Musical anniversaries in 2019

January 25, 2019

Every year I like to plan a few listening projects around composers who will be marking significant birthdays and memorials in the year ahead. From a very thorough list (Thanks, Osbert) I have culled the following set:


25 years

  • Witold Lutosławski

150 years

  • Hector Berlioz



100 years

  • Mieczyslaw Weinberg

200 years

  • Clara Schumann
  • Jacques Offenbach

400 years

  • Barbara Strozzi


This is a pretty thin showing, and from this evidence I think we can confidently conclude that being born in a year ending 19 or 69 is a misfortune from a musicality point of view; the same holds true for those destined to die in such years. I expect there is a straightforward astrological explanation.

I have put Clara and Barbara on the list mainly because I thought it was interesting that two of the relatively few female composers were born in years for which the last two digits were the same. What were the chances? [*]

In a similar way, I mention Berlioz only because it seemed unduly audacious to leave him off. As far as I can tell, his principal redeeming quality is that Jacques Barzun admired him.

For me the highlight of the year is unquestionably the centenary of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who has been mentioned here several times over the years. I’ve planned a big listening project that will take me through all those of his compositions which have been recorded and are available — roughly 100, I believe. I note that the blog Lines that have escaped destruction, which is dedicated to Weinberg’s music, has planned a series of 100 blog posts for this year about various aspects of his life and work; I will be following it with interest.

Happy listening! As an envoi, here is the adagio section of Weinberg’s Sinfonietta No.2, played by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica:


[*] This is a variant on the birthday problem. Suppose we have N female composers, and we want to find the probability that at least 2 of them share the final two digits of their birth year. There are Y = 100 possible such two-digit combinations.

It is easiest to calculate the probability that they do not share those digits. This probability is

\bar{P}(N, Y) = 1 \cdot \left(\frac{Y-1}{Y}\right) \cdot \left(\frac{Y-2}{Y}\right) \cdot \cdot \cdot \left(\frac{Y-(N-1)}{Y}\right)

assuming that N < Y and (of course) that each pair of year-digits are equally likely. This means that the probability that at least two of our ladies do share those digits in their birth years is

P(N, Y) = 1 - \prod^{N-1}_{\ell=0} \left(1-\frac{\ell}{Y}\right)

Since Y=100, the only variable is N, the number of female composers. It’s easy to find lists of more than 100, so the probability of having a collision on birth dates becomes 1. But my list above is limited to the cream of the crop, or at least the composers of no small repute, on both the male and female sides, and everyone knows that on those conditions there have been only a handful of female composers: St Hildegard, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, and another few of your choosing — maybe Gloria Coates, Judith Weir, and Lera Auerbach, but feel free to swap in your favourites. Let’s say ten in total. Then the probability of a collision on one of these lists is

P(10, 100) = 0.37

which is higher than I expected! If we’re really strict and only admit those eminent five into the circle, the probability drops to about 10%. In other words, we are, quite possibly, witnessing this year an event that shall not be repeated for a decade!

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