Rossini retires. Mussorgsky inspires.

Today’s blog gives a sneak preview of two discs that are just around the corner, due for release in November. It’s the third of four articles in which our artists reveal the questions they would have put to the featured composers on their new discs, had they ever met. We first asked conductor Christian Benda for his poser to Rossini.

christian-bendaBenda’s current project is to record the complete set of overtures to Rossini’s operas; the first two volumes (Naxos 8.570933 and 8.570934) will be joined by Volume 3 next week. While luxuriating in Rossini’s oceans of melodies concentrated in these curtain-up moments, Benda is more intrigued by the composer’s curtain-down. His question:

“At the age of 37, you had already made huge achievements, writing some 40 operas in 20 years. In terms of the talent required to do this, no-one could ask for more,” Benda says.rossini

“To write Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 13 days is faster than the time a conductor needs to learn it. You were even able to write lying in your bed and, if a page fell to the floor, it was faster for you to rewrite it than to pick it up.

“You enjoyed success and were widely admired. Among the greatest figures of your time, Beethoven said: ‘Do write more Barbiere!’ You still had 40 more years to live, and apparently enjoyed good physical and mental health. But then you stopped composing…


Benda is specifically referring here to the master’s catalogue of stage works. Rossini died in 1868; he completed his last opera, Guillaume Tell, in 1829.

“But you still had 40 years ahead of you,” says Benda. “Your Stabat Mater (1831) (Naxos 8.554443) and Petite Messe Solennelle (1864) are the proof there were no impediments for you to compose further operas.”

Jean-SibeliusRossini wasn’t the only composer to draw stumps early like this. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) lived to the ripe old age of 91, but he wrote little after the completion of his Seventh Symphony (Naxos 8.554387) in 1924. An eighth was in the offing but never materialised; during the remaining three decades of his life, only the incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Naxos 8.554266) and his tone poem Tapiola (Naxos 8.555299) achieved any significance.charles-ives

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was unable to compose anything after sketching his swansong, Sunrise (Naxos 8.559273), in 1926. The health problems that dogged him during his later life account in large part for that 28-year silence. Health issues, specifically depression, similarly turned off Rebecca Clarke’s creative switch. Clarke (1886-1979) is acknowledged as one of the most distinguished British female composers of her time. If you don’t know her Viola Sonata (Naxos 8.557934), written in 1919, then you should get acquainted with it. One can understand how the seeds of her depression might have taken root in light of the lack of recognition she received. This is Clarke speaking about the work during a 1976 interview, aged 90, and thirty-two years after she stopped composing:rebecca-clarke

“And when I had that one little whiff of success that I’ve had in my life, with the Viola Sonata, the rumour went round, I hear, that I hadn’t written the stuff myself, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn’t have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn’t exist, there wasn’t any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch!”

Returning to Rossini, the reason for his pen running dry has been the subject of much open-ended speculation: his creative juices were running low; changes to grander operatic styles and spectacles didn’t suit him; the death of his mother in 1827 affected his health, as did his long acquaintance with gonorrhea.

Maybe the answer lies in Rossini’s simple desire to put his feet up when he himself wanted to, and not when other people expected it to happen. Maybe you’ve experienced that sentiment yourself.peter-breiner

And so to Modest Mussorgsky, who gets put on the spot by Peter Breiner, the conductor and arranger who wears both hats in his upcoming recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Naxos 8.573016). Originally written for piano solo, the work has subsequently been adapted for orchestra and other instrumental groups by numerous arrangers. Naxos artist Leonard Slatkin made an intriguing compilation of the 16 movements in makeovers by 13 arrangers (Naxos 8.570716), with the last movement retaining the services of the most famous of them all, Maurice Ravel.

Breiner’s question for Mussorgsky: “Everybody and their mother thinks that ‘The Pictures’ should be an orchestral piece. Why did you write it for piano?”Mussorgsky

It’s an ironic speculation that, had he written it for orchestra, the work would have ended up in legions of arrangements for piano. If you know Mussorgsky only by the portrait of him later in life, bearing all the hallmarks of alcoholism, it’s tempting to think that he simply couldn’t be bothered; that he’d leave the hard work up to others, and that he was too busy looking for the corkscrew.

Which pre-empts Breiner’s second question: “What are we drinking tonight?”

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