Classical music ain’t just for snobs

Demanding and ambitious, the BBC’s Symphony series recalls a time when Haydn and Mozart were pop.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

People often complain today that we’ve lost our ability to concentrate on one thing at a time, and that in a digital, multimedia culture that promises endless choice and instant gratification, we have forgotten the virtue of patience. Indeed, social commentators have been remarking on this since the arrival of microwave dinners and the television remote control in the 1970s – which took the effort out of cooking and meant you could perpetually switch channels without ever having to watch a TV programme properly. The subsequent internet revolution, which has given us email, online shopping and social networking, has merely accelerated this phenomenon.

Despite attempts to put a positive spin on this trend – that it allows us to ‘multi-task’ which effectively means simultaneously doing many things badly rather than one thing well – it is apparent that we want lots of things and we want them now. If you don’t believe me, leave your Twitter or Facebook account on and try to do some work. Or try going to the cinema when someone’s mobile phone doesn’t go off, or have a social occasion with someone who doesn’t check for text messages.

So one has to admire the BBC, which this Friday concludes its ambitious month-long Symphony Season. Over the past four weeks, on BBC4 and BBC Radio 3, the Beeb has been celebrating the evolution and development of arguably the most complex form of musical expression – not to mention, one of the least fashionable.

The BBC certainly set itself a challenge. The classical symphony stands for much of what today’s society does not. First, symphonies are long, which means they demand you pay attention to them. Secondly, they are old, which means they ‘belong to the past’ (a habitual derisory phrase used by that arch-neophiliac, Tony Blair) or belong ‘in a museum’ (another phrase casually employed to signify disapproval). Being long and old means they are assumed to be boring and ‘difficult’ and elitist, the creation of dead, white, European males. Whoever said the BBC was a slave to fashion?

Still, the Beeb’s four-part television series Symphony, hosted by Simon Russell Beale (with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Halle and the BBC Symphony Orchestra) traced the history of the great symphonies and the men [sic] behind them. With the rich lives and works of Haydn, Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich and so on at the programme makers’ disposal, what could possibly go wrong?

There was much material here for high-, low- and all-brows, for aficionados of the grating music of Stravinsky, and something for those who think of that old Hovis ‘bike’ advert when they hear the second movement from Dvorak’s ninth symphony. The symphonies were put in their historical context. Even if much of this was familiar, these were stories still worth re-telling: Beethoven’s disillusionment with Napoleon, the significance of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony during the siege of Leningrad, Sibelius’s symbiotic relationship with Finnish nationalism, and the significance of Haydn, ‘the father of the symphony’.

It was Haydn who standardised the modern symphony’s four-movement form, giving it its layers and sense of structure, thus lending it the capacity to transmit an unspoken narrative. It is worth remembering how widely popular Haydn was in the 1790s, and by introducing folk tunes into his works, how populist. Like Verdi’s operas of the nineteenth century, Haydn’s work was not the preserve of the privileged, but loved by many ‘normal people’. Likewise, in his time Mozart symphonies were as eagerly anticipated as the next LP by the Beatles was in theirs. As Russell Beale related, classical music was further democratised by the introduction of the gramophone record in the 1920s, which brought the symphony into the living room.

Thus, the notion that classical music is inherently ‘difficult’, and therefore incomprehensible to all but society’s elite, is historically untrue as well as plainly snobbish. The success of Classic FM since its launch in 1992 indicates that ‘ordinary people’ never have been persuaded by the argument that classical music is ‘elitist’, merely that a lot of the public didn’t care for the gloomy and atonal music of Stockhausen & Co that was preferred by Radio 3 in the latter part of the twentieth century, and that they preferred the ‘easy’ classical music of Mozart and Vivaldi and the film scores of John Williams and John Barry.

The persistent mass appeal of Classic FM, however, does add weight to the argument that our attention spans have shortened. Its playlist has traditionally been criticised for being repetitive and bitty; it currently devotes only a couple of hours a night to playing works in their entirety. Otherwise it’s ‘The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Verdi’s Aida, ‘The Montagues and The Capulets’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Dvorak’s Hovis advert, all day, every day.

This is not to be sniffy. Classic FM certainly caters for an audience. I had no education in classical music, and it was this station that introduced me to it. And after all, you have to give people what they want if you are a commercial operation.

Yet the state-owned BBC never knows whether it should inform or reflect public appetites. It’s damned as elitist when it does the former and damned as populist when it does the latter. This is why it comes a cropper when it tries to be all things to all people – as it did here with Symphony.

As admirable as the BBC4 series was, its principle drawback was that it, too, was bitty. Between Russell Beale’s narration and Sir Mark Elder’s fascinating interpretations of the scores, it only gave us fragments of the symphonic masterpieces in question. This would not have satisfied connoisseurs who would be familiar with the works, but who might have wanted to hear Sir Mark’s new interpretations in full, and neither was it sufficient enough to lure classical-music virgins into exploring the works further. This television project, though well-intentioned, was simply too ambitious. You can’t have a comprehensive history of the symphony that actually includes the music itself in only four hours.

Judging by the mostly dismal matter on offer on the BBC’s terrestrial channels, you would be forgiven for thinking the corporation has surrendered any Reithian pretence at taking high culture seriously. But those who use their remote control shrewdly will find on BBC4 that all is not lost. And happily, all the symphonies featured in the series have been airing in their entirety on Radio 3, and are available on iPlayer. Paradoxically, it seems that greater choice and technological innovation need not lead only to superficial neophilia and the obliteration of the past, but can help in preserving the past, too.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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Topics Culture


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