Don’t bother counting the candles…

“…we’re pretty sure it’s your birthday or something” – why anniversary programming fails to bring new listeners to classical music.

“We’re quite fond of anniversaries here on the Early Music Show”, announces host Emma Kirkby merrily as she introduces an hour of music by English composer John Dowland (BBC Radio 3). The anniversary in question is that of the composer’s birth (although forming anniversaries out of the year of death is an equally acceptable method) 450 years ago. Although the big four-five-oh may not seem the most momentous of years for an anniversary, it seems the only reason programmers find for rolling a composer out of the history books is an anniversary year. At this year’s BBC Proms, for example, the programme is dominated by Verdi, Wagner, and Britten who are each ‘celebrating’ a centenary or two. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating a composer a hundred or two hundred years after they were born; it can often serve to unravel the somewhat complicated musical-historical timeline and remind us that Verdi and Wagner were contemporaries, and surprise us with the knowledge that Britten is no longer really in our country’s recent past. When looking further back in time towards composers such as Dowland, however, anniversaries become increasingly meaningless and perhaps (450? Really?) increasingly desperate. The ‘anniversary’ based programme when compared with a more historically or culturally insightful one is much like comparing a shop-bought sauce to the one made at home – the basic idea remains the same, but the lack of human care and individual flavouring makes it by far a less memorable dish.

It is important to note times when the anniversary programme has done good work in bringing composers who had fallen out of favour back into the modern repertoire. Anton Bruckner, for example, enjoyed a significant revival after the centenary of his death in 1996 and music critics began to reassess his work which had previously been dismissed as the overlong musical ramblings of an eccentric (with a generous side-order of neurotic) Christian. However, is such an approach necessary with composers like Wagner and Britten? Perhaps a few works showcased in celebration is necessary, but the sheer saturation of Wagner’s works at the Proms in this anniversary year is surely enough to put anyone off Gods, Valkyries and incest for life. A rather arch summary of his opus, to be sure, but with the coverage of the celebration heaped upon the Ring Cycle (with Parsifal consigned to the Sunday of August bank holiday) it makes an important point about public perception; the proms aren’t doing the best job in challenging the view that opera is all about generously proportioned women in horned helmets.

The anniversary of a composer’s birth does little to give them interest and relevance to the modern listener – it is of course important to be able to consider a composer within their historical era, but how much does it really grab the listener’s attention when the first piece of information offered about Dowland is that he happened to be born 450 years ago? That information in itself is uninteresting and incidental. The issue with beginning a programme in this way is that the listener has no instant picture of the composer, his style, interests or personality. The attention of the modern radio listener is arguably harder to capture than in years past, with a plethora of new channels emerging all the while, giving us ever-increasing options. A recent study by ITProPortal has found that the modern family has several media outlets active in every room with phones, tablets and televisions all running simultaneously – the sole attention of the consumer is harder to attract, and at the press of a button a new source of entertainment can be found. The instant presentation of a musician with their anniversary is therefore a question posed to the listener; are you hooked yet, or will you move on? Unless you’re already a music enthusiast, the chances are you won’t be instantly thrilled.

BBC Radio Three is obviously trying to entice new listeners into early music by placing the Early Music Show directly after Private Passions, which since 1995 has been asking celebrities from all walks of life (Dame Edna Everage on Khachaturian, anyone?) to discuss their favourite music. Yesterday it was scientist and co-discoverer of the pulsar Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The general desire to know more about famous entertainers, musicians, writers and others pulls listeners into this show which combines the personal interest of the guest with their own varied and detailed musical interests. Given their awareness of personal interest here, it seems poorly planned that so little personal interest finds its way into the Early Music Show, which finds no better way to introduce John Dowland than mentioning that he was born quite some years ago, and has therefore been dead for almost as many.

A further issue – particularly with radio shows and documentaries – with the anniversary approach is it gives sole focus to one composer, and rarely seeks contemporary comparison. The Early Music Show’s focus on Dowland, despite only existing because of the historical fact of his birth, seemed to entirely remove him from the historical timeline. The number 450, rather than having historical meaning, was used as a means to create a generic sense of age and time which prevented Dowland from being seen in historical context or from being given modern relevance. Dowland lived and worked during one of England’s most interesting historical eras – converting to Catholicism whilst living under the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, he carried himself and his lute of to the Danish court, engaged in a little espionage on behalf of the Earl of Salisbury before returning during the reign of James I and securing the position of the King’s lutenist. However, very little of this colourful life was even alluded to in the program, which despite drawing in a number of voices to discuss his music (even invoking Sting’s affinity with the composers work, to the apparent displeasure of the resident expert) was a rather dry and impassive affair. In a programme focussed on Dowland’s consort song, a most popular form of courtly entertainment, it seems nonsensical that more was not made of Dowland’s travels to courts across Europe and the impact this exposure had on his musical style.

The popularity of the historical drama these days – from ITV’s Downton Abbey to the BBC’s new dissent-and-romance special The White Queen – demonstrates how much we all enjoy discovering our country’s past, albeit with a showbiz veneer (of course everyone in 15th century Britain had perfect teeth and hair). Why is the country’s musical past left out? I don’t wish to advocate a ‘White Queen’ approach to musicology, sensationalising beyond recognition and plundering musician’s lives for any hint of political intrigue or clandestine liaison, but I do hope that programmers like the BBC will begin to use the life and times of early composers more in order to capture the wider interests of the British public and to provide a contextual historical background to their music.

The fact of the matter is that no composer is defined solely by their birth date – they are defined by how they reacted to the world around them, the musical influences they chose to pursue or refute, the historical events which moved them to put pen to paper and create. By allowing the birthdates of composers to dominate our musical culture today we run the risk of stripping away their historical relevance, creating an anti-history which isolates musicians from their place, their time and their contemporaries; enhancing the sense of musicians as ‘figures’ rather than people. Our ability to relate to the more personal aspects of a composer – and therefore to fully understand their music – is hampered by an approach to programming which creates a sense of otherness and removal around musicians both past and present.

N. Barstow

To listen to the Early Music Show broadcast on John Dowland, please visit the Radio 3 website where the broadcast is available for the next six days. Nick Barstow is a guest writer for the Review. An arranger, composer, director, and recent music graduate from Oxford, he has been musical director of Oxford-based pop a cappella group ‘Out of the Blue’ and will be seen directing the new semi-professional group ‘AfterParty’ this coming year. Follow him on Twitter @nickbarstow for updates regarding his writing and performing.

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