A celebration of the French composer kicks-off a run of major festivals. Christopher Morley finds out what's in store.

Birmingham Conservatoire presents no fewer than three major festivals this term, with a week-long chamber music jamboree beginning on February 13, and this year’s “Frontiers +” week in mid-March celebrating the work of the internationally acclaimed German composer and theatre artist Heiner Goebbels.

Preceding these two events come three days marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great and influential French composer Claude Debussy – amazing to realise that someone whose music still speaks with a contemporary voice was born in 1862.

Roy Howat, internationally renowned pianist and Debussy expert, presides over proceedings, including leading two masterclasses with Conservatoire piano students.

This Debussy festival features the composer’s complete solo piano works, Howat himself performing Book Two of the Preludes, students from the Conservatoire and the Junior Conservatoire playing all the rest of this impressive corpus.

But it’s not just about the piano music; there is also a recital of the late sonatas (violin, cello, and the trio-sonata for flute, viola and harp) written during the Great War, and just before the composer’s early death from cancer; and one-time Conservatoire music librarian Robert Allan has devised a “Soiree Debussy”, the composer’s songs in performance from students of the Conservatoire’s Vocal and Operatic Department.

Just down Broad Street and turn left into Berkley Street to the CBSO Centre, a current Conservatoire Ph.D student (and visiting composition tutor) will be hearing an important premiere of his work given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group tomorrow evening.

‘Findetotenlieder’ by Sean Clancy comes as the culmination of the young Irish composer’s period as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/ SAM (Sound and Music) Apprentice Composer in Residence during which he has worked closely with BCMG and the American composer David Lang, as well as studying with Howard Skempton and Joe Cutler at the Conservatoire.

There is a huge allusive pun in the title, with resonances of the obvious ‘Kindertotenlieder’, Mahler’s “Songs on the death of children”. But there is more to Clancy’s composition than that, drawn as it is from Gabriel Orozco’s artwork ‘Obit’. Recently exhibited at Tate Modern, ‘Obit’ is an installation based on single lines taken from obituaries published in the New York Times, and hence the multilayers of Clancy’s title as he composes a song which sets these “found objects”.

Clancy describes his approach to the creation of ‘Findetotenlieder’: “By intervening upon Orozco’s ‘Obit’ I’m offering an alternative existence for the work, one in which its function moves from a piece of art to be viewed in space, to one which should listened to in time.

“A facet of this is that I’ve had to arrange the order of the specific lines that the audience is to hear, so I’ve edited 729 lines of text down to 30 lines and divided them up into six individual sections or verses.”

‘Findetotenlieder’ is also loosely based on the pop song ‘Someone Great’, as Sean explains:

“’Someone Great’ is a song by the American dance punk group LCD Soundsystem. It’s a song that deals with death, but treats the theme quite ambivalently – in my opinion.

"All my music over the past number of years has dealt with the popular music that has influenced me whilst growing up to some extent, and I suppose it could be considered a kind of musical psychoanalytical exercise.

“I’ve essentially taken the structure of ‘Someone Great’ and elongated it in ‘Findetotenlieder’, along with certain features of the song including a tiny motivic fragment, in addition to one feature of the song’s orchestration. All elements have however been utterly transformed, and the inner material of ‘Findetotenlieder’ actually bears no resemblance to ‘Someone Great’ at all.”

The result is an extended song in six verses with instrumental interludes. Soprano Susan Narucki is the soloist, and Clement Power conducts.

The rest of this BCMG programme is also based on “found objects”, beginning with Judith Weir’s ‘Musicians Wrestle Everywhere’ (a quotation from Emily Bronte), a sound-picture of the composer’s urban environment in London SE17, and premiered by BCMG as long ago as 1995.

Gerard Grisey’s ‘Four songs to cross the threshold’ draws on poems of Christian, Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian origin telling of the passage from life to death, and Gerald Barry (who has taught Sean Clancy in the past) is represented by his ‘Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions’, alluding to the popular sheet music the composer used to collect as a boy.

And Barry will have a much bigger performance on April 28, when BCMG is conducted by Thomas Ades at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in his new opera ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

* Birmingham Conservatoire’s Debussy Festival begins on February 8 (10am).

Details on 0121 245 4455.

BCMG at the CBSO Centre, Berkley Street Birmingham on February 3, 7.30pm (pre-concert interview with Sean Clancy 6.30pm).

Details on 0121 740 4050.