Part 4: Anniversaries of note

This year's Proms feature the major anniversaries of several well-known (and not so well-known) composers. But can that make the programmes a little predictable, asks Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Saturday night’s concert by Sir Charles Mackerras and the BBC Philharmonic was top drawer stuff. A thrilling performance of Holst’s The Planets was preceded by a spry account of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and a rarefied Song of the High Hills, Frederick Delius’s impressionistic tone poem on Norwegian mountains. (Imagine Strauss’s Alpine Symphony composed by a young Debussy, then throw in a few clods of English pastoralism and an eight-part wordless chorus for good measure.)

The evening’s theme was the year 1934, an admittedly significant year for British music, which witnessed not only the deaths of Saturday’s three contributing composers, but also the births of enfants terribles Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.

But hang on a minute – didn’t we just do the whole 1934 thing? Wasn’t it one of the major leitmotifs of the 2004 Proms season? Back then we were marking the 70th anniversary of That Fateful Year; this time round, we are presumably meant to be celebrating the 75th. The festivities will doubtless continue on in 2014, either for the 80th anniversary of 1934 or, perhaps more imaginatively, to mark a decade since the 2004 Proms.

Whatever the case, we do seem to focus a lot on anniversaries at the Proms. This year, beyond the five composers mentioned above, we are also checking off the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, the bicentenary of both Mendelssohn’s birth and Haydn’s death, and a century since the formation of Diaghilev’s Ballets russes. All of these are being extensively celebrated in numerous Proms programmes.

Then there are the smaller occasions, such as James MacMillan’s and Steve Martland’s 50th birthdays; the 70th birthday festivities of Louis Andriessen, Jonathan Harvey, John McCabe and Heinz Holliger; a 75th birthday for Peter Dickinson and an 80th for George Crumb. Not to mention the 50 years since the deaths of Bohuslav Martinů, Albert Ketèlbey, Heitor Villa-Lobos and George Antheil. And poor old Louis Spohr, who died 150 years ago but who gets only one item in this year’s programme.

I suppose all these significant dates are useful when trying to programme a 76-concert season several years in advance. But a lot of it does feel like filler. I mean, nice though Song of the High Hills was, how much Delius does one really need to hear in a season? I’m all for encouraging a fresh look at neglected composers – after all, it was the 50th anniversary of Mahler’s death that really got his career going – but it’s all getting a bit predictable now.

Perhaps what we really need is to stop limiting anniversaries to multiples of five or ten years. Next year, for instance, is the 92nd anniversary of Ravel’s death. We could always use a bit more Ravel at the Proms. And the following year, I believe you’ll find it is the 241st anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. There’s never a bad time to celebrate Beethoven. Imagine how easy it would be for Roger Wright and co. to fill those 76 programmes! The punters would love it and the performers would love it. And most importantly, there wouldn’t be any filler – just full houses.
 

Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
 
Main image: Chris Christodoulou