Contemporary music’s grand old men

Never mind the 2012 Olympics. The following year, the world of classical music is facing a marathon celebration: in 2013, a coincidence of composers’ anniversaries means that the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner fall in the same year as the centenaries of two leading 20th-century composers, Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski.

As far as Britten is concerned, the opportunities are already exercising the staff at the Britten-Pears Foundation in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Life at the Red House, Britten’s home in the latter part of his life, seemed blissfully quiet under the heat of the midday sun on a Sunday morning earlier this month, but plans are shaping up for the anniversary year.

Inside the house, the main rooms feel like a 1960s time warp, not least those low-slung, wooden sofas and the swirly patterned carpets, but there is still scope for some detailed renovation. Using contemporary photographs as a record, elements of the furnishings and the books in the library will be returned to exactly as they were during the composer’s lifetime.

In addition, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has ensured that the small exhibition area, currently showing memorabilia related to the tenor Peter Pears, will be extended and a new study centre built.

For the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Britten and Pears in 1948, the prospect of 2013 will be viewed in a different light. Since Britten died, careful artistic management has moved step by step to establish a new focus on today’s living composers. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist and current artistic director, has set his sights on making Aldeburgh the summer destination of choice for the most distinguished composers of the day and the final weekend of this year’s festival displayed his pulling power. Almost the whole of the last three days was given over to events about or with Pierre Boulez, the éminence grise of new music – now 85, though who would believe it?

There was a delicious irony in seeing Boulez venturing into this East Anglian retreat. While Britten was alive, Boulez was not slow to express his disdain for composers who were not cutting-edge modern (Shostakovich being another in his firing line) and one imagines he would not have been seen within spitting distance of Aldeburgh. He clearly still thinks little of Shostakovich’s music, even if he chose his words diplomatically in an excellent question-and-answer session, but Aldeburgh had opened its arms to him and Boulez responded.

Members of his own Ensemble Intercontemporain played early and recent Boulez pieces among a wide range of other composers. The earthy grit of Varèse’s Octandre was paired with the airy fantasy of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, and then – a major coup – there was the premiere of a new song-cycle, What are Years, by Elliott Carter, 102 this year but as intellectually penetrating as ever. After that Boulez’s own Derive 2 felt – dare one say it? – almost backward-looking, as if the old iconoclast had given in to a long secret temptation and wanted to try on Messiaen’s clothes for size.

Will Boulez’s music survive as strongly as Britten’s has? A difficult question, which only time will tell – especially when Britten is more widely performed now than at any time since his death. What is certain is that the festival’s ability to present today’s most illustrious composers, and not just those from the UK, is crucially important. The 1960s sofas and swirly patterned carpets are happily only one part of the Aldeburgh story.

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