Airports, schools, even a shopping centre - let's take every opportunity to highlight our composers
According to reports, a campaign is underway to have Helsinki Airport renamed after the country’s most famous composer, Sibelius, to mark his 150th anniversary. The idea is not without precedence. Poland offers travellers the Warsaw Chopin Airport, while you can fly in and out of the Czech Republic from the Ostrava Leos Janácek Airport, or from Italy via Parma’s Giuseppe Verdi Airport. And, for that matter, from New Orleans through an airport named after Louis Armstrong, or from Liverpool through the John Lennon Airport. These are of course just a fraction of the people whose names are destined to be forever entwined in the traveller’s mind with early starts, snaking security queues and duty-free.
It’s not a bad idea. Aside from a capital city itself, few locations see as many international visitors as an airport, so it’s a useful way to pique the interest of the curious and to embed a favourite son’s (and thus far, sadly, they almost are all sons) name in the vocabulary of the wider world. Which isn’t unimportant, as unlike many other art forms, the chance for someone to accidentally encounter a classical composer’s work is increasingly limited, invariably requiring an active choice to listen to a recording or attend a concert.
‘Nobody has ever put up a statue to a critic,’ Sibelius famously said. And while it’s true that many a composer has been immortalised in bronze or stone, plinths are often passed by easily without so much as a sideways gaze. There’s no statue of Benjamin Britten in Lowestoft, where he was born (and I grew up), but I’d venture that having one of the town’s high schools named after him is a far more powerful way of inspiring the next generation. There’s a Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich, and if there aren’t other examples of schools named after local composers, there should be.
For obvious reasons, architecture is very visibly woven into the tapestry of our cultural awareness (though even this can’t be taken for granted: think of the battles Britain’s Victorian Society had to fight just 50 years ago, or the controversy today every time a Brutalist building is given listed status). The ubiquity of fine art reproduction helps ensure crowds continue to flock to our galleries. The place of great writers in our heritage is rightly revered without question. Composers: less so. I would strongly suspect the works, perhaps even the names, of Tallis and Britten, or for that matter Janácek and, outside of Finland, Sibelius, are less familiar to those who do not already know and love classical music than, say, Sir Christopher Wren, Jane Austen or Pablo Picasso.
Naming an airport – or school, or even, for that matter, a shopping centre, as Lowestoft also did in honour of Britten – after a composer might seem an oddly modern gesture, but let’s take every opportunity we can to highlight the importance of our art form’s most significant figures. And in the meantime, while the Finnish airport authorities ponder the matter of a new name, Helsinki airport is offering a Sibelius photography exhibition alongside gate 37, should you find yourself in its departure lounge with some time to spare.