A while back I got all worked up when Rufus Wainwright mused that he longed to seek refuge in the realm of classical music where it was O.K. to be old, fat, and ugly. I still find his remarks offensive, but now I’m starting to wonder if classical music has brought this impression on itself.
It’s amazing that in the year 2006 most classical music recordings still prominently print the composer’s birth year on the back tray card, right next to his or her name, as if it were an extension of it. And this happens on independent label releases as much as it does on the majors. Information vultures—and I know because I’m one of them—will want to know this stuff, but couldn’t it be buried inside in the program notes instead? What other genre of music advertises the age of its creators so blatantly? What does this ultimately accomplish?
But the record companies are not the only ones obsessing over dates. One of the chief selling points that publishers use to hawk their wares to orchestra program directors is to remind them that it’s a certain composer’s centenary or, worse, the 50th anniversary of that composer’s death. And if you’re one of the lucky composers who happens to still be alive, they’ll try to guilt the orchestra into doing your music as part of a 65th, 70th, 75th, or 80th birthday celebration. This anniversary approach is a prominent part of many publisher’s ads and winds up being a prominent part of season brochures for any institution that eventually performs this music.
Then, of course, there’s the flip side: the quest to find the next child prodigy. The latest example of this is Sony/BMG’s new CD of music by Jay Greenberg, who was born in 1991 according to the tag that appears next to his name on the CDs tray card. Unfortunately, both the record company’s publicity and the critical response to it are all about his age and not about his music. And no matter how deserved or well-intentioned, such a momentary pendulum shift to youth, like composer competitions that you can only apply to if you are under a certain age, can seem to a skeptic like an 11th-hour corrective to a musical culture that focuses mostly on antiques.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t honor composers on major anniversaries or create viable ways to nurture the next generation of composers. But being so fixated on age seems a counterintuitive way to promulgate music which is simultaneously being touted as timeless.