25/9

2015 marks milestone anniversaries for a number of significant classical composers, including Sibelius, Bartók, Glazunov, Franck and Arvo Pärt. Today, however, we consider a trio of other composers who were born on today’s date: 25 September.

Leon-BoellmannIf you’re an organist, the name of the first composer will be well-known to you, even if only by dint of one particular work he wrote for that instrument: the title is Suite gothique; the composer, Leon Boëllmann (1862–1897). It’s a couple of the Frenchman’s chamber works, however, that interest me today: the Piano Quartet in F minor, Op. 10 and the Piano Trio in G major, Op. 19 (8.223524). You’ll note the low opus numbers, occasioned by Boëllmann’s premature death at the age of 35, cutting short what might have been a distinguished career. Focusing on these two works gives context to the whole indigenous chamber music scene in France during much of the nineteenth century i.e. there wasn’t very much of one. The reason stemmed from the French Revolution in 1789 that not only lopped off the magisterial heads of aristocrats, but also the patronage for chamber music that came from their pockets. Chamber recitals did continue, but the music performed was largely restricted to works by acknowledged masters, with Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn chief among them.

Camille-Saint-SaensIt was Saint-Saëns in the 1860s who did a lot to revive the composition and performance of new chamber music by French composers, including his own Piano Quintet, Op. 14 (8.572904) dating from 1860 and his first Piano Trio, Op. 18 (8.550935) completed in 1865. In 1871, together with Romain Bussine, professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Saint-Saëns teamed up with Fauré, Guiraud, Franck and Duparc to form the Société Nationale de Musique. This provided the platform for a renaissance of French music, not least chamber music.

Back to Boëllmann. He wrote his Piano Quartet Op. 10 around 1890 and it follows the classical four-movement design. It’s rhapsodic, joyful music from start to finish, ending with a cheeky glint in the eye that can be heard in the work’s closing section.

His Piano Trio Op. 19 was written about five years later and displays a clear stylistic development over that period in terms of the the work’s construction and increased use of chromaticism, as the opening of the work shows.

Jean-Philippe-RameauFellow Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) was also born on September 25. The leading French composer of his time, he’s remembered less for chamber music than for his stage works that took a variety of forms: tragédies lyriques, comédies lyriques and comédies-ballets. It was the age of the counter-tenor, a falsetto male voice with the vocal range equivalent to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano. But some of Rameau’s success can be attributed to one particular haute-contre, a tenor with an unusually high natural range that rarely makes use of falsetto. His name was Pierre de Jélyotte, who was active as a performer at the Paris Opéra between 1733 and 1755 and who appeared in important roles in thirteen of the sixteen works that Rameau composed during this period.

Here’s an extract from the prologue to Rameau’s opera Platée (8.557993) sung by the haute-contre character Thespis, the creator of comedy: the aria Charmant Bacchus signs off in a manner appropriate to the character.

Wenzel-PichlToday’s final birthday boy is Wenzel Pichl (1741–1805), a Czech-born composer who went on to develop his career in Austria and Italy, being multi-talented as a violinist, composer, writer and translator (he translated the libretto of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte into Czech, for example, and wrote Latin texts for new compositions). He became a close friend of the composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, with whom he shared an interest in writing symphonies that were inspired by extra-musical themes drawn from classical mythology. Their compositional styles were also rather like peas in a pod. The publisher Breitkopf advertised a parody symphony in 1773, for example, entitled Sinfonia da Pichl als Ditters. Pichl’s symphonies, however, were far less programmatic than those of Dittersdorf. Here’s the opening of his Sinfonia in B flat major, Melpomene (8.557761), which completely fails to reflect the fact that the Muse of the title was the Muse of tragic poetry. With such attractively elegant music, however, one tends not to dwell on such matters.

Dmitry-Shostakovich2There’s one other composer with the birth date of 25 September who is missing from today’s survey, namely Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975). But with the boxed set of his complete symphonies performed to worldwide acclaim by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko hitting the shelves next month, he’ll be enjoying his well-deserved slice of attention then. But we can blow out the last candle today with a not-so-quick Happy Birthday to You in the style of the Russian master by following this YouTube link.

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