Musical anniversaries in 2017

January 6, 2017

With the turning of the year, I like to plan a few focused listening projects that I’ll undertake during the coming year, and often I structure these projects around significant anniversaries.

After looking through a comprehensive list (Thanks, Osbert.) of such anniversaries, I’ve settled on the following as worthy of personal observance:


450 years

  • Claudio Monteverdi
  • Thomas Campion


25 years

  • John Cage
  • Olivier Messiaen

50 years

  • Zoltán Kodály

250 years

  • Georg Philipp Telemann

500 years

  • Heinrich Isaac

The heavyweights for me are Messiaen’s 25th and Monteverdi’s 450th; I’ll be spending a lot of time with each of those wonderful composers. For Messiaen, I’ll be listening to the piano music, the organ music, the Quatuor, his symphony, and the large-scale orchestral works. For Monteverdi it will be his madrigals (all nine books), at least three of his operas, and his sacred music, especially the Vespers of 1610.

My collection of music by the others is more modest in scale, but I’ll make an effort to get to know it better. I have the feeling that Cage, in particular, wrote a lot of music that I don’t know at all; I also have the feeling it may not be worth my time. I have similar thoughts about Telemann. Kodály, I think, will reward attention.

Apart from these, I’m also planning to focus this year on the music of Bruckner and Elgar. Why Elgar? It’s odd, but for several months I’ve been feeling that I’d really like to immerse myself in his music. I can’t explain it. Perhaps an hour or two in his company will cure me.

12 Responses to “Musical anniversaries in 2017”

  1. Osbert Parsley Says:

    Every year I’m pleased to find that musical anniversaries site still bearing good fruit, and it always inspires me to jump in with a few comments. . .

    I spent a fair bit of time with Telemann last year, and think he’s an underrated composer. Okay, he’s no Bach, but who is? I particularly recommend the orchestral music, which consists mostly of overture-suites along the lines of the ones by Bach (a long French overture followed by a series of character pieces and dance movements). This seems to be the ideal medium for Telemann’s compositional personality, and within the confines of the form he has a seemingly endless reserve of creativity. (If you’re listening to the sacred music and expecting great theological profundity, on the other hand, you’re going to be disappointed.)

    If you’re listening to Elgar and don’t know the Dream of Gerontius, it’s very much worth your time; I’m increasingly convinced that it’s one of the great masterpieces of choral music. (Although, to be fair, my admiration for Newman is such that I have probably lost all critical distance.) It’s fashionable to denigrate Elgar, but he’s one of the major figures of his generation.

    Among the lesser figures on the anniversary list, I’m pleased to see some lesser-known Renaissance figures that have figured in my search (Leonard Paminger, Jacobus Vaet, and the great music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino), as well as the late Keith Bissell, a Toronto musician who left a lot of fine music for students and for amateur choirs (he taught music theory to my mother).

  2. Rob Grano Says:

    Several years ago a friend brought me back from England a “Barbirolli Conducts Elgar” boxed set. I don’t like every single thing in it, but there is some very good stuff — the cello concerto, the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, the smaller works for strings, etc. I haven’t spent much time with the symphonies, but nothing’s notably off-putting about them. Elgar may not be the most immediately engaging composer in the world, but I’m not sure why gets the bad rap that he sometimes does.

    I do like Bruckner very much, though. Along with Dvorak he’s my favorite 19th century symphonist.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I know that Elgar gets disparaged more than he probably deserves. The prominence of the Pomp and Circumstance music doesn’t help. To me he’s something like the poor cousin of Vaughan Williams, but his music does have its charms, and, as you say, Osbert, his oratorios are actually quite good. In addition to The Dream of Gerontius, I’m looking forward to hearing again his Catholic, early church oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom.

    Rob, I’ve not heard that particular collection, but I do have a magnificent disc of Barbirolli conducting Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Were I to draw up a list of top 10 best sounding recordings, it would probably be there. The sound engineering is phenomenal.

    When you say that Bruckner and Dvorak are your favourite 19th century symphonists, are you including Beethoven and Schubert in the ranks? I’d choose those same two (Bruckner more so than Dvorak) for the latter half of the 19th c., but I’d be hard pressed to put them ahead of Ludwig and Franz.

    Osbert, I’ll have to take a closer look at what Telemann I have. I think he has a reputation as being a bit of an oddball composer, with a sense of humour, and I’d like to get to know that side of him if I can.

    There were a few lesser-known names that I thought of including but decided against — Lou Harrison, Malcolm Arnold, Philip Schoendorff, and Vaet. You’ll notice I also left off Stockhausen, whose music I can’t bring myself to listen to. But I did not know of Keith Bissell!

  4. Rob G Says:

    I have that Elgar/RVW disc too and it’s definitely a great one.

    As far as Beethoven and Schubert go, I must confess to not being a particularly big fan of the early Romantics. I like the Beethoven symphonies well enough but Schubert’s have never really appealed to me.

  5. Mac Horton Says:

    I agree about Gerontius. I’ll be following your discussions of Messiaen. I really like the Quartet.

    Two recent systematic listening projects I’ve undertaken in the last six months or so are Beethoven’s late quartets and Bruckner’s symphonies. The “systematic” aspect is that I go through them in sequence and listen to each composition at least three times. With the Beethoven, I found that I really love the slower movements, some of them being in the Greatest Music Ever Written class for me, but am often less enthusiastic about the faster ones. And I have a long-standing fondness for the Grosse Fugue even though I don’t understand it at all.

    With Bruckner, I’m now on the 9th, and have only heard it once. Possibly it may turn out to be my favorite. I’ve liked them all but I like Mahler better. That’s not necessarily a sign of health.

    I really should keep notes on these things because I’ve already forgotten which works and which movements I liked the most. One that sticks with me from Bruckner is the first movement of the 7th.

  6. cburrell Says:

    “That’s not necessarily a sign of health.”

    No, but it’s true of me as well. I find that Mahler’s symphonies have more character, and are more clearly distinguished from one another, than are Bruckner’s, and that he used all the resources of the orchestra more creatively. When I think of Bruckner, I think mostly of strings and brass.

    That said, the Bruckner symphonies are powerful, which is why I want to spend time with them.

    The Grosse Fuge, like the Hammerklavier, is one of the few instances of late Beethoven that I don’t much like. But I agree with you about those slow movements!

    • Mac Horton Says:

      True about Bruckner. Nothing that can compare to, say, Mahler’s 3rd. “strings and brass”–yes, some wonderful brass stuff. Although I’m not real discerning about performances one definitely wants an orchestra that can really punch that out.

  7. Rob G Says:

    I like Mahler’s slow movements very much — they are top-shelf beautiful — but a lot of the rest seems to me to have a kitchen sink feel to it, like he just let go and threw everything in that he could fit. Consequently the symphonies are just too “all over the place” for me, and I find it difficult to settle in with them.

    Fortunately, some of his Adagios are as long as other composers’ whole symphonies!

  8. Rob G Says:

    On Sunday afternoon I heard Bruckner 9 performed here in Pittsburgh by Manfred Honeck and our symphony. Just magnificent — talk about some amazing brass! And it was recorded for future release, which is awesome. Honeck and the PSO just won a pair of Grammy’s for last year’s Shostakovich CD, and I believe that a recording of Bruckner 8 is on the way (I attended that performance last spring as well).

    • cburrell Says:

      Fantastic. You’re fortunate to be in Pittsburgh right now; Honeck and the orchestra (and their sound engineers) have been getting a lot of attention from classical critics. I bought that Shostakovich disc, and really enjoyed it. I look forward to the Bruckner ones as well.

      • Rob G Says:

        Yes, I’ve been attending the symphony since the Mariss Jansons days. They were very good at that time (early 2000’s) but Honeck has really come up with something special. You know he’s a committed, devout Catholic, right?

  9. cburrell Says:

    I did know that, now that you mention it, though I had forgotten. I once heard a talk he gave for a Catholic audience about music. Like most talks I’ve heard from conductors, it wasn’t very well organized or memorable!

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