Writings > By Carey > Open Letter to the BBC

In 1981, during his time at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Carey became increasingly dissatisfied with the BBC Music Division’s approach to the broadcasting of compositions by living British composers, including himself. An opportunity arose, following the publication of related articles in The Listener, for him to write an ‘open letter’ to Mr Robert Ponsonby, head of the BBC Music Division. The letter, shown here, was published in the 17th September issue.

At around the same time, Carey also wrote a similar letter to the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. That letter was published under the title New Music Blues in the Opinion section of the newspaper’s Magazine.

Open Letter

to the BBC Music Division

The Listener, 17th September 1981

SIR: The article concerning Dr Robert Simpson’s pamphlet, The Proms and Natural Justice (The Listener, 10th September), makes most interesting reading. Mr Robert Ponsonby’s own contribution, A moral issue?, is of course of particular interest to composers. However, it contains some highly contestable points.

Mr Ponsonby says that the BBC Music Division is “deeply committed to the support of living composers”, yet he omits to add that they must write the ‘right’ sort of music for him and his colleagues; namely, music of, and derived from, the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). In 1959, when William Glock became Controller of Music, with Hans Keller as his Chief Assistant, New Music, the BBC Music Division began a rigorous championing of the more extreme forms of avant-garde music to the virtual exclusion of any new music which had an immediate appeal. (“Schoenberg is the One, True God, and Pierre Boulez is His Prophet” became the faith that all had to live by, whether composer or BBC producer.) Sadly, this policy has continued under Mr Ponsonby, Sir William Glock’s successor.

Mr Ponsonby also states in his article: “known public taste must be given weight” and, later: “we can look after Smith, Brown and Jones in other contexts on Radio 3, while vigilantly observing public taste.” The record of the Music Division over the past 20 years quite simply does not bear out this no doubt sincere but inaccurate claim. The users of the broadcast music programmes, viz. the music-lovers, have never been consulted as to what they would like to hear; BBC music producers ‘do their own thing’ – frequently very way-out and of very limited interest and appeal to listeners; British composers who have had works extremely well received abroad have been ignored, the works rejected for broadcasting; and – in the words of one distinguished soloist – “Der Englische Rundfunk” has reigned supreme, unchallenged until now. Neither our own composers nor our executant musicians can do anything to improve the situation.

But Mr Ponsonby can. He has it in his power to start to undo the great harm done to our musical culture over the past 20 years by the Glock–Keller regime, which favoured – and still favours, in its continuing influence – music of Continental origin and music written by a small faction of British composers thoroughly indoctrinated in this ‘foreign musical policy’ to the great detriment of the vast majority of our own composers.

Abstract arguments are strengthened by concrete examples. Let me give just one example from my own career, a typical example that is by no means unique, and one which very many of my colleagues would instantly recognise.

When my one-act opera, The Girl from Nogami, was given its European première in Antwerp in 1980, it collected very many excellent reviews: “a jewel in sound” (De Morgen); “a wonderful score … overflows with melody” (De Standaard); “a real discovery” (’t Pallieterke), etc., etc. Yet when I submitted this work for a second time – it had already been rejected as ‘unsuitable for broadcasting’ in 1978, at the time of its London première – Mr Ponsonby wrote to me: “Success overseas does not seem to me an automatic entitlement to performance here.”

This kind of ‘holier than thou’ attitude – considered by most composers to be a typical example of the BBC Music Division’s arrogance – is what the majority of our composers have had to live with for the whole of their professional lives.

The BBC Music Division professes to have the interests of the music-lover at heart, despite the fact that music-lovers have never been consulted as to what they would like to hear. I publicly challenge Mr Ponsonby to show that the BBC Music Division is prepared – for the very first time in its life – to consider the music-lover, and to stop being so concerned about what ‘musical intellectuals’ in this country and abroad think about what the BBC does. Let him broadcast my opera, which has already brought much pleasure to about 2,500 people. And let this be just the very first of very many broadcasts of works by living British composers that have proved their worth abroad, either in professional performance and/or in broadcasts, but which the BBC Music Division has implacably rejected over the past 20 years as ‘unsuitable for broadcasting’ (i.e. not the sort of extreme avant-garde music which the BBC wishes to promote). Heaven knows, there is a tremendous backlog of attractive and interesting music available, written during the ‘Black Years’ of the Glock–Keller regime, but never heard by most music-lovers because never broadcast.

Or would the BBC Music Division lose too much face?

Carey Blyton
Visiting Professor of Composition for Film, Televsion & Radio
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
London EC2