x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The right time to celebrate these classical greats

For classical music, years like 2009 come almost as rarely as Halley's Comet. It is an anniversary in one form or another for Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Handel and Purcell.

For classical music, years like 2009 come almost as rarely as Halley's Comet. In a flurry of activity unseen since the bicentenary of Mozart's death, a remarkable constellation of composer anniversaries are packed into the next 12 months. The great Austrian Haydn died 200 years ago, the same year in which that most popular composer of the Victorians, Mendelssohn, was born. It is also the 250th anniversary of the Baroque master Handel's death, while Britain's exquisite opera pioneer Henry Purcell was born 350 years ago this September.

Responding to surging public interest, orchestras and musicians around the world have thrown themselves into a storm of commemoration, with opera seasons, radio retrospectives, gala concerts and CD box-set releases being showered on music-lovers like confetti at a wedding. Abu Dhabi is also getting in on the act, with the Vienna Philharmonic performing Mendelssohn's thrilling masterwork the Octet for Strings, in the courtyard of the Al-Jahili fortress in Al Ain on Wednesday.

This revival can surely only be a good thing - can't it? Well, for all the musicians and listeners joyously experiencing fresh parts of the repertoire, there are, inevitably, a few dissenting voices. Whenever a major anniversary comes along, hype is often perilously close to overshadowing the music itself. As a young visitor to Austria's Mozart Year in 1991, I remember battling through blasé coach parties, shopping for souvenir trinkets and guzzling Mozart marzipan balls more than I do any music I heard. There's also a danger that only the best-known and most publicly digestible music gets an airing, drowning out music unconnected to the anniversaries. The unusually prominent line-up of musical stars this year, for example, means that the 50th anniversary of the fine Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's death has been overshadowed by classical and baroque splendour.

At the same time, anniversaries help bring composers about whom preconceptions have become cosily fixed back into focus, giving us a chance to reassess and enjoy their output anew. Of all the figures with centenaries in 2009, this seems to be especially true of Haydn, a composer who can seem both dauntingly prolific and strangely shadowy for uninitiated listeners. Arguably the world's least known great composer, Haydn's is a name that is widely recognised but difficult for most people to attach to a familiar piece of music. A man with a long and relatively uneventful life, he spent most of his placid career as court composer to the aristocratic Hungarian Eszterházy family at their elephantine palace south-east of Vienna.

With a vast oeuvre carefully tuned to the refined but studiedly moderate tastes of his patrons, it's been said that Haydn's failure as a musical celebrity (though not as a composer) lay in neither dying young or going deaf. This self-effacing existence, along with his proximity in time to Mozart and Beethoven (whom he taught briefly), has led to the composer being quite unjustifiably perceived as an also-ran.

As this year's revival of interest has shown, this is a big mistake. We are, after all, talking about the man who effectively created the classical symphony, producing music that is almost invariably fresh and delightful - and somehow especially sympathetic and warm towards its listeners. With major retrospectives of his work worldwide and even a 50 CD box set of his collected works, enthusiasm for this important figure appears to be returning - in a no tunpleasant example of classical anniversary year commercialism, specialist travel companies are even offering pilgrimages to his former home in the dusty baroque Eszterházy Palace. Having a whole year in which to focus on the man has also helped provide a frame for his mind-bogglingly large oeuvre: Britain's BBC Radio Three is currently rattling through his 104 symphonies by broadcasting two a week.

It's such efforts that make anniversaries like 2009 so exciting, providing enough buzz to introduce some of the most interesting and beautiful music ever written to people who might otherwise have passed it by. This month in Al Ain, for example, audiences can pinch themselves again and ask how something as mellifluously fluent and exciting as Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings could have been written by a mere 16-year-old. Amid all the supposed stuffiness and elitism of classical music, moments like this are invaluable in reminding us just how much fantastic, life-enhancing music there is out there for the taking.