Home > Uncategorized > Should We Commemorate… Anything? (Or, “Norman and Me”)

Should We Commemorate… Anything? (Or, “Norman and Me”)

Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I don’t like to brag. I’ve also heard the admonition that it ain’t braggin’ if it’s the truth. Fair enough. So, I guess I’ll mention two things at which I’m quite good. One of them is geography. I’ve been fascinated with maps for as long as I can remember. Casualties from my childhood included a 1975 Allstate road atlas; a 1979 official map of Ohio with the mug of then-Governor James Rhodes on one of the flaps (not the map used in Super 8, which is washed out, compared to the colourful one I remember); and a vintage 1965 glossy guide to the mythical Route 66 with brilliant colour photographs. From these seemingly abstract documents, my imagination took me places that sounded interesting. How could a seven-year-old resist imagining what might exist in a “point of interest” called Ghost Town, just south of Findlay, Ohio, off of U.S. Route 68?

Another propensity of mine has been the memorization of dates, supposedly a devil for many people. I could rattle off the year, if not the date, of significant historical events, along with the birth and death dates of film stars (including a number who had passed before I was born). Perhaps it comes as little surprise that I’m keen on commemorating “turnings” that I find personally significant. In fact, the posting I used to relaunch this blog is tempered with some regrets: no postings to commemorate three personally significant musical centennials (Gustav Mahler’s death, Bernard Herrmann’s birth, the premier of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier); the passing of “James Bond [among many other things] film composer” John Barry, which I mused upon in relation to Kurt Weill for the one-year anniversary, and the 40th anniversary of the premature death (depending on whom you ask) of Jim Morrison.

Yeah, I know. The chronological tools we use to track time are, in the grand scheme of things, arbitrary creations. What happened in the past should stay there, and we shouldn’t bring skeletons rattling out of closets to live there, even if just for a little while. To some extent, this opinion has some merit. How can we allow new works to emerge if we always turn to old favourites for comfort, and allow the culture industry to ply us with commemorative products in new formats? (Given that state of popular music today… nevermind.)

Music journalist Norman Lebrecht made a similar rant to his Twitter followers: What’s to sodding celebrate if a composer or work is 150 years old? He’s dead, it’s old. I’m not. Get a life. Among other things, this dislike of commemorations is a hobby horse for Lebrecht. In late 2005, he wrote Too Much Mozart Makes You Sick in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth the following year. The 200th anniversary of his death had been commemorated just 15 years prior. For the latter, Philips got downright anal (he said…) and released a massive complete set of recordings of everything Wolfie composed. Not surprisingly, a new version was released in 2006.

In January 2008, Lebrecht applied similar logic towards “commemorating” the 100th anniversary of the birth of Herbert von Karajan with a piece entitled The Monster and His Myth. The Elvis-haired conductor is a favourite target of Lebrecht, who places “K” on a par with Emperor Palpatine. Part of it has to do with Karajan’s motivations for cavorting with the Nazis, which was at best driven by opportunism. Anything beyond that, including wholehearted support, remains ambiguous. (In Classical Music Land, the controversy is about as settled as the JFK assassination and the Roswell Incident.) Lebrecht further makes the apparent correlation between Karajan’s commercial success and the overall decline of classical music. And, yes, the Nazi taint emerges as a tangentially relevant point as well. A few months after the first piece, and closer to the date of Karajan’s birth, Lebrecht scribed a similar tirade (The Clapped-Out Legacy of Karajan that Impoverished Classical Music) as part of this “anti-commemoration.”

Lebrecht’s thoughts on commemoration may seem rather trenchant, but his points are worth considering to an extent for some of the reasons mentioned earlier. On the other hand, we can’t deny that there’s a difference between the obligation to commemorate a creator or creation, and being moved to do so if she or it somehow resonates with us. Heck, even Lebrecht caved and wrote a book about Mahler, which just happened to be published in 2010 (the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth). I guess none of us are immune. I also imagine that the two upcoming bio-documentaries about conductor Sir Georg Solti, about which Lebrecht seems enthused, are in anticipation of the centenary of his birth on 21 October. Given Lebrecht’s tendencies to make wild proclamations and play fast and loose with facts, all dressed in a brilliant and dramatic writing style, his Twitter twin Fake Norman Lebrecht has quite a bit of material to work from.

And, yeah, like my attitudes towards composer Richard Wagner, cultural theorist/musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, and the aforementioned “K,” my own opinions on Lebrecht have always been ambivalent. It all began when I returned to Ohio Wesleyan University for my sophomore year, seeking refuge from the late August heat and lack of air conditioning in the my “1960s modern” dorm. I wandered into the main library and saw The Maestro Myth in the new books section. With courses beginning the following week, I figured I wouldn’t have much opportunity to read it. So I grabbed the book, settled in a nearby comfy chair, and couldn’t put it down… (And, honestly, with his critiques of the classical music industry, I suspect that Lebrecht owes some debt to Adorno.)

Anyhow, going back a couple of paragraphs… commemorations should somehow resonate with us, whether as individuals or communities. We can’t possibly honour everything, and we shouldn’t be compelled to do so, for the simple fact that we can’t know everything, and we all have our own biases. I know, for instance, that this year I “should” somehow acknowledge the centenaries of (1) the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and (2) the birth of John Cage. But, unlike the centenaries of Richard Strauss’ three “major operas” in recent years, they aren’t at the forefront of my musical domain of knowledge or interest. So, if I don’t mention your musical favourite (composer, artist, work, etc.), it’s likely that I don’t know enough to write a posting that does it sufficient justice.

So, this may feel a bit anticlimactic since you probably already knew anyway, but: Feel free to commemorate whatever moves you, and steer clear of things that do not. Of course, there is a corollary: Don’t close yourself off to new experiences, either. Again, you probably knew this, but retry some things that you might not have liked in the past. Maybe you can integrate some new favourites with old ones to create a unique “soundtrack” for your own life, with a seemingly surprising array of musics and connections. In an odd way, commemorations could work to such an end as well. They provide opportunities to reflect on various people and events from the past that have held some kind of socio-cultural or personal relevance, or whose relevance might become more apparent as time passes. Maybe this is why I’ve always had a propensity towards memorizing dates; not just as useless trivia, but as a way of thinking about broader temporal relationships, and finding our place within them.

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