Choosing a year to feature from a given era is largely arbitrary. I might look for a year when a favorite piece was composed, or a year when an important historical event took place. I chose the first year I featured, 1926, because that’s when Louis Armstrong first recorded Cornet Chop Suey, and I wanted to find out what was going in classical music at the same time. 1978 will be up soon since that’s when I was born, and 1792 as well because I’m interested to explore what was going on in music the year after Mozart died. As I go through the different eras, I make sure I don’t end up featuring any years that are too close together — if I feature 1941, for example, I want to be sure it’s been a while since I’ve discussed World War II on the show, and that it will be a while before I do again.
Mostly I’m interested in a year for musical reasons, though. I’m not convinced by deterministic explanations of composers’ work: this was happening in his society, and this was happening in his private life, therefore the composer really had no choice but to write the piece the way he did. I like to think that even if history prompts the composer, the most important factor is what he chooses to say in response to what influences him. It’s the music, not the history, that’s the determining factor, so I tend to look for great achievements by composers and then explain history in light of their work.