It’s worth pausing today to remember four notable musicians, the anniversaries of whose deaths all fall on 27 April.
Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871) was a virtuoso pianist considered by some of his contemporaries as a rival to Franz Liszt. Although his death in Italy on 27 April 1871 is clearly documented, details of his birth and parentage are a little more muddied, since he was popularly supposed to have been the illegitimate son of Count Moritz Dietrichstein and the Baroness von Wetzlar, born near Geneva, Switzerland in 1812. The baroness, legend has it, proclaimed him a valley (Thal) that would one day rise to the heights of a mountain (Berg). The boy’s birth certificate, however, was less fanciful, and Thalberg went on to study in Vienna (including with Hummel, Mozart’s pupil) and played before Prince Metternich in his early teens. By 1828, at the tender age of 16, he had started the series of compositions that proved such an important add-on to his career as a virtuoso performer.
Rivalry between Thalberg and Liszt was largely manufactured by the press, and staged contests between the two tactfully delivered shared victories. Thalberg went on to enjoy a distinguished career, touring as far as the Americas (where Liszt never went), giving 56 recitals, for example, in New York alone. Here’s the final item from his Les Soirées de Pausilippe (Homage to Rossini) (8.223807): Polacca.
The dates of Alexander Scriabin’s birth and death depend on which version of the Russian calendar you use. For our purposes, the new Russian calendar has him born on 6 January, 1872 and dying on 27 April, 1915. The reason for his passing puts him among those few composers who died from unusual causes. In Scriabin’s case, it was a pimple on his upper lip that became infected and caused fatal blood poisoning. This resulted in a career much shorter than that of his friend and fellow student, Sergei Rachmaninov. Scriabin began as a successful concert pianist, but he was soon encouraged as a composer by the music publisher and philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev, who published his earlier works.
Scriabin’s interest in philosophy and the theosophical theories of Madame Blavatsky influenced the form of his later compositions, particularly that of the larger-scale orchestral works. His life was impaired by a growing self-absorption coupled with eccentric beliefs, but we can mention a lighter moment here. Early in 1897 Belyayev was obliged to exert considerable pressure on Scriabin to finish his Piano Concerto in F sharp minor (8.550818). Rimsky-Korsakov was called on to assist, but was critical of the carelessness shown in the work and offended when Scriabin put his reply into the wrong envelope, sending instead a reply he had written to Lyadov, who was also helping with the score of the work. With that in mind, here’s the end of the concerto, which premiered in 1897.
It’s hard to mistake the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) for that of anyone else. He exercised a remarkable influence over composers both in his native France and elsewhere, although his own work is unique in its individuality. Educated at the Paris Conservatoire, he became principal organist of La Trinité in Paris after graduating in 1930, a position he retained for many years. Messiaen’s musical language is derived from a number of varied sources, including Greek metrical rhythms, Hindu tradition, the serialism of Schoenberg, Debussy and birdsong, with his whole work and life deeply influenced by the spirit of Catholicism.
Mobilised as a private soldier in the Second World War, Messiaen was taken prisoner near Nancy and sent to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia, where he spent about a year. In these difficult, extraordinary conditions, he composed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (8.554824), one of several milestones in his evolution in that for the first time it gave a significant place to birdsong. It was first performed on 15th January 1941, in front of five thousand prisoners in Siberian temperatures. ‘I’ve never had such an attentive, understanding audience,’ Messiaen commented.
In 1945, Sergey Koussevitzky persuaded Messiaen to accept one of his first commissions as a composer. How could he resist the lure of such terms as these: “Write me the work you want to, in the style you want, as long as you want, with the instrumental formation you want.” Written between July 1946 and November 1948, Turangalîla Symphony (8.554478-79) dominates Messiaen’s orchestral output, with its ten movements, 2683 bars and its colourful, augmented orchestra of more than a hundred players, including the ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard that can be heard rapturously whooping away at the end of the fifth movement, Joie du sang des étoiles.
On a more sombre note, I clearly recall the day on which the news came through that the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007) had died. It was announced at a concert I was attending in Hong Kong, following which the assembled audience and performers observed a 2-minute silence. This speaks to the global appreciation of Rostropovich’s contribution to the world of classical music.
In his younger days, Rostropovich paid the price for standing up to the Soviet authorities by complaining, for example, in an open letter to President Leonid Brezhnev about Soviet restrictions on cultural freedom. He and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya were rewarded by the cancellation of their planned tours and the disappearance of their recordings from Soviet catalogues. They went into exile in 1974 after they received exit visas; the West subsequently became enriched by Rostropovich’s rare gifts as a performer and a conductor. To play us out, here he is in a 1956 recording of Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto (9.80574) with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent.