BBC presents a classical century of confusion
How to make classical music appealing for a mass TV audience has always been a conundrum for the BBC. There are few sights duller than a close-up of an orchestral player, and classical music’s enormous expressive and technical sophistication is hard to make visually interesting.
In its year-long landmark series Our Classical Century, which tells the story of classical music in Britain since 1918, the BBC has cut through those problems at a stroke. It approaches classical music not as an abstract art form, but as a wonderfully sensitive instrument for revealing the fault-lines of a nation undergoing huge changes.
At the beginning of the first programme, presenter Suzy Klein says, “I think more than pop and folk it is classical music which has truly brought us together”. That’s a bold claim, and the BBC has deployed huge resources to back it up.
The series is in four parts, each covering around 25 years. Each part contains three or four documentaries on BBCs Two and Four, one offering an overview of the period, the others focusing on a piece or composer. Radio 3 provides welcome musical ballast, with surveys of the key pieces.
One has to applaud the enterprise, but in sidestepping one problem – the difficult abstraction of classical music – the BBC has saddled itself with another. Classical music has notoriously been created, in the main, by and for the white male middle class, but a series calling itself Our Classical Century must somehow show that classical music is equally relevant to women and men, black and white, professors and coal miners, conservatives and radicals.
The first series gets off to a good start, with Klein guiding us with easy authority through a story that embraced the Suffragettes, Elgar’s enthusiasm for recording, and Glyndebourne’s roots in the flight of German musicians from the rise of Nazism. In the second programme, we see historian Amanda Vickery and presenter Tom Service in search of the folk roots of Holst and Vaughan Williams, striding over very English hills with knapsacks, and visiting the Norfolk pub where Vaughan Williams collected a folk song.
The presenters (Lenny Henry and Klein) are clearly moved by their subjects, and as a result, we are too.
These two programmes have a strange fixation on Englishness and Britishness, which gives them a weirdly old-fashioned air. You’d never guess that Holst wrote an opera inspired by a Sanskrit text, or that just across the Channel a modernist revolution was under way which many here found profoundly stirring. One gets the sense of a creative team clinging to the theme of “searching for roots”, and ignoring musicians with very different priorities.
Looking beyond to the series as a whole, one’s impression is that the BBC has tied itself in knots trying to serve many competing agendas. There’s a weird preoccupation with Holst’s The Planets, which features in the first two programmes then gets its own in the series focused on the post-war years – strange, for a piece finished in 1916. Lucy Worsley bafflingly presents a programme on Queen Victoria and the British Revolution in the post-1980 series.
To add to its own difficulties, the BBC signals its all-inclusiveness and cheery populism by crowbarring in youth presenters, commentators and musicians wherever possible. The result is an uncertainty of tone, with bow-tied experts alongside novices.
The first two programmes certainly have their virtues, but they’re the easy ones; the real challenge comes later. How will classical music fit into the story of mass immigration, the advent of new technologies, the erosion of old social hierarchies and the rise of pop culture, which conspired to make English and British identity vastly more complicated? If the Fifties programme can figure out a way to connect the Windrush generation, mods and rockers, and the modernist intricacies of Peter Maxwell Davies, I will take my hat off to it. But I have to admit I’m sceptical.
Episode One 1918-36 of Our Classical Century is on BBC Four on Thursday
The BBC has tied itself in knots trying to serve many competing agendas
Too many notes: Lenny Henry and Suzy Klein, the presenters of Our Classical Century, with Wayne Marshall, the pianist and conductor