Could this be the year of C.P.E. Bach?

The most talented of the Bach family (after his father), anything could happen if Radio 3 gets behind him

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

Looking through the list of composers who celebrate some sort of anniversary in 2014 is a depressing business. I don’t think I have ever seen such an anonymous collection of small-time nobodies, and yet for them to appear on a list at all suggests that they did something of note, and that someone has heard of it.

The only really big name to qualify is that of Richard Strauss, who was born 150 years ago. Often half-centenaries seem a little forced, not worth the fuss; nonetheless I anticipate there being some fuss about this one, since the cupboard is so bare. The Proms, to take one example, seem annually to live off the biggest-name anniversarians, who are pointed up in colourful articles in the brochure, with photos and learned round-ups of what it’s like to perform the music in question. These are safe articles, not trying to sell anything off-beat, or to justify the inclusion, since the very fact of the centenary does it all for them. Strauss’s 150th will only get them so far.

In the second rank come C.P.E. Bach (b. 1714), Christoph Willibald von Gluck (b. 1714), Jean-Philippe Rameau (d. 1764) and Giacomo Meyerbeer (d. 1864), all composers with admirable reputations and regular performances, though in the case of the last three mentioned difficult to slot into a concert series. It will take an opera house to do justice to them. Easier will be C.P.E. Bach who, after his father, was the most talented of all the extended Bach family. This could be the anniversary to watch in fact, since once in a blue moon such celebrations can actually change public perception of a composer’s work, if the substance is there but has been lying hidden. Whether this quite describes the status of C.P.E.’s music is unclear. Much of it is contained in intimate chamber-music forms — he wrote a truly impressive number of solo songs, solo keyboard works and trio sonatas, as well as 20 symphonies, six Passions that have survived (he wrote many more), and cantatas. If Radio 3 gets behind him, anything could happen.

In the third rank are those composers some of us have heard of, with uncertain reputations and infrequent performances. Into this category come Hans Leo Hassler (b. 1564), Franz Tunder (b. 1614), Thomas Attwood Walmisley (b. 1814), Alexander Gretchaninov (b. 1864) and Andrzej Panufnik (b. 1914). And then the fourth rank includes everybody else, people who can scarcely have been known outside their family circle, and possibly not even by them. Boning up on Jan Evangelista Antonin Kozeluh (d. 1814), I read: ‘Since the clarinet concerto is only named “Kuzeluh” it’s not known for certain if Leo or his nephew (or uncle) Leopold wrote it. However, this concerto is so full of errors (probably not finished) that its first performance wasn’t until 1962.’ No mention of Jan.

I could go on, but there are two minor but worthwhile anniversaries I would like to draw attention to. The first is that of Robert Fayrfax (b. 1464). The last time we had the opportunity to celebrate him (1964), almost no one had heard of him: now there are recordings and concert performances every week of the year and concerned discussion as to whether he was as fine as William Cornysh and John Browne, or merely as good as Nicholas Ludford. As a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1497 and Organist of St Albans Abbey from 1498, he was in the spotlight most of his career.

Fayrfax was one of those frustrating composers who are capable of hitting higher heights than those who hit the heights as a matter of course — Cornysh and Browne, for example — but who could fall way below that standard when the muse was absent. The final ‘Agnus’ to his Missa Tecum principium is so perfect that one wonders what was going on for the preceding 50 minutes or so, that lead up to it.

The other anniversary is that of Sir George Dyson (d.1964). He differs from Fayrfax in never having hit the heights, but rather in writing music that has given a lot of pleasure to many people. We shall probably never know what his Symphony in G or Violin Concerto are like, but every chorister in the country knows what his Evening Canticles in D are like; and it is hard to imagine them ever going out of the repertory. Add to this a pamphlet that he wrote entitled Grenade Warfare: notes on the training & organisation of grenadiers (Sifton, Praed & Co., London, 1915), and it will be recognised that we have a framework. I hope at least that the Proms will be able to run to a performance of The Canterbury Pilgrims, for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra: it could prove to be a major revival.

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  • Stephen Lamley

    Thank you for mentioning Dyson. He was a fine composer. I have ten or a dozen discs of his music, including the symphony and (much better) the Violin Concerto, of which I also have a score. I heard the Canterbury Pilgrims at the Three Choirs Festival in 2012, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, and an impressive work it is, although perhaps there are rather too many words. Christopher Palmer did a nice monograph on Dyson. It is time his work was better known.

  • Peter Black

    His Evening Service in F is also a delight … gentle music with lovely ‘blues-y’ moments and subtlety rhythmic devices that keep things moving unhurriedly along.