British Music and the BBC
A genuine renaissance has come about in the field
of modern British orchestral music. The BBC untrammelled by box
office considerations, is in a position to present adequately complex
and unfamiliar orchestral works, thoroughly rehearsed, in such a
manner that they may become known to the public.
Musicians, and composers in particular, owe much to
the BBC. On the outbreak of war there was a hiatus in the broadcasting
of good music which lasted, fortunately, only for a short time.
The authorities soon realised that first-class music was a real
For those who took the trouble to tune into foreign
wavelengths it was noticeable that, with the exception of France,
England alone - "the land without music" - maintained a consistently
high level of orchestral music, both in quantity and quality. German
broadcasting was almost entirely given over to political propaganda,
or to martial music blared out by military bands.
Prior to the Battle of France in 1940, Paris maintained
its outside relays of public symphony concerts, but in England,
at a time when conditions for orchestral music-making was precarious,
the BBC Symphony Orchestra upheld a policy of performing not only
the classics but the music of to-day, both British and foreign.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra has undoubtedly done more
than any other concern in awakening in music lovers a keen stimulation
for the music of their own land. This is proved by the fact that
the gramophone companies have found it worth while to record and
market the works of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Walton, and
After all, these companies are not public philanthropic
societies; they could not be expected to incur the enormous expense
of manufacturing such records unless it were reasonably supposed
that purchasers would be forthcoming.
In pre-broadcasting days, the literature of modern
symphonic music was virtually a closed book to those living far
from the few towns possessing, or regularly visited by, a first-class
orchestra. Broadcasting has made it possible for this wider public
to discover new beauties, hitherto undreamt of.
A careful analysis of BBC programmes will show that
a very fair share of the programmes is invariably allotted to native
productions, at any rate, as far as orchestral music is concerned.
The Regional stations, too, have done well in this
respect. There were certain works suitable for these programmes
which were in danger of dropping out of the general repertory altogether.
Ian Whyte, in charge of the BBC Scottish Orchestra, frequently reminds
us that Stanford was no mean writer for the orchestra. In a lesser
degree this would apply to Whyte's compatriots, Mackenzie and Hamish
Macuna, whose music also may be heard from time to time broadcast
At Manchester the BBC Northern Orchestra is handicapped
by having to play in a studio with poor acoustics. Nevertheless,
Charles Groves manages to perform programmes of the greatest interest.
Since his appointment as conductor of this orchestra, he has staunchly
championed the cause of native music. His recent performance of
Edward Rubbra's Fourth Symphony was an event of outstanding importance.
At Birmingham, when the war broke out, the Midland
Regional Orchestra was dispersed to other activities. Previously,
that great conductor, the late Leslie Heward, made a musical history
with his Friday broadcast concerts. Probably a greater variety of
music, old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, was packed into the
programmes than in any other series of regular concerts which were
ever given in this country.
Where else, for example, has anybody heard a Sinfonie
Singuliere by Franz Berwald, the Swedish composer born in 1796,
the 150th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this year
by his countrymen? Where else the pianoforte concerto by the contemporary
Czech, Arthur Willner?
It may have been forgotten that the BBC saved the
Queen's Hall Promenade Concerts at a time when, owing to financial
difficulties, they were at the point of lapsing altogether. It was
bold policy, too, to carry on these concerts during the war, and
subsequently at Albert Hall after Queen's Hall was bombed in 1941.
The Prom programmes still continued to uphold the cause of British
music. The annual list of novelties by native composers has always
been one of the main features.
At a time when there was an exceptionally large population
of foreign visitors in London, serving in the forces, or engaged
in war activities, it was good policy to display modern British
music. The BBC certainly seized this opportunity as regards contemporary
composers, or near contemporaries, such as Elgar, Delius, and Holst.
There has, however, been an unaccountable neglect at the Proms of
the great English masters of the past.
It is a thousand pities that foreign visitors should
have been afforded practically no acquaintance with the music of
Purcell, who is not only England's greatest composer but one of
the supreme masters of all time, save through the famous Trumpet
Voluntary, which has since turned out to have been the work, not
of Purcell, but of one Nathaniel Clark.
The Albert Hall, in spite of its echo, lends itself
admirably to the sound of a large body of stringed instruments,
especially in music which is fairly slow-moving, and which demands
the utmost sonority. The Chaconne of Purcell certainly would sound
impressive in this building.
The effect of the magnificent String Fantasies of
Byrd would be superb played by the full complement of the strings
of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There is probably no body of string
players in the world that could surpass them in this sort of music.
The splendid work on behalf of British music done
by the BBC has not had its counterpart in every branch of music.
Certainly the BBC Chorus, and the smaller company of singers under
Leslie Woodgate, have done fine work in the presentation of compositions,
sacred and secular, from the Elizabethan Madrigal to present day
choral music. But in the field of chamber music, piano music, and,
above all, in that of song, there has been a lamentable failure.
How many listeners are familiar with the Ayres of
Dowland, Campion, Jones, Rossiter, John Danyel, Tobias Hume, or,
on fact, any of that band of Apollos of the Golden Age of English
To return to more recent times, Peter Warlock has
been described as the greatest song-writer since Purcell. He has
published over 100 songs; yet he is known to the public only by
some half-dozen "chestnuts" which are repeated with sickening
regularity. The same might be said of John Ireland, undoubtedly
the most considerable English song-writer alive and active to-day.
It is continually dinned into us that Ireland wrote "Sea Fever,"
and one or two other songs.
Concerning his more important output, including the
song-cycles "Marigold," "The Land of Lost Content,"
the Thomas Hardy poems, or the Harold Monro Rhapsody for voice and
piano - all of them works which should be taking their rightful
place as classics of twentieth-century song, the outside listening
world is kept in almost complete ignorance.
John Ireland has also produced a large body of extremely
original and thoroughly pianistic keyboard music. It seems extraordinary
that the BBC keeps us in the dark as to this side of Ireland's creative
activity; but possibly not quiet so extraordinary when we find that
this neglect also applies to the piano music of other British composers
such as Bax, Frank Bridge, Howells and Alan Bush.
Singers are a much maligned race; they are said to
be lacking in expertise and erudition.
However, it is not altogether singers and instrumentalists
who are to blame here. There have been far too many cases in which
those who have wished to broadcast contemporary British work have
not been allowed to do so. It would seem that in this department
of the BBC there is room for more erudition and enterprise on the
part of the directive.
We are now awaiting the promised addition to broadcasting
of an extra wavelength [the Third Programme, now Radio 3]. Let us
hope that when that happy event comes to pass the programme standard
of music in the smaller forms may be improved, and may bear comparison
with the excellent fare provided in the orchestral and choral broadcasts.
After all, in music as in painting or poetry, it is
not size that counts. A. E. Housman's "Shropshire Lad"
has become accepted as a classic. Yet the longest by far of these
poems consistes of 76 lines, while the majority of them are made
up of less than half-a-dozen four or five-line stanzas.
The songs of Hugo Wolf remain, while the vast and
bulky symphonies of his contemporaries, Raff and Rubinstein, which
once took the world by storm, are now almost completely forgotten.
And one poem alone, "Heraelitus," a verse translation
of a mere eight lines, has conferred immortality on the name of
William Johnson Cory so long as the English language may remain.
June 8, 1946
(date? - my copy of text almost illegible here)
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