The main focus of 2013 will, of course, be the bicentenary of Richard Wagner (1813-1888) and the centenary of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), a composer whose music I have loved since I was a small child who was taken on holiday to Aldeburgh (where Britten could occasionally be spotted walking along the seafront with Peter Pears).
In all the excitement of the Wagner/Britten celebrations, many other composers, whose anniversaries also fall in 2013, may be overlooked. Here is a small selection:
Giles Farnaby (1563-1640) English composer and virginalist. His best-known works can be found in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, and include Giles Farnabys Dreame, Fancies Toys and Dreams, His Rest, Farnabyes Conceit and His Humour
John Dowland (1563-1626) Dublin-born English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. In recent years his music has undergone a huge revival of interest, and is today considered some of the finest and most profound music written for the instrument. His most famous works include the song ‘Flow My Tears’, and the Lachrimae (Seven Tears), a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on a theme from ‘Flow My Tears’; ‘I Saw My Lady Weepe’; and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. The tenor John Potter created The Dowland Project to rediscover the essence of Renaissance song from the perspective of the modern performer. His album Care-Charming Sleep includes post-Dowland English and Italian songs, performed on Renaissance and modern instruments, including clarinet and saxophone.
Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) Russian pianist, conductor and composer who is perhaps best known for his transcriptions of Bach. His also transcribed works by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
Isidor Philipp (1863-1958). French pianist, composer and distinguished teacher, Isidor was also a grand-pupil of Chopin, via his teacher Georges Mathias. Other notable teachers include Stephen Heller (1813-1888, a pupil of Czerny), Camille Saint-Saens and Theodore Ritter (a pupil of Liszt). He met Claude Debussy while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, with whom he remained lifelong friends. Compositions include 6 Concert Studies after Chopin’s Études, Concert Étude after Chopin’s Minute Waltz, a concertino for three pianos, and a considerable number of works for left-hand only. The British pianist Phyllis Sellick studied with Philipp in Paris.
Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) Polish composer and conductor, Lutoslawski was one of the most significant European composers of the 20th century.. His early works show the influence of Polish folk music, but from the 1950s onwards, he began to develop his own characteristic compositional techniques, such as building harmonies from small groups of intervals, and ‘aleatoric’ processes in which the rhythmic coordination of parts are subject to chance. I first encountered his music via my father, who played some of his works for clarinet.
Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) Apart from Benjamin Britten, Alkan is, for me, the most interesting composer whose anniversary falls in 2013. Often misunderstood and little known by many, his piano music has been dismissed as unplayable, except by a select, skilled few. Yet he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, friend to Chopin (who greatly admired him and his work), he was venerated by Liszt, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein and the artist Delacroix, and was studied by Debussy, Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel. His phenomenal pianistic technique is evidenced by the huge technical and physical demands his music places on the player: Liszt praised Alkan’s extraordinary technique, and admitted that Alkan was the only person he was afraid of performing to.
He fell into obscurity for a century, largely because he himself withdrew from the concert platform and became increasingly reclusive. In the mid-twentieth century, the British pianist Ronald Smith (1922-2004) was responsible for a revival of interest in the piano music of Alkan, and recorded many of his works. Latterly, the French Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed and recorded his music. In 2013, a number of pianists will be exploring his music, including Karl Lutchmayer and Jonathan Powell.