Nobody owns a dead composer
The quantity and tone of comments on Martin Kettle’s brave Guardian column titled 'Why we must talk about Britten’s boys' highlights the problem of the ownership of dead composers. It seems every Guardian reader believes they own Britten, or rather believes they own an idealised image of him, and heavens help anyone who challenges that image.
In this discussion ‘ownership’ is a metaphor for the biases, agendas, conditioning, illusions, dualisms, allegiances and other emotional baggage that we all carry, and which are barriers to objective assessment. The ownership of dead composers is not confined to broadsheet readers. Radio stations claim ownership with marathon anniversary coverage, bloggers contend for ownership by championing favoured composers, authors assert ownership with biographies, and musicians make their own bids by specialising in a composer’s music. Others have commercial claims to ownership, including the estates of dead composers that benefit from royalties, the publishing houses that control their catalogues, and the foundations that fund performances of their music.
All dead composers are the subject of complex and conflicting ownership claims, but Britten is one of the more extreme examples. The Britten-Pears Foundation and Faber Music have persuasive claims, the residents of Aldeburgh have a different kind of claim and many still view Humphrey Carpenter’s frank biography as reprehensible, while, as debate about Britten’s boys raged in the Guardian last week, another ownership contender tip-toed around the dead moose of the moment by tweeting the revelation of “cup cakes served @aldeburghmusic”. There is no doubt the estates, publishing houses and foundations that represent dead composers do invaluable work. And, similarly, every composer needs their loyal followers. But let's not forget there are also numerous examples in the arts world of well-meaning disciples seizing ownership, and in the process distorting a great creative legacy.
Any outsider reading the comments on Martin Kettle’s Guardian column must inevitably conclude that classical music is not an art but a blood sport. Acceptance that nobody owns a dead composer would make classical music more tolerant, and, more importantly, would make it look less ridiculous to outsiders. Uri Caine is a master at de-bunking the ownership myth with his irreverent takes on composers which include upcoming anniversary boy Wagner played by a six piece ensemble in a café in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, as seen above. It would be nice if Uri added Britten to his scalps in 2013, if only to see the reaction of the composer's many self-appointed owners.
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