Anniversary journalism, as anyone in newspapers knows, is the last resort of a desperate features editor. They're easy to schedule but are rarely interesting in the outcome.
I'm beginning to believe it's true of the arts as well. The musical world in particular has taken to anniversaries in the past few years like hippos to the mud pool. Verdi, Schoenberg, Berlioz, you name them - put in a round number since their birth or death and a symphony orchestra will do a series of concerts in their memory. And not the least of the offenders is now the Proms which this year has Hector Berlioz (born 1803), Sergei Prokofiev (died 1953) and Gyorgy Ligeti (born 1923) as its "anniversary composers".
Now I have nothing against anniversaries in music. They can provide useful opportunities to take a new look at forgotten composers or forgotten compositions by famous ones. They can work especially well as birthday tributes for living composers. But too often they are used simply as a means of scheduling in some fairly well-known works under a grand-sounding label.
Prokofiev is the classic example. His copious output of Soviet-approved works after his return to Russia from the West, much derided in his lifetime, are crying out for a revisionist review. But instead we are largely treated to the well-established repertory of symphonies, piano concertos and film music. The Proms are at least doing some music from the composer's last ballet, The Stone Flower, but the other 14 pieces during its season (beginning 18 July) are pretty standard stuff. A pity. The Albert Hall would be the perfect surroundings to try out some of Prokofiev's other, more political cantata. Perhaps they are as trite as reputed but it would have been a great chance to find out.
Not that this year's Proms are dull. Its "season theme" on myths is far too big a canvas to explore properly, or consistently. But it will give a chance to hear some great Stravinsky (Orpheus, Oedipus Rex and Persephone) as well as Haydn's Arianna, Samuel Barber's Medea and Mendelssohn's Antigone.
The major institutional anniversary is the British Museum's 250th, about which one feels rather as one feels about the anniversary of the coronation: I thought we did all that already, in the museum's case when it opened the Great Court for the millennium. The BM claims to be the oldest national public museum in the world, so I suppose the year is important. But its finances are parlous and it's still trying to recover from the embarrassment of the wrongly used stone in one of the entrances to the Great Court.
Its celebrations involve a tea party today and a series of exhibitions starting with "Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures". You can see the object: at a time when the Greeks want their marbles back and museums are being dismissed as out-of-date (if not immoral) remnants of an imperial past, institutions like the BM want to rebrand themselves as multicultural collections gathering together the aspirations of different societies.
But it's pretty thin gruel. The museum already has an excellent education department, but it has allowed its exhibition programmes - increasingly the mainstay of museums around the world - to lose momentum, with cuts in staff and decisions devolved to the individual curators.
If I was to make a suggestion it would be to plan a really big exhibition of monumental sculpture to fill the Great Court, which is a wonderful space but soulless in its use, the few exhibits and the café dwarfed by its sheer scale. What with its Easter Island statues, great buddhas and Indian friezes, never mind the Egyptian and Assyrian monuments, the museum could uniquely show grandiose art as it was meant to be wondered at.
*Talking of big gestures, I have been wondering at the meaning of this sudden rash of Ibsen classics. First Bergman's version of Ghosts and now The Lady from the Sea, Brand and, soon to come, The Master Builder. You go for years without Scandinavian gloom and suddenly you can't move for it.
It could be pure coincidence. It could be that each generation rediscovers just how relevant the great end-of-century dramatists remain in their depiction of women's plight and the nature of relationships (although the British have a tendency to read in their own concerns to the Russian and Scandinavian masters). But I prefer to believe it is simply that the great dramatists wrote big parts, not least for women. After years in which the London stage has retreated to small-scale domestic dramas acted out on the small stage, actors and actresses want bigger parts to get their teeth into, roles which fill the big theatre. Only a few years ago opera lovers were moaning that there were no longer the voices to do Wagner and now the opera houses are full of them. The same with theatre: we've got the big presences and now we're using them.
David Lister is awayReuse content