Why is classical music so obsessed with anniversaries?

From Chopin at 200 to Monteverdi at 450, classical music loves a birthday. Sometimes an anniversary is ripe for the taking, reckons Claire Jackson

The classical music industry clings on to anniversaries like a limpet in fear of the tide. Major birth and, macabre fashion, death days form the basis of many programmes. For example, the 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Liszt’s births, celebrated in 2010 and 2011 respectively, both permeated nearly every concert series and recording during those years. Marking the ‘200th birthday’ of someone who has been dead for many decades seems faintly bizarre, yet these pegs are seen as vital by traditional promoters. This year, for instance, has seen several cross-cultural events to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and 450 years since the birth of Monteverdi.

But sometimes an anniversary appears that is ripe for the taking. When Plácido Domingo (pictured) expressed an interest in conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague, the city where the opera received its premiere, organisers were delighted to discover that 2017 happens to be 230 years since the first-ever performance of that work. It was for that reason that Domingo fans gathered at the Estates Theatre on October 29 for a special production, an event that was enhanced by the discovery of an original manuscript made for the Prague premiere that features Mozart’s own scrawl.

If used sensitively, these events allow us to consider the context of great classical masterpieces in new ways. Rather than see the opera as an isolated work of art, Domingo and his team focused on sharing information about Mozart’s visits to the Czech Republic, and the audience’s response to the work’s premiere. Perhaps without the anniversary – however tenuous it may appear at first glance – we might not have engaged with the opera in such a meaningful way.

Although it’s important to bring new listeners to Mozart, Wagner, Grieg et al, we could argue that lesser-known – and living – composers are more deserving of a leg up

Birthday events often feel more ­authentic when the celebrant is still active in the field. Although it’s important to bring new listeners to Mozart, Wagner, Grieg et al, we could argue that lesser-known – and living – composers are more deserving of a leg up. One example is Howard Skempton, who celebrated his 70th birthday in October. The experimental composer, who was joined in the septuagenarian sector with fellow melodist John Adams this year, is part-minimalist, part-modernist, and is notable for his early miniature works for piano. Skempton now writes on a larger scale, and has produced several concertos. Only the Sound Remains (2009) is a concertante piece for chamber orchestra that gives a kaleidoscopic quality to its melodies. The work is included as part of City of London Sinfonia’s Modern Mystics Sonic Trilogy series that combines orchestral music with visual projections. The ensemble is conducted by the justly acclaimed Jessica Cottis.

The Book of Hours Modern Mystics is at Village ­Underground, London, on November 22

Words: Claire Jackson @claireiswriting