Claude Debussy died on 25 March 1918 to the sound of explosions. Four days earlier, the Kaiser’s army had deployed its long-range Paris Gun, and as Debussy’s cancer entered its final hours, artillery shells were bursting in the streets around his home in Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne. This quiet modernist — who’d transformed music into an art of almost limitless expressive subtlety — died amid the thunder of mechanised war. The funeral was poorly attended, and as the cortège halted, curious shopkeepers glanced at the wreaths: ‘It seems he was a musician.’
The classical music world is morbidly addicted to anniversaries of major composers. It’s still unclear whether the listening public feels the same way, and many anniversary celebrations try to fabricate an unearned sense of occasion around music that would have been played anyway (the memory of 2011’s Mahler feeding frenzy still brings on indigestion). That can’t be said for Debussy, whose revolution of sensibility has never quite lodged in the general imagination the way (say) Stravinsky’s has.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival, taking place over two busy weekends (16–18 and 23–25) in March, is the first really sizeable statement from the orchestra’s new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. The most obvious bases are covered — La mer, Images and virtually all the chamber music — but there’s no sense of an exercise in completism. Instead, with music ranging from Wagner and Szymanowski to Boulez, Takemitsu and Tristan Murail, the festival attempts to map Debussy’s place in musical history. It’s all informed by Grazinyte-Tyla’s instinct for drawing musical connections, and she follows up on 23 June with a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.
That’s easily the UK’s most ambitious Debussy commemoration, though the London Symphony Orchestra has an Essential Debussy strand, which includes the British première of a short orchestral suite by the student Debussy (21 January). The London Philharmonic, meanwhile, offers no pretext at all for devoting the whole of 2018 to Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey. It’s built around Vladimir Jurowski’s typically idiosyncratic selection of Stravinsky landmarks (Le baiser de la fée, anyone?), and like Grazinyte-Tyla’s Debussy Festival, explores what you might call Stravinsky’s ‘extended universe’. In the second half of the year we’re promised The Rake’s Progress (3 November) and the later 12-tone pieces, but I’m looking forward to February’s programmes, crammed with Imperial St Petersburg goodies by Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Glazunov — composers whose influence Stravinsky later tried to downplay. It’ll do the old monster good to have his roots showing.
As for opera, the Royal Opera presents four complete Ring cycles in the autumn (24 September–2 November). Pappano conducts, Nina Stemme is Brünnhilde, Stuart Skelton is Siegmund, and however you feel about Keith Warner’s vaguely sci-fi grab-bag of a production, that should be enough, really — even not-quite-perfect Wagner is still better than almost anything else. English National Opera continues its quest for critic-proof hits with Gilbert and Sullivan’s political satire Iolanthe (13 February–7 April). Just pray that director Cal McCrystal resists the temptation to make it somehow about Brexit. And Glyndebourne pays its Debussy dues with a new Pelléas et Mélisande (30 June–9 August) directed by Stefan Herheim, a middlebrow purveyor of slick Regietheater for people who don’t like Regietheater. Possibly not a great look for this unbearably poignant opera. But as Golaud, they’ve cast the magnificent Christopher Purves, and he’d be worth it alone.
Otherwise, head for Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (5–26 August), a lush, noir-ish psychological romance, drenched in melancholy, or Barrie Kosky’s exquisite reinvention of Handel’s Saul (19 July–25 August). Try Mascagni’s Isabeau at Opera Holland Park (14–28 July), whose plot (it’s based on the Lady Godiva legend) presents some eyebrow-raising staging challenges. Or make for the Cotswolds and Longborough Festival Opera, now taking its first step into Richard Strauss, with Ariadne auf Naxos (13–21 July). Elsewhere, the resurgent Mid Wales Opera tours a fresh Eugene Onegin from Bangor to Hereford (24 February–10 April); the scale is small but its artistic values are right up there.
The most hyped première this year, though, will probably be George Benjamin’s new opera Lessons in Love and Violence (Royal Opera, 10–26 May). Gifted chap, Benjamin: a succès d’estime, at the very least, is guaranteed. You might be more genuinely surprised by Scottish Opera’s ketchup-splattered revival of Turnage’s bovver-boy classic Greek (2–3 February), Joseph Phibbs’s Strindberg-inspired chamber opera Juliana (which premières at the Cheltenham Festival on 14 July), or Emily Howard’s To See The Invisible (Aldeburgh Festival, 8–11 June). It’s based on a short story by Robert Silverberg, and the idea of silver-age science fiction colliding with Howard’s fierce, iridescent soundworld is fascinating.
A few days later at Aldeburgh (16 June), there’s a performance of Morton Feldman’s five-hour meditation For Philip Guston. Alex Ross said that to hear it is ‘to enter into… a new consciousness’, and given that it begins before sunrise this performance certainly asks for commitment. For a noisier kind of transcendence, Sir Simon Rattle tops out his first year as music director of the LSO by mounting Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras at Tate Modern (30 June) — an event about which I suspect we’re going to hear rather a lot.
Unless you’re close to the grass roots, though, you probably won’t hear so much about Northampton’s annual celebration of local hero Malcolm Arnold (13–14 October), the astonishing International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Harrogate (8–27 August), which is this year presenting 13 out of the pair’s 14 stage works, or the world première of David Matthews’s Ninth Symphony (St George’s Bristol, 9 May). Matthews’s modernism is rooted in a lyrical impulse that he shares with Tippett, and there are signs that he’s finally starting to get his due (the Ulster Orchestra plays his Eighth Symphony in Belfast on 13 April).
And Tippett, too, is emerging from his posthumous reputation slump — it’s possible that his youthful Symphony in B flat, unheard since the 1930s and due to be performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow (1 February), will be the novelty that makes the most lasting impact this year (unless the Edinburgh International Festival and the Proms are planning any surprises). Tippett’s stated aim was to create, ‘in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty’. Who doubts that in 2018 we’re going to need as much of that as we can get?