2013: A Portentous Year
I guess you could take almost any year and find anniversaries of notable musical dates, but this year, 2013, seems to be a particularly rich one in this respect.
For starters, we have the bicentenaries of the births of two of classical music's giants: Richard Wagner, born 22 May 1813, and Giuseppe Verdi, born 10 October. Both were destined to become men of the opera house and both were destined to play their part in the wave of revolutionary fever that was to sweep across Europe 35 years later and beyond.
In 1849, that wave reached Dresden, where the 36-year-old Richard Wagner was conductor at the Royal Court Opera. This is not a young idealistic student, nor an armchair academic revolutionary, but a hands-on activist, holding political meetings at his home and even taking part in the manufacture of hand-grenades. A speech to the pro-republican Vaterlandsverein, in which he challenged the King to reform Saxony into a people's republic, was published in the newspaper. Not long after, a compromising letter to a co-conspirator fell into the hands of the police and a warrant was issued for his arrest; Wagner fled to Switzerland, unable to return to Germany for over 10 years. In 1876, the composer founded the Bayreuth Festival, where to the present day a selection from his music-dramas is performed each year in the purpose-built theatre he designed.
Wagner may have been a willing revolutionary, but Giuseppe Verdi, composer of 28 operas, including some of the greatest dramas of the operatic stage: Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, Don Carlos, Aïda and Otello – was drawn with less enthusiasm into nationalist politics. From the mid–1840s, his music was being seen in the popular view as nationalistic and even by some as containing disguised revolutionary messages. In 1859, in the run-up to the unification of Italy, he agreed to stand for election to the Assembly for the Duchy of Parma, and was successful. By 1860 the letters of his name V–E–R–D–I were being used as part of the slogan Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia – Viva Victor Emmanuel King of Italy. After unification in 1861, Verdi was pressed into becoming a member of the new Chamber of Deputies by the new Prime Minister Count Cavour, but Verdi resigned in 1865, disgusted by the typical self-seeking corrupt behaviour of his fellow politicians.
Another bicentenarian this year is pianist-composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, born 30 November. Admittedly he is less of a household name today than his illustrious birth-year fellows, but his piano technique was greatly admired by no less a figure than Franz Liszt, whose own bicentenary was celebrated two years ago.
As well as these three composers, this year also sees the bicentenary of a great musical institution: the Philharmonic Society of London. The oldest continuously-functioning Philharmonic Society in the world, it served as a model for others to follow: the Vienna and New York Philharmonics, both founded in 1842, and the Berlin Philharmoniker founded in 1882.
The London Society was founded for the explicit purpose of performing orchestral music, there being no other platform at the time for such music to which the public was admitted. In its earliest years, concertos were prohibited and singers had to be accompanied by a full orchestra. Each season comprised eight weekly subscription concerts, held on Monday evenings at the Argyll Rooms, Regent's Street. New works were given a 'trial', often from manuscript, to see if the public liked them. The initial meeting to consider the formation of the Philharmonic Society was held on Sunday, 24 January 1813. The first concert on 8 March included a symphony by Beethoven and one by Haydn – the identity of neither symphony is recorded! Only two years later, the Society commissioned three overtures from Beethoven for 75 guineas; the composer supplied The Ruins of Athens, Zur Namensfeier1, and King Stephen. In 1822, they commissioned a new symphony from Beethoven, offering him £50; that symphony, first given at a Philharmonic concert in March 1825, was his Ninth. Imagine being in the audience that evening, or perhaps in May 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn conducted his First Symphony, the first time a conductor had ever been seen using a baton to direct the orchestra.
A Century and a Half
One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1853 Wagner completed the libretto of his monumental tetralogy of music dramas, The Ring cycle. Although the full scores of the four operas/music dramas would not be finally completed until 1874, all the important Leitmotif elements had been noted down as the libretto was being developed.
The year 1853 also saw the premières of two of Verdi's best-loved operas: Il Trovatore – at the Teatro Apollo, Rome on 19 January – and La Traviata – at the Fenice opera house in Venice on 6 March.
Two hundred years ago, in 1813, Europe was a year away from coming to the end of a period of war that had already lasted for 20 years. One hundred years later in 1913, it was a year away from starting another round of bloody conflict: the First World War.
Benjamin Britten, born 22 November 1913 in the coastal county of Suffolk, was one of England's greatest composers of the 20th Century. A committed pacifist and a man apart from the mainstream of his musical contemporaries, in 1937 Britten began a life-long personal and professional relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. In 1948 jointly with Pears and the writer Eric Crozier, he founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival. Together their aim was to educate and support young performers and composers. At his death in 1976 he left a huge body of work, but perhaps his best were the opera Peter Grimes (1945) and the War Requiem, the latter written for the consecration of the (then) new Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
Greatly overshadowed by Britten's reputation, but deserving much better recognition than he is given, is another English (Cornish) composer whose centenary we should be marking: George Lloyd, born 28 June 1913. A major figure in the English musical landscape of the 1930s, Lloyd was a Romantic in a post-Romantic world. His career came to an abrupt stop in 1942 when he was torpedoed by his own ship while serving in the Arctic convoys as a gunner and a Royal Marines bandsman2. The trauma of this experience, together with a weak constitution resulting from childhood illnesses led to a complete physical and mental breakdown. In 1952 he started a market gardening business to which he devoted his time for next 20 years, composing only very occasionally. The melodic style of music Lloyd was writing was now out of fashion. The avant-garde dominated the musical scene, a genre for which Lloyd had no time: 'I never wrote 12-tone music because I didn't like the theory. I studied the blessed thing in the early 1930s and thought it was a cock-eyed idea that produced horrible sounds.' With the backing of some notable supporters, including the conductors Charles Groves and Edward Downes, and the pianist John Ogden, he continued to compose until shortly before his death in 1998. His opus includes 12 symphonies, four piano concertos and two violin concertos.
Few musical premières are as famous, or perhaps infamous as that of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, that took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on the evening of 29 May 1913. The ballet was written for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. The orchestra, conducted by a young Pierre Monteux, became the target of the audience's anger: 'Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on'.
Some Other (Non-musical) Notables and Events
Isaac Pitman, born 4 January 1813, who developed the method of shorthand writing, known as Pitman shorthand.
London's Metropolitan Railway, the first underground railway in the world, opened to the public on 10 January 1863. It ran from the Great Western Railway terminus at Paddington in the west, east to Farringdon in the City.
Sören Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and originator of the existentialism school of thought, born 5 May 1813
Oh, and in case you missed it amid all the Olympic sporting awards, violinist Nicola Benedetti received an MBE 'for services to Music and to charity' in the New Year's honours list. Not a bad start to our portentous year.
Till next time, happy listening.