Why does the BBC hate classical music?

Well, I said at the outset that this was a blog about culture as well as politics, and music is what I care about most and know about best. And, like quite a lot of people, I’ve been having some gloomy thoughts following the atrocious debacle of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year 2008.

The first semi-final was shown last night – the woodwind section. An hour-long programme which, the Radio Times assured us, would contain the performances of the four young players who had reached this semi-final stage.

What we actually got was almost nothing at all to do with music. In fact, for the first forty-five minutes of the programme, we heard no music (apart from the odd snippets of practice). Film of our young musicians shopping, posting on Facebook, celebrating their birthdays, brushing out their dogs, telling the camera what real fun it is to play in the NYO and how we’re all good mates …. yes. But music, no.

When we eventually did get to the music, we got no more than short snippets of a few seconds, intercut with comment from the judges.

I think the most offensive aspect of the whole thing (and this programme made me angrier than anything I have seen on TV for a long time) was the subtext of “These people are talented classical musicians, but, hey, wow, they’re really just normal kids” – a subtext that tells you everything you need to know about the cultural assumptions of the people who commissioned and made the programme. Classical music (or perhaps even enthusiasm and achievement, in the eyes of these pushers of the poisonous philosophy of cool) is seen by these people as abnormal, something to be a bit ashamed of, like flatulence or picking your nose on the train. So it can’t be presented straight, least of all to the point where viewers can be expected to sit through an hour of actual music-making.

I wonder if the performers realised how deeply they were being patronised? But more to the point, who on earth did the BBC think they were making this programme for? Did they really think they could make music more relevant – more “down with the yoof” – by broadcasting this patronising drivel?

And – to talk in terms of the things that really matter to BBC employees – can one really imagine a programme about young sportsmen and women being presented in such a crass way? In this respect, that fine musician Susan Tomes, writing in the Guardian, got it absolutely right.

Live broadcasting – no thanks

But seasoned Radio 3 listeners will not be surprised at any of this. Radio 3 has recently made schedule changes that involved, inter alia, the end of live music broadcasts in the evenings. Evening concerts would instead be recordings introduced from the studio. Radio 3 also drastically cut back the amount of new music, axing the popular and excellent Mixing It (which fortunately, thanks to Resonance FM, has lived on to fight another day). These changes have been accompanied by a new image, presenter-led with endless trailers promising a sort of relevance, pushing every aspect of R3’s output except its classical music.

Honey, I shrunk the audience

The impact on audience figures has been disastrous. R3 and its controller Roger Wright have simply alienated their existing audience while failing to attract a new one. There is much irony that Radio 3 is driving away the one audience that is likely to stick up for public sector broadcasting. This matters because Radio 3 is relatively expensive, and the fact that its reach is declining and the BBC is strapped for cash is bound to lead to questions about its existence in the minds of executives (and politicians) who care nothing for its output or ethos.

So, what is happening here?

I believe that we live in a society whose cultural elites are deeply hostile to classical music – because it isn’t always easy, and because it opens the doors to an intellectual and emotional depth that goes well beyond their threshold of uneasiness. It is something that, at its best, is quite hard to commodify (although the huge crossover market shows what can be done at the margin). All of this is particularly true of new music, which takes listeners in directions that those working in a pop music world cannot even imagine. I think there is among the political class – and those who blithely claim that that the BBC is a model of excellence – a deep resentment of music. As I said before, the whole thrust of the Young Musician of the Year seems to be to show that musicians are just regular guys – but to achieve excellence in music means that you have to be a bit different. It’s accepted for sportspeople, but in a world saturated by easy musical pap, it’s somehow different for musicians.

And I think that these people look at music, and realise that there is something very precious that they are not willing to make the time or effort to understand – and there’s nothing occult about music, it is just about time and space and effort. And they resent it like hell, and deep inside them is something that wants to destroy it, for all the platitudes about accessibility

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