Classic FM – a defence?

‘That was the very catchy third movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.’

Classic FM presenter, quoted by Alan Bennett in his diary entry of 8th July 1999

Revisiting Górecki’s striking third symphony in the wake of his death, and watching Tony Palmer’s harrowing film of it on BBC4 recently (which, if you’re interested, is still available for viewing online – or for downloading if you need more time – here until Thursday night), reminded me of a period of a couple of years in my youth when I was a regular listener of Classic FM. The slow movement of the Górecki became a sort of totem for Classic FM shortly after the station’s inception, played every Saturday morning on its chart show and probably several additional times throughout the week. I’m not sure I ever heard the first or third movements broadcast, and I now wonder how many of the people who bought the CD on the basis of its radio exposure ever thought to explore beyond the bounds of track 2.

I got a Panasonic portable stereo for my tenth birthday in 1993, which replaced the trusty old Sony (I think) tape recorder I’d had through my infancy. The advantage of this machine was that it possessed not only a twin tape deck but also a radio. And so for about two years, until I switched to Chris Evans on Radio 1, I woke up with Classic FM in the morning and listened to it in the evening before bed.

I haven’t listened to Classic FM since about 1995, except under duress, so I can’t speak of it with any authority, but my impression of the station is that it now embodies many things I have become strongly resistant to, the seeds of which were germinating from the very start. These include a profound conservatism of repertoire inclining strongly towards the banal, the presentation of music as bleeding chunks (and on no account should you google this phrase, unless you are blessed with a strong constitution) or as something meant primarily to soothe or deaden (an anaesthetic for life, if you will), and a lack of intelligent (or even remotely knowledgeable) presenters. Not to mention the adverts that intrude every few minutes. Plus ça change, some people will say, and not without justification. It was like this when it started up in 1992, and my antipathy towards it now is more as a result of the development of my own tastes in the intervening years than of any recent deterioration in the station’s standards – of which, as I say, I know nothing.

When purists moan about the dumbed-down version of ‘classical’ music such radio stations promote, they are told in mitigation that it offers outsiders an accessible entry into a world that most people perceive as elitist and cliquey. To which the natural inclination of people like me is to say, but does it? Do people develop a genuine and profound love of classical music (which might hypothetically encompass listening to Górecki 3 from start to finish) if they are fed on a diet consisting largely of things like Katherine Jenkins singing ‘Calon Lân’ or the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and including little or nothing to challenge the listener beyond their comfort zone? And I don’t mean comfort in purely musical terms. What proportion of the audience that used to listen to that Górecki every day, for instance, was aware of just what Dawn Upshaw was singing about and didn’t think of the music simply in terms of it being pretty and calming? Only a very small one, I suspect.

And yet how can I – how dare I – criticise it, when opening doors to a world of music is precisely what it did for me? It’s not as if I’d been deprived in that respect, because as the child of two music graduates I had been exposed to classical music from birth (and in all likelihood in utero as well), but I was quite content to listen to the LPs and tapes we already had, discovering the music my parents already knew and loved, including quite a bit of popular music, and did not much think of venturing further afield by myself. Then, at about the same time, we bought a CD player and I discovered Classic FM.

Opera had been a closed book to me until I heard a broadcast on Classic FM of a complete performance of La Bohème featuring Pavarotti and Freni and conducted by Thomas Schippers. I didn’t get into it properly until several years later, but it was this one broadcast that really started me off. I used to record things off the radio and listen back to them, and in this way my tastes broadened. Some examples that come readily to mind: ‘Der Nussbaum’ from Schumann’s Myrthen (Elly Ameling); ‘In sailing o’er life’s ocean wide’ from Ruddigore; Bach’s chorale prelude on ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’, BWV684 (Michael Radulescu); Górecki’s Totus Tuus; Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (Orchestra of the 18th Century/Brüggen); bits of Luigini’s Ballet Egyptien (RPO/Fistoulari); Bernstein’s On the Town; Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. There will be hundreds more that I’ve forgotten. I started asking for CDs for my birthday and Christmas. I think for Christmas 1994 I got the Karajan La Bohème, the Bernstein recording of Candide and Bryden Thomson and the Philharmonia playing Malcolm Arnold’s dances.

Among the more personable presenters in those days was Michael Mappin, an intelligent Scot who could pronounce foreign names and had been organ scholar at Aberdeen University, whose province was the weekday evening show. I used to enter his ‘Three of a Kind’ competitions, broadcast nightly at 10.20pm, which required listeners to phone up identifying the link between three musical excerpts. One I recall consisted of Mahler’s ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ and Puccini’s ‘O dolci mani’, the link being parts of the human body. I even won a couple of them late in 1993, which impressed various Welsh relatives. The CDs I received as prizes were of Schubert’s Trout Quintet and various songs (Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, John Mark Ainsley), which I loved, and of Handel’s harpsichord suites (Martin Souter), which I must confess didn’t get played often.

This was safe territory in terms of quizzing – you phoned up and spoke in response to a pre-recorded message, and if you were the winner they read out your name on air half an hour later – but I was brave enough to phone Quentin Howard’s ‘Quotation Quiz’ one Saturday night in 1994, and ended up speaking to the Devizes-based future DAB mogul live on national radio, where I sailed through a question on Dido’s lament but came apart on the meaning of the phrase ‘auld lang syne’.

I rarely think about Classic FM now, but it was clearly an important aspect of my formative years, for which I am grateful – and who is to say there aren’t a handful of children around the country today undergoing a similar experience? It’s the easiest thing in the world for people like me to sneer, but three minutes of Bach tucked away between Saga commercials is better than no minutes of Bach at all, and so maybe there are grounds for giving thanks. In any case, surely our time would be better employed, rather than raging against the dying of the light (which is sometimes my natural inclination), doing something more proactive. It’s clear now, as it was when Classic FM was founded, that commercial radio cannot be relied upon for the propagation of excellence, so if you have a passion for music – for anything that enriches your life – find some way of passing it on to younger generations. Buy a CD for your nephew or niece, or organise a trip to a concert. Just because it sometimes seems the things we care about are not valued by the world at large does not mean they have no chance of outliving us.

‘Pass the parcel.
That’s sometimes all you can do.
Take it, feel it and pass it on.
Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.
Pass it on, boys.
That’s the game I wanted you to learn.
Pass it on.’

Alan Bennett, The History Boys, final lines


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8 Responses to “Classic FM – a defence?”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Excellent piece, Gareth, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    Someone pointed out to me recently how ironic it was that, despite my politics being to the Left, I subscribe so keenly to the Burkean ideal of the Preservation of the Good. I tried to combat this by claiming that the Burkean ideal of the Preservation of the Good can only really be realised by the Socialist practice of Government Funding, but the point remains a valid one. Yes, I *do* believe it vitally important to make an effort towards the Preservation of the Good – and whether or not that concept is politically to the Right or to the Left makes no difference.

    Some years ago, a colleague phoned me with a rather strange request: her father-in-law had just passed away, she told me, and he had been a great fan of Mozart. So they wanted to play some Mozart at his funeral, but didn’t know which piece might be appropriate. I made a few suggestions, and remember then thinking myself how sad it was that this gentleman, who loved Mozart, had not been able to pass any of his love on to the next generation. That the Good will be preserved without any effort on our part seems to me a dubious proposition.

    The general reaction I get whenever I broach this topic is that we shouldn’t “shove things down the children’s throat”. Why people imagine exposure to classical culture should be necessarily intrusive, I really cannot imagine. On the contrary, what seems to me intrusive (because it is so all-pervasive) is junk culture that has appeared to have elbowed everything else into the peripheries.

    Sadly, neither my wife nor I have any musical talent, but we do listen to a lot of recordings (our CD player is more likely to be on in the evenings than the television); and we take the children to concerts and operas quite frequently. (About a couple of years ago, we all went to Covent Garden to hear Charles Mackerras conduct “Le Nozze di Figaro”: it was magical, and, far from feeling this was being “forced down their throats”, the children loved it!) Our house is also overflowing with books, and the children, used to this from birth, regard this as part of their natural environment. Of course, I expect them to rebel against their parents’ value some time or other: that’s part of growing up. But one thing I realise as I grow older is that the apple doesn’t really fall far from the tree: the values that one grows up with remain, and often return with quite unexpected force later in life!

    This Christmas, our teenage daughter is getting a DVD of “La Boheme”, an opera she loves. (She often takes the CDs to her room to listen to at bedtime: I have, though, told her not to expect her boyfriends to sing like Jussi Bjoerling … I wouldn’t want to raise her expectations *too* high!) And in a couple of weeks’ time, my boy & I will be at Wigmore Hall to hear Thomas Zehetmair play some of Bach’s sonatas & partitas for solo violin. (He’ll be finishing the concert with the 2nd partita, and that glorious chaconne.) Shoving it down their throats? I wish someone had shoved this kind of thing down *my* throat when I’d been a teenager!

  2. Gareth Says:

    I took the liberty of tidying up your comment as suggested 🙂

    I would have been delighted to have you for a father, er, if not for the fact that my own was such a fine specimen in his own right (hello, Daddy). So true that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I was delighted my parents left me alone in my teens (well, within reason) so I could discover for myself how like them I was.

    I’ve got some fun concerts lined up myself – Mahler 1 and Beethoven piano concerto 4 (LPO, Jurowski, Grimaud) this Saturday at the Royal Festival Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music’s all-Bach Christmas gig at the Cadogan Hall later in the month, and then next year (which I’m really excited about) I’m dragging the family to Parsifal at ENO and seeing Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis play the Brahms double concerto.

  3. crosseyedpianist Says:

    I couldn’t get tickets to the Isserlis/Bell concert. Harumph! I am v jealous.

  4. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Hooray. Classic FM bashing! Count me in!!

    I have a “difficult” relationship with Classic FM. At best I feel it delivers dumbed-down classical music, ‘pop’ classics, and very little truly interesting or challenging repertoire. At worse, it peddles the soundtracks of Gladiator (played far too regularly) or Bored of the Rings, or anything by Karl Jenkins, etc as “proper” classical music, when in fact they belong to the category of “soundtrack” or “easy listening”. A glance down the chart list or Most Wanted list seems to confirm that this is what the average Classic FM listener wants to hear.

    I find the presenters largely vacuous and dim – Mylene Klass is a prime example. I wish I could remember her particularly dire quote about Rachmaninov, but it was toe-curlingly awful and demonstrated her complete lack of knowledge about this composer and his music. And she claims to be a “classically trained pianist”! Ha ha de ha ha. And is Jane Jones and her “laahvely melodies” still there? The adverts and competitions are intrusive, and I detest the way only extracts are played rather than whole works (e.g. Gorecki 3 – though I must admit I discovered this work via Classic FM!).

    The trouble is, if one criticizes Classic FM, one runs the risk of appearing an elitist, classical music snob, exactly the kind of person I grumble about when I’m in the ladies’ loo at the Wigmore (while actually showing signs of being one myself!)

    I do think Classic FM has brought classical music to a wider audience, and its ‘friendly’, easy-listening presentation is probably more accessible than the hushed, reverential tones of Radio 3 (which is now far more accessible than it’s ever been and all the more excellent for it), but I fear that it is something of a neo-opiate of the people.

    Norman ‘Why Mahler’ Lebrecht put his oar into this debate earlier in the year:

  5. Gareth Says:

    Glancing down their current schedules, I’m pleasantly surprised – it’s mostly drawn from a small pool of safe composers, of course (and I see they’re still relying on the Tjeknavorian Khachaturian recordings now as fifteen years ago), but it’s encouraging at least that there is still quite a lot of room for good performers and not only for the fashionable people of limited ability you name, and for what it is, I think it could be a lot worse. Though there’s a big difference between looking at the playlist and listening to the way it’s served up, which is presumably execrable.

    Radio 3’s far preferable, of course, but it has weak points of its own. I only really listen to podcasts these days, but I have been getting exercised recently by Composer of the Week. It seems to be a strand that gets a lot of praise, but for me Donald Macleod is guilty of some of the most objectionably prurient radio I’ve ever heard. Just a few weeks ago: “We don’t know if Wagner actually slept with any of them, but he did keep a collection of their panties” or some such thing. Just tell me about Siegfried, pervert! I’m dreading listening to the Britten one I downloaded recently – he’ll probably have devoted a whole day to a reenactment of the night of passion in Grand Rapids, Mich.

  6. MikeAlx Says:

    I’m afraid I seldom listen to either CFM or Radio 3 these days. In fact I have so little time for listening properly to music of any length that I don’t listen to much classical at all. And I loathe the idea of “wallpaper” music.

    However, I’m pleased to report that George is developing the beginnings of a liking for Beethoven – at least, he does enjoy the first movement of the fifth symphony, and also the Emperor concerto which he always wants on in my car. Not bad considering he isn’t yet 4!

    I was fortunate as a child to live within driving distance of the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, where a Canadian conductor, Arthur Davison, held regular children’s concerts on Saturday mornings. That was my introduction to the concert hall and much of the popular repertoire. I wonder if anyone’s doing similar nowadays?

  7. Gareth Says:

    Depends on where you live, I suppose. London and its environs might find a few things like that going on, and I was lucky enough to grow up within a couple of miles of Jackdaws (though I think I only went there a couple of times, and one of those was to hear a dodgy school string group play what the programme called the ‘Vaginia Reel’), but I imagine most people would have to travel a long way to find good concerts for children. This is where things like BBC schools programmes on TV and radio (which were excellent when I was a boy but may have dropped off since – it’s not possible that they can have improved) and the TV programmes Bernstein used to make for American children really make a difference. I’m not bemoaning the absence of classical music programmes for children, but it would be nice to think they might get a helping hand from somewhere once they reach the stage where they start to discover their own music.

    Emperor Concerto? Good taste, George. I can’t quite believe he’s so old – where does the time go…?

  8. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Agree about Donald MacCleod. Far too much dwelling on unnecessary and irrelevant personal ‘details’ (mostly unproven, I expect). Professor Sir Robert Dr Winston KGB KFC RSVP was guilty of similar prurience in his R4 programme about Schubert earlier in the year, dwelling on whether he had syphilis and was a repressed homosexual. I don’t care – it has no bearing on my enjoyment nor my understanding of his music (I ranted at length on this on my blog). And besides, I’d like to see real, concrete evidence for such theories…. (and we know very little about Schubert’s private life). I fear such things are symptomatic of our society’s need for smutty “private” info to make more of a story and thereby reel in more listeners/viewers.

    “Execrable” – the very word!

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