BBC presents a clas­si­cal cen­tury of con­fu­sion

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts - IVAN HEWETT

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

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