Composer anniversaries are the product of complacency

That photo from the BBC Radio 3 blog of presenter Tom Service captures perfectly the complacency that powers the fashionable obsession with music anniversaries. With just a few notable exceptions these anniversaries are the product of complacent concert programming, complacent recording and broadcast scheduling, and complacent journalism. Wagner, Verdi, Britten and the Rite are currently no brainers - schedule the concert, write the press release, and the broadcasters and journalists will come. So why try to understand the data that shows that anniversaries have no enduring impact on a composer's popularity? Why - despite a parallel obsession with new audiences - take any notice of the hard evidence that overkill programming of a single composer actually reduces audience size? And why make the effort to explore off the anniversary path when the avaricious complacency that pervades classical music can be so easily exploited?

Tomorrow's On An Overgrown Path post is about a twentieth century author and independent spirit who was also a respected musician and little known composer; in fact his compositions are so little-known that his only published music is a string quartet which has never been recorded. He does not have an anniversary this year and I make no claims that my subject was a genius who composed neglected masterpieces; however Philip Glass does acknowledge the early influence of his best-known book. My sources extended beyond the ubiquitous press releases, promotional freebies and internet, and the essay has no agenda of promoting a new recording, book, concert series or broadcast. My purpose in writing was, as ever, simply to share a discovery with readers. Tomorrow's post will not change the course of music history, and claims to be 'influential' are of no interest to me. But independent analysis suggests that On An Overgrown Path punches above its weight, and there is little doubt that this is because - concert promoters, record companies, broadcasters and journalists please note - it dares to be different. I do hope that you will read tomorrow's post, if only because it is not the product of complacency.

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David said…
I take your point, but don't entirely agree. When the composer needs help, anniversaries can be useful. The trouble is that the lesser-known figures still don't get the treatment they deserve. Martinu didn't get a London cycle of his symphonies in anniversary year; that had to wait. Look how little Poulenc (it's the 50th anniversary of his death) is being performed at the Proms. Yet that might have been the perfect opportunity.

But, of course, enough already of Verdi, Wagner and Britten. Except for - so far - the Chelsea Opera Group airing of Die Feen. Alzira, too, I suppose, if you care for that sort of thing. As for Britten, the fact that the BBC (yes) decided to go against the grain and try and salvage Tippett has been one good offshoot.
Pliable said…
Thanks David, and, in fact, I don't think we disagree. As I say in the post, there are some notable exceptions to the complacent anniversary bandwagon: one is the South Bank Centre's Claude Vivier concert which I linked to.

But it is difficult to understand what the current lemming-like hyping of high profile composers achieves. My analysis of Google Trends showed that the extensive exposure that Mahler received in his two anniversary years - which was similar to the current Wagner, Mahler and Verdi activity - had very little impact -
Pliable said…
One noteworthy point related to David's comment is that the Requiem of George Lloyd (1913-1998) - - is being performed at this season's BBC Proms -
Pliable said…
John McLaughlin Williams comments via Facebook:

This is exactly right. More exposure for the overexposed equals ennui among an audience that can stay home and listen in comfort to familiar chestnuts from a vast catalog of fine recordings -
Philip Amos said…
Tom Service next to a portrait of Wagner, and apparently just staring into the middle distance. Apt, I think. Service it was who, in a Guardian column about music used in movies, wrote that Wagner's Valkyries were bloodthirsty creatures who roamed the world killing warriors. In the furore that followed, one commenter was suspended from making comments in the Guardian, and I very nearly was, an honour which I regret was denied me. Service's editor interceded to say that he didn't like the lad being attacked by brutes like me, and everyone was entitled to his own view of what Valkyries did. Ah, post-modern music journalism.

On the bright side, unless they have a musical wing-ding for the 450th. anniversary of his birth, I shall be dead before the next Vivaldi celebration. At least I hope so. Just the thought of a solid week of Vivaldi and Pet Rock Trelawney makes me reach for the smelling salts.
ghooper said…
Let's be fair. Yes, Tom Service can be sloppily journalistic, as indeed can Alex Ross (witness the repetition of that alleged Britten-Nono incident at Dartington whilst ignoring the evidence for their friendly relations which, of course, would spoil a good story). However, Service's series of enthusiastic and refreshingly non-partisan introductions to a wide range of contemporary composers in the Guardian was, surely. a good thing for which he deserves credit.
Pliable said…
Thanks for that gh and you make a fair point. The purpose of my post was not to denigrate Tom Service's ability as a journalist, but rather to lament the current obsession with composer anniversaries.

But I am afraid that, for me at least, Service's status as a fully paid-up member of the BBC Radio 3 mutual admiration society precludes any possibility of taking his journalism seriously.
Unknown said…
Fully agree with your comments on the centenarian industry. What was once a useful lever for raising the neglected from undeserved obscurity has just become a PR bandwagon for 'more of the same'. My comment on Tom Service was really aimed at the previous commentator.
Philip Amos said…
gh, I think I was, indeed, being perfectly fair. Service's doctoral thesis was on the music of a contemporary composer, and I concluded some time back that it is almost entirely in that world that he dwells. Otherwise, his knowledge of classical music seems to me scanty, replete with huge lacunae, and thus much given to error. The Valkyrie business turned into a furore because for a number of people it was obviously the final straw.

For all I know, he may be a very good journalist. But he most emphatically is not a good classical music critic. He simply does not have the stuff.

RE the Britten/Nono business, that was still being talked about when I was at Dartington. Whether they were friends later was irrelevant to Ross' adversion to it and to mine here a short time ago. Certainly what I was concerned with was the mentality of artists who turn their backs on others simply because they work in a different mode. The Boulez/Leibowitz debacle is another example. This is all childish behaviour, but what is truly significant is that in that age of Hoffer's 'True Believer', composers such as these were as closed-minded as any fundamentalist Christian or USSR-aligned communist.
Unknown said…
PA, I wasn't impuning your judgement of Tom Service's skills as a music critic. I just felt it fair to place something positive in the other pan of the scales.

I am just curious about the Nono-Britten story. Britten was not a person to take an insult lightly so I find it surprising that, a couple of years later, he and Pears were having lunch with the Nonos in Venice. Neil Powell's comment in his biography was that, despite their musical differences, the two composers got on very well.

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