The Land with music – BBC Four & BBC Radio 3 celebrate British Music

The Reader’s Digest revealed the results of a survey, in 2010, that “the British may be a nation of music lovers, but they are clueless when it comes to classical composers, a survey revealed today”  (Guardian article here). Over one thousand people responded; 27% of them did not know Elgar was a composer, 72% of the Welsh respondents owned a classical recording while only 59% of the English did, yet most of those who responded (61%) said they liked classical music.

Gill Hudson, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, said: “As our survey shows, there’s clearly an appetite for classical music. I suspect that a combination of uninspired teaching and the elitism that surrounds much of the genre has alienated many people, hence the lack of knowledge of some of the greatest classical music and composers of all time.”

He added: “Classical music at its best can be moving, life-enhancing and uplifting. It should be accessible to all.”

One can’t fault the work of arts organisations in luring audiences to classical music and the BBC leads the way in such work. What better year than 2012 to celebrate the best of British in not only its sporting achievements but in its musical prowess; the “Fairest Isle” continues to be a land with music and one that demonstrates real breadth and quality in new music, performance and education.

The BBC will celebrate British music at the start of the year with a series of curated programmes – some new, some from the extensive archives – that will form BBC Four’s British Composer focus.   This Friday sees the launch of the celebration with a new documentary exploring the nation’s most popular work, The Lark Ascending. Presenter Dame Diana Rigg – with contributions from those who share a love for the nation’s favourite classical work – will look at the work’s allure and fascinating context.

Vaughan Williams was a … genuinely national composer … His music is quintessentially British; suffused with his love both of London and of the countryside, steeped in the melodic shapes of his native folk tunes and coloured by a deep romanticism all the more powerful for being beneath the surface.

Hilary Davan Wetton, ‘Why is Ralph Vaughan Williams not honoured?’, The Telegraph, 15 February 2008

The Lark Ascending remained in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame at number one for four consecutive years, only falling to number two (with another Vaughan Williams work at number three) in 2011. What makes this programme particularly special is the performance of the work, in the venue where it received its first performance back in 1920, by young violinist Julia Hwang.

Four previously broadcast documentaries on British composers continue the celebration. Ken Russell’s 1962 biography of Elgar will be broadcast on Friday 20 January; Russell’s imaginative and partly-dramatised documentary achieved such acclaim that it was quickly repeated after the first broadcast: “Most television dates rapidly, but over forty years on, Elgar is still startlingly fresh and inventive. Even the black-and-white photography looks like a deliberate artistic choice as opposed to a then-universal convention” (Michael Brooke). On Friday 27 January the fascinating and insightful ‘Britten’s Children’ will air; Britten’s works for and about children form a particularly compelling part of his output and this documentary investigates these works through a close psychological study of the composer. The BBC is in a unique position in that it can draw not only on archive footage but on specially filmed new performances to make this a documentary of real intrigue and a must-see.

HRH The Prince of Wales presents a feature-length documentary – a repeat of an earlier broadcast -that seeks to discover the lesser known life of Sir Hubert Parry on 10 February. Award-winning director John Bridcut has created a feature that is imbued with the immense importance of a composer that did so much to rejuvenate British music in the 19th and early 20th century as seen through the personal insight of HRH The Prince of Wales.

His musical style and sensibility, capable of passionate yearning and affecting melancholy, is also imbued with a natural reserve, a tempered respect for technique and a propensity for moderation. These attributes, combined with a profound sense of the composer’s obligation to society, was his legacy to a younger generation of composers and admirers, among them Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Bliss and, most notably, Finzi.

Jeremy Dibble. “Parry, Sir Hubert.” In Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, (accessed January 12, 2012).

No celebration of British music would be complete without Henry Purcell, and the first episode of ‘The Birth of British Music’ – a series presented by Charles Hazlewood from 2009 –  explores this interesting composer’s life will be repeated on Friday 17 February. Typical of the programmes found on BBC Four this features specially filmed performances by Hazlewood; a presenter and conductor who has real skill in exploring the complexities and intrigue of music in a meaningful yet universally accessible way. Walton gets a mention in the composers focus with a rebroadcast of Masterworks: Pieces of Britain Belshazzar’s Feast’ on Friday 3 February with essentially a mixtape of popular British music compiled from Proms performances from the last decade in a hour long programme “The Best of British Music Compilation” on Friday 24 February. The BBC remains at the forefront of classical music television – Symphony was a real triumph in 2011 and it did much to educate a wider audience of the significance of the genre. The programming is of immense value to those in education as pupils will learn much from what BBC Four has to offer; celebrating classical music on television will do much to help retain its importance  in music education in a current situation where musical breadth seeks to dilute the Western classical tradition.

All the composers that have a documentary as part of the composer focus will be complemented by featuring as ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3 throughout January and February – Vaughan Williams will start this off on Monday 16 January, followed by Britten, Elgar, Walton, Parry and Purcell. It is wonderful to see a living composer end the series with Sally Beamish having the honour of Composer of the Week starting Monday 27 February. Living composers are further celebrated in the Choral Evensongs throughout 2012 on BBC Radio 3 that will broadcast the eleven new works from the Choirbook for The Queen. Simon Heffer has already started his own selections of British music on ‘Saturday Classics’ (3 pm – 5 pm) which will continue until 28 January.

This a celebration of British music that will be enjoyed (thank goodness for iPlayer) as we approach what one hopes will be an exciting summer of sporting success; for now, we can sit back and revel in the musical achievements of our past with the help of the BBC and look forward to many more to come.

One response to “The Land with music – BBC Four & BBC Radio 3 celebrate British Music”

  1. My wife and I were listening to BBC Radio 3 the other day when the announcer praised to the skies a recording of music played by a viol consort. We find such totally unpleasant and unlistenable to. The nadir came when I saw a new recording advertised of a counter tenor singing Elizabethan and Jacobean songs accompanied by a viol consort. Unrelieved gloom? Whilst I appreciate one man’s meat is another’s etc., are we alone in being so adverse to this form of music? Is there something profound we are missing? Our dislike did lead me to the further pondering – was the Elizabethan and Jacobean era one of exploration by the English as so many people were running away, their hands clapped to their ears, to escape the hordes of viol players across the land – or is this just another of my vile thoughts…?

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