‘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 that 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 (or what I consider 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