers who celebrate major milestones this year.

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As a wise man once wondered (it was Alex Ross), "Is there a deeper, possibly unnatural, connection between music and death? Why is classical music, more than other arts, so preoccupied with the works of the no longer living? What other art routinely celebrates anniversaries of deaths as well as births?"

We mark these anniversaries all year long because it's a great excuse to experience a lot of great music. For the most admired birthday boys (and it is mostly boys, with one notable exception in 2012), it's a time for the launch or completion of major recording projects, lavish boxed sets, pre-concert talks, radio saturation and, of course, Limelight features. If the job is properly done, we should be thoroughly sick of even the most beloved composer by the end of the year – Chopin 2010, anyone?  

Last year Liszt was the centre of attention as we discovered a more serious, sensitive side to the showy virtuoso for the bicentenary of of his birth. Leslie Howard couldn't get enough of him, releasing his Guinness World Record-holding Hyperion series of the prolific composer's complete piano music in a 99-CD boxed set. If you were "over" Mahler following the 2010 sesquicentenary, tough luck: he got two bites of the cherry since the following year was the centenary of his death, and what better time to press the repeat button on that funeral march? It was also an opportune moment for Vladimir Ashkenazy to complete his live Mahler series with the Sydney Symphony, and for Valery Gergiev to release the last of his Mahler cycle on disc with the London Symphony Orchestra – for which feat he became the cover star of Limelight's June issue.

It's not all decomposing composers, either: in 2011 we paid tribute to the living with Australia's own Brett Dean turning 50, a milestone marked in a series of concerts around the world showcasing his skills as a composer, violist and conductor.

Who will we shine the spotlight on in 2012? Read on over the following pages to find out.

Claude Debussy (1872–1918)

Last year it was all hammer blows for Mahler and headbanging piano for Liszt. But in 2012 we can look forward to a year of the subtle, the sensual, the fragrant and the exotic. The major birthday boy is Claude Debussy with the 150th anniversary of his birth on 22 August, 1862. If he has something in common with Liszt, it's that almost all his work drew inspiration from other artforms, including poetry, paintings, and even Javanese gamelan and the music of other culture. 
A rich and varied oeuvre sprang from the Frenchman's Impressionist palette. There really is something for everyone, from the Dionysian reverie of the ballet/tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to the more robust symphonic work La Mer; the solo piano works – the charming Children's Corner, the Préludes, Images, Clair de Lune –  so beautifully recorded by the likes of Debussy's countrymen Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Pascal Rogé; the masterful opera Pelléas et Mélisande (sadly a planned work based on Poe's The House of Usher never came to fruition); the more intimate chamber works: the G-minor String Quartet most often coupled with Ravel's and the Violin Sonata. 

How we're celebrating

My great hope in the Debussy year is for a renewed focus on his songs, or mélodies, which are often unfairly overlooked even though he wrote more than 90 of them set to the symbolist poetry of Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Happily, the glamorous French soprano Natalie Dessay is first off the bat in February with an album of early songs and the cantata La Damoiselle Élue, joined by pianist Philippe Cassard, mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes, the Youth Choir of Paris and harpist Catherine Michel. It's on Virgin Classics. I, for one, will be in extase langoureuse.
Almost every major orchestra around the world will have a Debussy program throughout year; Sydney Symphony will perform his Images for orchestra during his birthday week, plus Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune and several other works.

 


Frederick Delius (1862-1934)

Overshadowed by his compatriots Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, perhaps because he spent the greater part of his life abroad, the English composer Frederick Delius was born in Yorkshire 150 years ago on January 29. In his early twenties he was sent by his family to Florida to manage an orange plantation: there he wrote the Florida Suite. But it was not until studies in composition at the Leipzig Conservatorium in the 1880s that he met Grieg, who recognised his full potential.

Despite his international travels, Delius's style remained quintessentially English. Back home he was championed by Thomas Beecham, who staged his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden and launched a six-day Delius festival at the Queen's Hall in 1929. He was not deaf to the composer's faults however, refusing to conduct his final opera Fennimore and Gerda, even though it was dedicated to him; Beecham dismissed its central characters as "three dreary people who have nothing to say."

Delius spent his last days in seclusion in the French countryside, suffering the effects of syphilis contracted during his youthful stint in Paris. As his health deteriorated he brought in the young musician Eric Fenby to work as his assistant and take dictation of his final works.  

He had his detractors: in 1962, the centenary of Delius's birth, musicologist Deryck Cooke wrote, "to declare oneself a confirmed Delian is hardly less self-defamatory than to admit to being an addict of cocaine and marijuana." Today he is best known for the orchestral work Brigg Fair and his delightful tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, composed 100 years ago in 1912. Australians Yvonne Kenny and Piers Lane have also recorded a disc of his songs in English, French and German for Hyperion (he wrote 62).

How we're celebrating

A 150th anniversary boxed set has been released on EMI with the Delius Society seal of approval. The 18-CD collection (catalogue no 0841752) draws together classic English performances by Thomas Beecham, Jacqueline du Pré, Yehudi Menuhin and more. 

There's also a new 8-CD Delius Edition from Decca, conducted by Charles Mackerras and Neville Marriner among others (001641702).


Philip Glass (1937–)

The American iconoclast turns 75 on January 31. He may be a cult icon and one of the most in-demand (and most imitated) composers working in film, but he came from humble beginnings, working as a taxi driver and as a removalist with fellow pioneering minimalist Steve Reich in New York during the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Glass tells the story of an elderly woman getting into his cab, seeing his name displayed on his license and asking, "Did you know you have the name of a very famous composer?"

Over the decades his style has progressed from austere minimalist experiments (Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion) to more expansive meditations and, from his opera Einstein on the Beach onwards, a lush, arpeggio-laden, almost romantic aesthetic some have referred to as "maximalist" (Violin Concerto No 1). He has always kept his finger on the pulse of popular music from his David Bowie inspired Heroes Symphony to the Book of Longing 

Now, as a grand old man of American music and one of the founding fathers of minimalism, we can continue to look forward to more works for the concert platform and the cinema. On growing old he has said, "What I've noticed is that people who love what they do, regardless of what that might be, tend to live longer."

How we're celebrating

Glass has rushed to complete his monumental Ninth Symphony in time for the big 75th – he only just added the finishing touches in December, and the US premiere is about to take place at a concert at Carnegie Hall on his birthday, January 31, with the American Composers Orchestra.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912–1990)

Peggy Glanville-Hicks is one of Australia's greatest – and most unconventional – musical success stories. The intrepid composer left her native Melbourne for the hallowed halls of the Royal College of Music in London, where she studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams and befriended Yehudi Menuhin. During the 1940s this unconventional, pipe-smoking redhead enjoyed a vibrant double career in New York, writing hundreds of music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune (the initials "PGH" appeared page after page for years) and dominating cultural life as a woman in what was thought of as a man's field.

 In her will, she bequeathed her terrace house in Paddington, Sydney, as a residence for Australian and visiting overseas composers and musicians. Elena Kats-Chernin, Andrew Ford and Paul Stanhope count themselves among those who have benefited from time in the Composers' House. Her name was also given to the annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, in which an arts luminary is invited to deliver a speech about important issues of music-making in Australia.

But it's high time Peggy's own, seldom-performed music was back in the spotlight. She collaborated with some of the 20th-century's most important literary figures for her opera libretti, including Thomas Mann in The Transfigured Heads. There were sparkling instrumental and chamber works such as the Harp Sonata and the Concerto di Camera. In Thomsoniana, she paid tribute to her New York Herald Tribune editor and fellow composer Virgil Thomson with vocal settings of quotes from his concert reviews, each playfully imitating the style of the music discussed. Her imagination and sense of humour were her greatest assets as a composer.

How we're celebrating

In 1963, the San Francisco Opera commissioned Peggy to write an opera based on Sappho, with a libretto by Lawrence Durrell. She created the title role for Maria Callas, but the first performance never came to fruition, and it has never been staged. This year, Australian-born conductor Jennifer Condon has plans to record the work in its entirety with an international cast.

There has also been talk of a biopic starring Canadian actress Neve Campbell as Peggy.

John Cage (1912–1992)

The most startlingly original thinker in 20th-century music, John Cage was as much an inventor and philosopher as a composer, influencing musical thought in the American postwar avant-garde more than any other figure.

The other four birthday celebrants profiled here may be remembered for their tunes, but Cage will be remembered, above all, for his so-called silence. The score of his seminal work 4'33'' (1952) instructs any group of musicians not to play their instruments for the duration of the three movements; members of the audience find themselves actively listening to the silence around them and the sounds of their environment. It was the ultimate expression of the Zen Buddhism phlosophy he had adopted.

When he did write notes on a page, these, too, left much to chance, opening up new sound worlds. In the 1940s he developed the technique of prepared piano: placing nuts, bolts, pieces of rubber and other objects on and between the strings of a piano to create a sort of percussive orchestra, showcased in his collection Sonatas and Interludes.

Cage's centenary year is the ideal opportunity to reflect on the way he has changed our idea of what music can be. It also reminds me of one of this softly-spoken visionary's favourite sayings: "My favourite music is the music I haven't yet heard." Words to live by.

How we're celebrating

John Cage festivals, concerts and sound sculpture/art installations are taking place all over the world this year. A comprehensive list can be found here.

More composer anniversaries: Honourable Mentions

Five Honourable Mentions

Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554 - 1612: 400 years since his death) The Italian composer and organist wrote unprecedentedly large motets and sacred works for choir and brass instruments, paving the way for Monteverdi.

Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) The English composer-conductor studied with Australian Arthur Benjamin at the Royal College of Music before his stint as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the NSW Conservatorium. In 1955 he was knighted for his services to Australian music. The late conductor Richard Hickox recorded Goossens's First Symphony and Phantasy Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Chandos.

Fritz Kreisler  (1875-1962: 50 years since his death) The Austrian violin master was responsible for one of the most famous musical hoaxes in history, composing dozens of parody pieces in an antiquated style and ascribing them to 18th-century composers including Porpora, 1935 that he was the author, having fooled many musicologists and experts.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912: centenary of his death). The French composer is best known for his grand Romantic operas: Manon, Werther, Thaïs and Esclarmonde. He was one of the great melodists of his generation, as evidenced in the famous Meditation from Thaïs.  

Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997: centenary of his birth). This US composer turned the player piano into a virtuosic soloist with his mindblowingly complex rhythms created specially for the instrument.

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