New Music Blues
The BBC Music Division
Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1981
Unlike his contemporaries in many other countries, the British composer of serious music has very little chance of being heard by the average music-lover who attends London concerts and listens to music on the radio.
The concert halls on the South Bank provide the shop window for our nation’s music, yet the record of the five major London orchestras there is lamentable as far as it concerns the music of their own countrymen. Annual concert analyses speak for themselves. In the 1978/9 season the percentage of music by living British composers played by the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a mere 2.4 percent – 11 out of a total of 463 works played.
This is a pattern which repeats itself year in, year out (and which causes foreign visitors to assume that there is no good new orchestral music being written in Britain).
So the British composer must rely on broadcast performances to reach a wide audience. But here the picture is as black, if not blacker. Other countries’ broadcasting charters recognise the moral and cultural desirability of including a fair proportion of music by their own living composers. In contrast the British composer can expect – and receives – little from the BBC, whose charter does not encompass such a responsibility.
Information from the Association for British Music is both revealing and embarrassing. In the Eastern bloc countries 25 to 30 percent of the serious music broadcast annually is by their living nationals. In the Scandinavian countries, Italy and West Germany, the annual figure is between 19 and 22 percent. Great Britain shares with Japan a rock-bottom 4.5 percent.
The BBC’s policy of championing avant-garde music cannot, within that meagre 4.5 percent, allow for a representative selection of contemporary British music. In harness with the Arts Council it promotes what it calls “important and significant music” but which the average Radio 3 listener would describe as “extremely avant-garde”. The BBC’s Music Division and the Arts Council operate by gentleman’s agreement what is, in effect, a joint policy. So composers who get BBC commissions are often recipients of Composers’ Bursaries and commission fees from the Arts Council.
At present neither body shows any noticeable interest in music which has an immediate appeal and which does not require articles in The Listener to explain it.
This two-pronged policy has not only alienated most music-lovers and orchestral players, but, more seriously, has given them a false impression of what contemporary British music actually is.
The influence of the policy reaches out far beyond decisions on what is broadcast. It also affects the programming policies of the five major London orchestras. More than one composer has received a letter from one of them which says: “Unless we are assured of a broadcast, we cannot afford the time and expense of preparing your work for performance.” As a result of the BBC’s policy, the orchestras – notoriously conservative at the best of times – have retreated further and further to the safety of Beethoven and the rest of the classics.
Most orchestral players loathe playing contemporary music. In many ways, one cannot entirely blame them: for too many music-lovers and even musicians ‘contemporary music’ means the sort which makes them switch off.
Perhaps the widening gulf between the serious composer and his audience could be lessened if the BBC Music Division replaced or augmented its New Music Reading Panel with average music-lovers. Then at least many British composers of serious but approachable works might reach their audiences, and listeners might discover a previously untapped wealth of interesting and beautiful music.
Visiting Professor of Composition for Film, Televsion & Radio
Guildhall School of Music and Drama