Peter Phillips

Horses for courses

Horses for courses

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I wonder how many people are in my position, wanting the BBC to be seen to represent their own special interest, quick to belabour the authorities with their righteous indignation when they feel left out. It is too easy to expect a service which is publicly owned and paid for in effect by us all to play ‘my kind of music’ with the prominence it affords other repertoires, the desired prominence reflecting our private opinion of its worth. Incidentally, I still think that since Josquin was as great a genius as Beethoven he deserves more air-time, but I’ve said this before. Perhaps there are people complaining that the symphonies of Franz Schmidt or George Lloyd or even of Karol Szymanowski are under-represented. The job of the controller of Radio Three in adjudicating between all these demands and expectations while maintaining good listening figures must at times resemble that of the cricket umpire confronted by 11 screaming fieldsmen and a partisan crowd, claiming a dismissal he is not at all sure about.

But maybe musicians should apply to the radio the same standards they apply to other forms of music-making: the old principle of horses for courses, that not every piece is suited for every audience and every concert hall, and that a good planner of concerts will instinctively adapt his thinking to the circumstances in question. In the very special case of the radio one might more often ask ‘what actually sounds good when heard off the average receiver’. Quite what the modern average receiver is like I don’t know, but much of the current prejudice in broadcasting only certain types of music was formed when we all went round with tinny transistors crammed in our ears, which may still be the case. I anyway doubt that more than a fraction of the small number of people who standardly listen to Radio Three are doing so on sophisticated equipment. What may be heard clearly in the car must come into it.

Radio reception has always favoured music that has a hard edge to it, which can come from its rhythm or scoring. Obvious harmony helps one perceive the essential outlines of a piece when the signal is suffering from interference. Pop music, with its often thumping beat, snarling guitars and easily comprehensible musical language, was always going to be successful over the airwaves. It was no accident that pop stations — remember Radio Caroline? — proliferated as soon as receivers ceased to be heavy items of furniture in posh drawing-rooms. Even the World Service, knowing that most of its listeners would be relying on a weak signal, adopted the principle of a shrill signature tune, something that at least once an hour would cut through the static. Rumour has it that ‘Lillibolero’ was originally chosen because the then adviser to the BBC had an Irish wife who liked this melody. But it is probably still played, wonderfully un-PC as it has become, because the use of flutes and piccolos on the higher notes can be guaranteed to be heard just about anywhere.

The elements which do not come over so well are the softer, subtler ones. In general terms this means melody, and especially sung melody. The voice of a trained singer naturally lacks the edge that a weak signal or rumble off the road requires if enough of a broadcast is going to be grasped before the listener decides to change channel. Pop singers rarely sing unaccompanied; speech usually fares better than singing because the performer can colour the tone more quickly than a singer can and close miking is more of an option without distortion. Also both pop music and the spoken word maintain a more consistent dynamic level than much classical music, which is a real benefit if the sound is coming and going anyway.

It is hardly surprising, then, that orchestral music with a strong harmonic structure, clear-cut rhythms and not too much ebb and flow has long been the favourite of listeners to classical music on the radio. Everyone knows that when it comes to going out it is opera that brings in the big numbers; but not on the radio. And which repertoire is it that most reliably delivers these desirables? The baroque concerto, the sound of culture. Renaissance polyphony, with its gentle mood, intertwining melodies, subtle use of dynamics and little interest in harmony or rhythm doesn’t stand a chance in this world. I’m beginning to understand why.