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.
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war