Twenty-thirteen looks set to be a year dominated by celebrations of Wagner, Verdi and Britten. But it is also the perfect time to discover new works by some lesser-known names whose anniversaries also fall in the next 12 months, writes Adrian Mourby.
This year promises to be somewhat extraordinary. Not one giant of the opera world but two will be celebrating their 200th birthdays – or rather having the dates celebrated for them by zealots and marketing teams. It seems perverse that the muses could not have spaced Verdi and Wagner out a bit as 2013 is likely to turn into a big anniversary tug of love between supporters of Italian opera and supporters of German over who gets custody of the year.
In terms of media coverage, Wagner is bound to win out. Whenever there is a new Ring at Bayreuth it makes headlines all round the world and the lineup for 2013 is going to guarantee controversy. Half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier have selected Frank Castorf to direct the new cycle. Castorf is a director of the ‘postdramatic’ school and a man incapable of keeping out of
the headlines. Poor Parma – following three months later with Italy’s annual Verdi Festival, doesn’t stand a chance. It only stages two operas annually and, at the time of writing, hasn’t announced what they will be.
But 2013 is going to be about a lot more than those two egotistical giants. As if to compensate for 2012 (a year that offered us only the 300th anniversary of John Stanley and the 150th of Delius, Debussy and Sir Edward German), 2013 is also big musically for the 200th birthdays of Alexander Dargomïzhsky (1813-1869), Ernst Haberbier (1813-1869), Charles-Valentin Morhange Alkan (1813-1888), Stephen István Heller (1813-1888), and William Henry Fry (1813-1864). All of these are men whose music is worth noting and inserting in a programme. Dargomïzhsky was a Russian opera composer who bridged the gap between Glinka and Tchaikovsky. Haberbier was a German pianist-composer in the mould of Chopin but who lived a peripatetic life like Liszt, and died as Liszt might have wished in mid-concert. Alkan was another such composer-pianist, a French Jew who was befriended by both Chopin and Liszt before becoming something of a recluse. Heller, another Jewish composer, also wrote for the piano and knew both Chopin and Liszt and was considered superior to Mendelssohn in his lifetime, while Fry was the first American to write for a large symphony orchestra as well as being the composer of America’s first publicly performed opera (Leonora, 1845).
There are also over a dozen composers whose 150th birthday falls this year, best-known of whom is Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) and two dozen centenaries in 2013 including Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).
Whether all these anniversaries actually mean anything aside from providing a peg for schedulers and promoters is a question that does not need to be asked. Nothing about 1813, a year far less memorable in Europe than 1812, determined that two of the greatest opera composers the world has ever known should be born. Unless you are seriously into astrology, there is no reason to believe that Verdi wouldn’t be just as great as Wagner if he had been born in 1814. And you would have to be a curious kind of numerologist to see any connecting 50-year cycles that link the creativity of Wagner, Mascagni and Britten.
So is all this emphasis on anniversaries simply nonsense? I would argue strongly for the celebration of anniversaries. In recent years, Europe has enjoyed big bicentennials for Chopin (2010) and Liszt (2011). Both helped re-establish and extend our enjoyment of these giants of the keyboard. Speaking from my own prejudices of having always preferred the introspection of Chopin to the showmanship of the Liszt, I can say that the sheer volume of Liszt on the radio and in the concert halls from London to Budapest and beyond helped me realise there was much more to the man than flying hair and flying fingers. Had Liszt’s oratorio Christus not been played in seven cities – including Paris, London, Seoul and Beijing – simultaneously on his birthday in October 2011, I doubt that I would ever have thought to listen to it. Similarly, I heard some really virile interpretations of Chopin’s two piano concertos in 2010 and those refashioned my image of the man and his music.
The fact of the matter is that there is so much good music out there – particularly from 19th-century composers – that we do need
to have our listening focused. There is always a good reason to listen to all the operas Wagner completed (even those he later disowned), but why do that this year rather than the complete Bach preludes or all 24 of Paganinis’ caprices? The choice is vast but knowing that other people – whether in the concert hall or opera house, in front of a radio or grouped round the tv – are also listening to this particular composer’s work focuses one’s attention. This is not because we are sheep without an ability to decide our own listening schedule, but because music has always been partly about the collective experience. We enjoy and understand music more if we share it with other listeners and discuss what we have heard. Music never used to be a solitary vice, so personally I’m all in favour of anything – however dependent on hundred-year cycles – that makes it collective again.