In the Matter of Anniversaries . . .

Schubert is so endlessly performed, recorded, analyzed, psychoanalyzed, contextualized, and fought over that it needs to be asked what is gained by making a special fuss over his two-hundredth birthday. Yet here we are in the midst of it, and it's turning out, despite a relative lack of "blockbuster events" (as Thomas Denny reported in a recent newsletter of the Westfield Center), to be an occasion ardently embraced by musicians, sponsors, and the public alike. Here in Maine, for instancehardly the center of the musical universea Schubert enthusiast has put together a calendar of over fifty Schubert concerts and special events taking place during this bicentennial year. And it's not just Schubert. Every year brings major anniversary commemorations of the birth (or death) of several important composers, and on my public radio station, every day brings a listing of musicians living and dead who were born on that day of the year. More and more, it seems, the classical-music business, commercial and academic, is one big birthday party. What's going on?

Actually, musicians have been singing birthday songs for a long time. The momentous Handel Commemoration in London in 1784 marked an anniversary (the twenty-fifth of Handel's death), as did Mendelssohn's 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion (the hundredth of the work's premiere). And historians have identified partisan, nationalist, and sectarian motivations that shaped those events (see, for instance, William Weber's chapter on the Handel Commemoration in his Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England [Oxford, 1992]).

The musical birthday parties of our own time may not yield to a comparable analysis until they can be viewed from a comparable historical distance. But it is already possible to identify several factors that have given the phenomenon new life and new shape in the postwar era. One is the pressure of the media: classical radio stations need principles of coherence for endless hours of programming, day after day, and birthdays supply it.

Another factor is the publicity that Charles Schultz's cartoon strip Peanuts has given to Beethoven's birthday. Of course Peanuts reflects the canonical way people have long been made to think about classical music. But it has also, I think, affected the way we live with the musical canon, encouraging us to treat it as a calendar of saints' days, with Beethoven occupying the place of the Virgin Mary. As that metaphor has taken root, we have moved from airing composers' music on their birthdays to constructing concert seasons and academic courses around a composer on his or her anniversary.

There are problems with this tendency. One is that the calendar of musical saints is dominated by the usual kind of suspect, and adding women and non-Europeans will never quite even things up. It is in the nature of canonic thinking that some saints are more equal than others, and Clara Schumann will never have the same status as Schubert, any more than Mother Elizabeth Seton will ever be one of the Apostles.

In a larger sense, the problem is not that we have don't the right saints, but that we are living by a musical religion constructed around saints in the first place. And what exactly is wrong with that? Is it that the only possible attitude we can assume toward a saint is veneration? Hardly, given our tendency in recent years to contemplate our musical saints' sexual lives, their human failings, their ideological slants, and the pressures of all sorts to which we can find them succumbing in their musical works. The problem, to my mind, is that even when we are demystifying the lives of the composer- saints, we are reinforcing the centrality of the composer and failing to give needed attention to other constituents of musical culture. In the musical network of a society, after all, the composer is just one point, intersecting with the publisher, the patron, the performer, the critic, the listener, the arranger, the teacher, the copyist, the disc jockey . . . ; we can't apprehend the musical life of Vienna in the 1820s by taking Schubertlet alone Beethovenas the sun around which everything else revolved. And if we consider our own musical life only as a moment in the reception histories of great composersasking what Schubert means to us todayhow will we come to understand or even notice our own musical practices (such as our obsessive celebration of musical birthdays)?

None of this is to say that I don't find profit and pleasure in the intense focus that an anniversary commemoration gives to the figure and works of a single composer. In fact, I have never enjoyed any musical anniversary so much as this Schubert bicentennial. I have heard Susan Youens speak on Die Winterreise and then heard Sanford Sylvan sing it, with David Breitman playing a Rod Regier replica of a Graf fortepiano; I have been inspired to use Schubert in new ways in my teaching; and I can never get enough of his music.

At the same time, I believe that we should make room on our musical calendar for other kinds of observances (here I should note that I am collaborating with others around the country in planning events to mark the tercentenary of the invention of the piano) and make room in our thinking for newways of mapping the subject of music. We can, for instance, imagine ways of teaching courses about the Western classical tradition in which composers are not the only saints, or are mentioned only incidentally, or . . . .

With this column, I complete my term as reviews editor (a title I have sometimes interpreted quite freely) for the Newsletter. I thank my editor, K Stolba, for her wonderful support and my readers for their indulgence.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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