Radio Three's Paul Gambaccini has been the target of an ugly campaign-accusing him of driving the once highbrow music station downmarket. Edward Pearce speaks out in his defence and offers views of his own on the station's past and futureby Edward Pearce / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few weeks back the Radio Times carried a sheaf of letters denouncing the hideous descent of Radio Three and damning to hell its presenter, Paul Gambaccini, whose Morning Collection represented an acceptance of “Classic FM values.” Gambaccini, an American who once worked for Classic FM, whom Radio Three’s controller, Nicholas Kenyon, picked up in the manner of a football manager grabbing a much-fancied centre forward, is symptomatic of a more general argument about the station. I want to clear the record over an absurdly traduced individual; it is also time to look at the wider issues raised by the controversy. The letter writers seemed not to have heard any of Gambaccini’s programmes. They included Richard Ingrams (never one to need the crutch of information), who chucked a surly paragraph at the presenter; and Gerald Kaufman, to whom schoolmaster sarcasm is second nature. More surprisingly, they were joined by the excellent Alexander Waugh of the Evening Standard. Waugh has it in him to be a musical Brian Sewell, but in this instance he, too, joined in the chorus. The Gambaccini obsession even reached parliament, where a select committee asked Nicholas Kenyon whether the programme was proof of commercial pressures. The message was clear: once there was a great enlightened music station, but the cost accountants and the Virginia Bottomleys had got to it; everything scholarly and earnest (and, as it were, properly highbrow) had been junked in favour of snippets, excerpts, and Gambaccini “melody-bites.” These claims are revealed as nonsense if you listen to the programmes. Gambaccini works by themes: he finds a composer, some period or genre of his work, and goes through it, trying to get people interested. He began with the minor compositions of Gustav Holst, went on to the songs of Henri Duparc (all 17 of them), worked through the symphonies of Dvor?k, including the early neglected ones. He then marched through the Beethoven violin sonatas, followed by the cello sonatas. At the moment he is digging out a shining lode of Scarlatti. Nothing could be more remote from snippets and popular classic excerpts than such sustained and often arcane undertakings. But the essential test is concentration. The DJs of popular classical music, such as Alan Keith with Your Hundred Best Tunes, would run ten or 11 items an hour. Brian Kay, on his Radio Three Sunday Morning programme, manages about six. Gambaccini has lately been averaging three. And a Duparc song or a Scarlatti sonata, even if it lasts four minutes, is hardly a snippet. For my money, Gambaccini is doing an excellent job-precisely the job to which a serious music station should apply itself. He trusts his own taste, takes excellent advice, looks in lumber rooms, plays pieces at decent length and, while putting it to us pleasantly, does not linger with intrusive chat. The voice bothers some people but most of us quite like the nicer Americans. The prejudice against him has been pathological; the whole sour campaign has been a derogation of journalistic standards. A number of apologies are owed. Does this mean that things are generally up to scratch on Radio Three? Not, I think, so long as Gambaccini’s colleague Brian Kay operates on this station. Oddly, Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning, a three-hour long wodge of easy-on-the-ear not-too-long-to-be-boring music, has never been the focus of hostility in the same way as the American. A shorter Kay would have a point on Radio Two, with its sweet music, or on Four, if it were to abandon its status as a melody-free zone. Of course, people who like Faur?’s Pavane, Dag Wir?n’s Serenade for Strings, the overture to Die Fledermaus, Ravel’s Pr?lude ? l’apr?s midi d’un faune, eight minutes of Mendelssohn, a Tchaikovsky aria, rounded off with the whole of Beethoven’s First Symphony as the heavy offering, should be given such things. But it’s miserable to think that this list of 15 tasters (an average of 12 minutes each), taken from Kay’s selection on Sunday, 7th January, consumes a three-hour programme on a station with claims to depth, substance and serious devotion to music. This is an elitist reaction-valid elitism. Radio Three is different because it has always assumed, among its listeners, not necessarily furious pedantic expertise, but certainly a grown-up desire to learn; a measure of aesthetic stamina and revulsion from spoon-feeding and baby talk. “Little pink bonbons stuffed with snow” was how Debussy characterised the music of Edvard Grieg (Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat politician and a capable amateur violinist in his spare time, used the phrase at last year’s party conference to deride the small sweetnesses of Tony Blair). Brian Kay, like the presenter of Your Hundred Best Tunes, is dealing with such bonbons. Employed at the margin of musical attention and interest, they are an excellent thing: people enjoy them and they might quicken a wider interest in music. But addressed to an audience which knows its Haas from its Nov?k, which would go a long way not to hear the Dance of the Hours and which is game on Saturday mornings for comparative analysis of all available versions of Shostakovitch’s Eighth Symphony, it is an insultingly undemanding programme, not made more agreeable by the presenter’s disc-jockey desperation to spread ingratiation like lard. Kick against Kay for Classic FM values and general flight down market and you will be dead right. Kick against Gambaccini and you haven’t been listening. the broader problem of Radio Three is that it is caught between the whirlpool and the sharp rock-sweet, short and easy on the one hand, narrow and hermetic modernism on the other. For too long, under some distinctly odd programme controllers, Radio Three has inclined to the rock and the belief (somewhere between Stalin and Calvin) that only a small elect of the saved were fit to listen to it. Commerce, with its vulgar attention to sales and audiences, was long scorned with the sort of derision which a 1960s student might have shown to a widget maker. William Glock, Robert Ponsonby and John Drummond were above such things-as they were above the contemporary composers who still pathetically wrote tunes and observed key signatures, the likes of Edmund Rubbra and Bernard Stevens, whom they tried hard and with depressing success to keep unperformed. Politics doesn’t come into it. Alan Bush, so lately deceased, was a Stalinist, a crashingly tedious party-line Soviet loyalist (one of whose best works was called Dialectic). But he wasn’t played either, because in his concern to reach the workers he used tonality, and used it brilliantly. The only fit description of the old Radio Three is “central command aesthetics”: if they liked you, they let you be played. And though not politically radical, they despised the market and hated the idea of the swinish multitude having any influence on programming. (Mozart and Beethoven were lucky-important people approved of them.) The difficulty now is to navigate between the Scylla of authoritarian taste and the Charybdis of slop. The present controller, Nicholas Kenyon, a more tolerant man than his predecessors, has unfortunately run into quite different pressures: Radio Three does not begin to meet commercial criteria. It has been hit on audience numbers by the success of Classic FM at a time when commerce has never been so popular at the BBC. The in-house pressure on Radio Three has been to get in listeners, ears-to-loudspeakers, anything to hold off the Thatcherite option of putting the BBC into the hands of Coopers and Lybrands or the knackers. This is the age of Carlton television and Gerry Robinson’s stewardship of Granada; television companies have become delightful to the City as they market spangled rubble for serious money. A public service minority music programme may be tolerated if it avoids drawing attention to itself. But if you were Marmaduke Hussey two years ago, half way through a fourth Tory government, the threat of some assault on the license fee would have been a real one. Radio Three may have been no more than a potting shed among the many mansions which the BBC commands, but it wasn’t a cost-effective potting shed. Outside, Classic FM was showing its investors how money can be made from such an operation by means of relentless, bright patter, “personality,” and an undemanding schedule of soft classics, sliced like aerated bread. The pressure at the time was on the controller to “do something.” The appointment of Kay was a significant act of prostration before the altar of business-proof that we were market-minded, which is to say demotic. In this spirit, another edict told broadcasting staff to talk gaily to one another. The chaps are not yet into “humungous”; the full Terry Wogan aural wink and leer is resisted, but Piers Burton-Page, Edward Blakeman, Andrew McGregor, Peter Paul Nash and the rest are now hilariously familiar with one another; christian names flutter like tickertape-and with obvious agony, especially if you’re called something as unusable as “Peter Paul.” It’s quite awful. Just as bishops should be like Dr Grantley-living in decent palaces, not in three bedroom semis off the Barchester bypass-so Radio Three presenters should wear audible evening dress and speak exact, strangulated 1937 English. It’s what one expects. Instead, there has been this touching effort, reminiscent of royalty, to “meet the people.” Presenters who inhabit these regions because they are naturally reserved, cool and distant, liking to keep an Oxford quadrangle between themselves and familiarity, must trudge their way across the lower slopes of the Smashie and Nicey style. It’s like watching Charles Moore doing the twist. But many of the enforced anxieties of the last two and a half years will recede. For one thing the Tories are on their way out. And whatever Tony Blair’s failings, he isn’t going to hand the BBC over to Stagecoach. A sensible man like Nicholas Kenyon, working for what sounds like another sensible man in Christopher Bland, should be able to get Radio Three on to roughly the ground he wants. With luck, the strained mashed carrot of Brian Kay could go to a better place, such as Radio Two, and with it the brittle buddyishness imposed upon a collective of displaced library squires. But Kenyon should make other changes too. Intelligent presenters such as Gambaccini come into this. Good programming will sail between the rocks if it clings to the educational mission of the BBC. That phrase may stick in profit-oriented throats, but it’s right. Or rather it will be right when the eccentric arrogance which barred some composers and cheer-led for others-that central command aesthetic-also goes, and for good. You can only educate in music by loving it. My own feeling, as I push my listening wider and wider, is how much there is which is not widely known, which I have stumbled upon and would like others to know. I did not know the Dvor?k Third until Gambaccini played it; I am grateful to him for a splendid, grandiloquent work almost never heard in the concert hall. Not for me Duparc-but to lots of other people these songs will have been a great gain. The real test of unplayed music is simple: would people, ordinary non-connoisseurish listeners to classical music, enjoy it if they heard it? If they would, then for heaven’s sake play it and use that educational mission in a way which helps listeners without either patronising or baffling them. You can only sell what you value yourself. if i were doing such a job, and I can think of none more delightful, audiences would get heavy quotes of Nielsen, Jan?cek, Schmidt and Stenhammar among early 20th century composers. I have a respect for Scandinavian music over a long time span and I would give listeners everything from Johan Helmich Roman (a sort of Swedish Handel from the mid-18th century) via Niels Gade (usually discounted as derivative and Mendelssohnian) down to the still living Vagn Holmboe. In our own time and country I would try to do justice to the refus?s of the late regime, to the magnificent chamber music of Bernard Stevens, the symphonies of Rubbra, the music of Berthold Goldschmidt, George Lloyd and Benjamin Frankel. I would also enthusiastically display the symphonies and string quartets of Robert Simpson. I mention Simpson for good reasons. In the 1960s Simpson worked at the BBC before leaving for reasons between exasperation and despair. He is arguably the most benign musical influence to have worked on Radio Three since its inception. It is to him that we owe the reassessment of Bruckner, moved up from interesting major minor to undisputed leading stature. And as for Nielsen, Simpson practically imported him into the country when he had only been dead for 35 years. (It remains a scandal that Nielsen’s Maskarade-which Michael Oliver has rightly called the finest comic opera of the century after Rosenkavalier-has had in Britain, until its Opera North outing in Leeds four years ago, exactly one student production.) But the Simpson who brought in Nielsen was an eclectic at the BBC: a seriously important composer himself, he valued other men’s flowers and played a wide range of music without narrow preconceptions. Radio Three, however paltry an organisation in the grim perspectives of the stock market, is still the foundation of musical patronage in Britain-which is why William Glock’s head-tossing, doctrinaire exclusions were ruinous for those he excluded. Place a facilitator of Simpson’s kind near to power and, however frustrated, he will fight for hearings on which listeners will then adjudicate. The objective must be to stand somewhere between a market view of music and central command aesthetics. A Radio Three presenter shouldn’t think it worth his time to play dim little lengths of easy-to-digest music already on the shelf of comfortable popularity. That is a useful, indeed vital, role for people remote from music who might be drawn in. But where an interested audience exists, you must trust your musical enthusiasms and put them into wider circulation. Radio Three’s patronage role must now be influenced by something which didn’t operate in Simpson’s time. Over the past 15 years we have seen the rise of the small compact disc company. Low overheads have kept this business free from monopoly; so has the obsession of the big companies with star performers and everlasting cycles, the endless playing of the same famous music by successive famous artists. How useful is it to have 20 versions of one very familiar symphonist? And the cult of the voice has meant that every tenor must put together the same dozen arias for ever. The small operators are bored by this; instead, in a very short time, they have given us the music of Wesley, Linley, Bliss, Raid, Veracini, Moeran, Parry, Stanford, Chadwick, Kuhlau, Danzi, Pinto, Shield and many, many others, all, in my lay judgement, meeting that earlier stipulation: “If ordinary music-loving people heard it, would they enjoy it?” Promoting classical music doesn’t have to be a recital of the best known and fully anointed. There is so much music we don’t know about and would like if we did. Small companies such as Hyperion, Marco Polo, ASV, super-budget Naxos, Chandos and Bis share the instincts of Robert Simpson: that generosity and interest outrun commercial assumptions, and that divining music is a rough working skill like panning for gold-not a sacrament in priestly hands. If Nick Kenyon can cut out the high and pious tone at Radio Three and substitute the enthusiasm of the small companies, he will be getting it right. The right presenters-not missionaries in jungle mufti nor barrow boys parcelling up the Jewel Song, but open and communicative minds-are vital for this role. For Kenyon, even if he is less oppressed by accountancy than before, still needs to win listeners. So far, as Henry Cooper would say: “The boy done good.” Hitting us with all that Purcell during the tercentenary was a slightly tycoonish thing to do and rather magnificent. But things are slightly confused: we get the big events-the Purcell year, relays from the New York Met-but there is a decline in the exposition of music, Building a Library always excepted. Now, you can have music or you can have talk, but a presenter-heavy regime means music with talk, or as it sometimes seems, talk with music. This is a combination which comforts people on the popular stations. Words such as “chat” and “natter” have accountancy approval-the voices become disembodied friends. But with an educated audience, such a clutching at security blankets is not needed. Let Radio Three have programmes which intelligently discuss musical ideas, or programmes of music played with useful verbal information; and of course let them involve pleasant, civil, non-cuddling-up voices. One of the ironies of our times is that, educationally, the government demands standards-better reading of harder books and less slop; yet at the same time its love for competition and market forces advances forms of entertainment and communications which drive low and hard, because the big killing is made at the bottom. Public service broadcasting-of which classical music is a small but important part-is trapped between failing to meet the competition or being damned for falling standards if it does. Hard quality and mass popular appeal are not capable of being combined. But the best should be on decent terms with the good. It might make better sense for Radio Three to accept Classic FM as an ally, and perhaps a way-station, precisely because its world of Strauss waltzes, arias and famous enjoyable tunes is a better one than the world of Mr Blobby and “Blow Your Mind with Witless Jim.” Why compete with an ally? Anyway, wasn’t the first part of the government’s concern right? We do need higher standards. With all caveats entered, it would be good to have Radio Three continuing to defend them.