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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496