The Problem of the Composer Anniversary

This post is written by Dr. Sharanya Murali.

What is the effect that ‘anniversary’ programming has on representational politics, both in the classical music industry and on the repertoires developed by them? Scholarship has established that the canonicity of western classical music has been constructed over centuries, through violent discursive acts of erasure of Black and Global Majority composers and repertoires, to appear white and is not in itself naturally representative of whiteness. One of the key ways in which white canonicity is upheld and continually re-inscribed, I suggest, is through the politics of anniversary programming, which establishes the hegemony of white European composers, creating and participating in a cycle of demand for the same. Perpetuated, thus, are notions of virtuosity and accomplishment that impact the demographic make-up of orchestras.

The Beethoven 250 celebrations—known as such both in the eponymous social media hashtag and in British seasonal programming at the Southbank Centre, the Barbican and the Wigmore Hall, for instance—are remarkable because they have occurred through and alongside, at least in part, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and in the UK; a racial justice movement that demands, materially, the end of white supremacist violence on Black communities, and represents the centring of Black experience and joy.[1]

During times of political reimagination, such as Black Lives Matter, cultural practices like anniversary programming perpetuate dominant racial anxieties—and classical music histories—by relying on the narrative of ‘universalism’ of western classical music, eliding structural and genealogical concerns about representation, and indeed, overlooking opportunities to canonise instead the harmonies of those systematically overlooked.


[1] In an attempt to memorialise Black violinist Elijah McClain, who died at the hands of police violence in August 2019, musicians gathered to play their violins in Aurora, Colorado, only to have the vigil interrupted by pepper sprays, used by police in riot gear (Evelyn 2020).

Dr. Sharanya Murali is Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London.