A Bumper Crop

January 24, 2010

Anthony Tommasini has an article in today’s New York Times about the coincidence of the Schumann and Chopin birth-bicentenaries falling in 2010. The link between them, as he tells us, was Schumann’s earnest championing of Chopin’s music. Since Schumann was a very influential writer on music, this was significant to the success of a Polish immigrant to Western Europe who rarely played in public. (Tommasini passes over the less affirmative fact that Chopin, in return, treated Schumann and his music with something like contempt.)

While the 2010 double anniversary deserves to be celebrated, and will be, I’m equally interested in the fact that so short a period of time as four years produced such a large helping of the most influential musicians of an era. A simple and selective list is striking:

1809 Mendelssohn
1810 Chopin
1810 Schumann
1811 Liszt
1813 Wagner

(Am I alone in often carelessly thinking of Liszt as being much older than Wagner — perhaps because Liszt’s daughter married a man who turns out to be about the same age as her father?)

And this is to deal only with some who are now considered composers of the very first rank. What about Félicien César David (1810 – 1876), Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (1810 – 1849), Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810 – 1876), Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896), Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 1885), Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871), Stephen Heller (1813 – 1888), or Charles-Henri Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)? They all made real marks on a music world very unlike our own, though the esteem in which they’ve been held has been markedly variable over the years.

Speaking of someone whose reputation was very high, then sank for a time, and is now perhaps more exalted than ever: one Giuseppe Fortunino Frencesco Verdi was born down in Italy in the same year as Wagner, showing that it must have been the air of those four years, not the soil, that yielded such an unexampled bounty.

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