An obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into state-funded tribute bands

2013 was an easy one for festival programmers. Wagner, Verdi and Britten all have major anniversaries this year. But doesn't organising a festival around something as arbitrary as a composer's birthday undermine the fundamental value of the work?

The men and women responsible for deciding what’s performed at our major classical music festivals, opera houses and concert halls must have had a glint in their eye when they saw 2013 coming. This was the year to kick-back, relax and use up some of that that surplus annual leave: this was the year that would programme itself. All the artistic directors had to do was draw up lists of the most obvious works by the "big three" anniversary composers – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – then spend a few weeks deciding who should sing/direct/conduct what. So, pretty much what they’ve been doing every other year of late, only this time with an even shorter list of composers to worry about.

Nobody was looking forward to Wagner’s bicentenary year more than I was. I love Wagner, I need Wagner and I can’t imagine life without Wagner. But I haven’t had to imagine life without Wagner for the last ten years, because his operas are so good that they’re performed all the time. What I’m really hoping for in the two-hundredth year since his birth is for someone to rock my understanding of Wagner’s art to a significant degree; to show me something so profound or extraordinary about him that it alters the path of his music into my body and teaches me something new about life.

As much as I’d like to think it will – and I’m still holding out some hope – I’m not sure seven of his operas performed just as the composer wouldn’t have wanted at this summer’s Proms (in concert, un-staged) will do that. At least in Germany they’ve got a national conversation going. The Rheinoper Düsselforf’s Nazi-themed Tannhäuser (not, contrary to most reporting, a particularly iconoclastic starting-point given opera directors’ frequent dalliances with Nazism) was pulled and hey presto, Wagner got the birthday present he deserves: a passionate, unbridled and often dirty discussion about the value and message of his work that simply wouldn’t have come from a concert performance, however musically revelatory.

Verdi and Britten are outstanding and endlessly nourishing composers, too. But that’s precisely why their operas are performed year-in, year-out all over the world. If we’re to celebrate their anniversaries this year (200 and 100 year respectively) we need to think imaginatively about what those milestones mean and what opportunities they present. There have been well over a dozen separate production runs of operas by Benjamin Britten in the UK in the last five years, so clearly opting to "put on a Britten opera" doesn’t cut the mustard as a celebratory act unless it brings something profoundly new to the table.

In truth, I worry that our increasing reliance on composer anniversaries is rooted in something even more dangerous than chronic lack of imagination: an umbilical obsession with the past. You can hardly get through a morning on the classical radio stations these days without hearing a piece composed by someone "who was born on this day in 1847". Fascinating. Now try telling us something about the music that’s actually relevant to our lives in 2013 – about those feelings of frustration, fear, paranoia, community, love and hope that have fuelled great art for centuries and that commute daily through the minds of the 21st-century beings who flock in large numbers to see new art, new theatre and new film. If we’re insistent on programming an organic art form via arbitrary milestones – which composer birthdates usually are – we undermine the relevance of the works themselves. That, and our performing institutions will become curiosities: state-supported tribute bands knocking out ‘old favourites’ for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance.

Contrary to my flippant opening paragraph, of course, we all know that programmers face treacherously difficult tasks. We also know that a concert performance of Parsifal or Götterdämmerung can be an overwhelming and provocative experience (though the last time the Proms presented the latter opera, a mere 6 years ago, it certainly wasn’t).

And there have been illuminating projects this year – Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh; ENO’s scintillating shortened La Traviata which got the heckles of this magazine’s music critic up; and just last Friday a lesson in how to illuminate Wagner with revelatory anniversary context from the pucky, revisionist little orchestra Aurora. You have to admire Welsh National Opera, too, for opting to stage a (relatively) new work in Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream for its Wagner celebrations. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think these examples are the norm. The norm, in fact, has been operatic revivals, operas in concert, and orchestras playing remarkably similar selections of orchestral works.

So here’s a thought. While those bold projects focussed on the biggest names should in fact be happening every year we continue to hold their creators in such high regard, maybe we should turn our anniversary obsession in the direction of those composers who are crying out for rehabilitation. At classical music marketing school I was told that an anniversary is one of the best sales tools available. Splendid, let’s use it to big-up those birthday composers who we don’t hear about in any other year.

Paul Hindemith, Witold Lutosławski, Francis Poulenc and Kenneth Leighton all have anniversaries this year and they all wrote music that’s fascinating, relevant (mostly), highly-crafted and which often spiked the creative status-quo as dictated by their more conventional colleagues.

The Proms is having an admirable stab at Lutosławski this summer – great news, given the festival’s unique communal atmosphere that’s such a lubricant to critical reappraisal. But there’s only one piece of Poulenc and there’s not a jot of Leighton nor a hint of Hindemith to counter the 1627 minutes of Wagner. If the arts exist ‘to ameliorate our fear of the unknown’ as the baritone Thomas Hampson eloquently suggested they do in a recent interview, it’s these figures we should be putting on a pedestal for one year only, not the ones who are there the rest of the time anyway.

An institution like the Proms risks becoming a state-sponsored tribute act if it fails to innovate. Photograph: BBC Pictures.
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism