National Institutions

Hans Keller

  • The Proms and Natural Justice: A Plan for Renewal by Robert Simpson
    Toccata Press, 66 pp, £1.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 907689 00 0
  • The Proms and the Men Who Made Them by Barrie Hall
    Allen and Unwin, 192 pp, £8.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 04 780024 0
  • The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven by Antony Hopkins
    Heinemann, 290 pp, £12.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 435 81427 3

Its last chapter apart – an irrelevant ‘After-thought’ whose autobiographical explosion inextricably interweaves deep historical insights with a strong composer’s inevitable prejudices – Robert Simpson’s impersonal challenge is spotlessly objective, sternly factual and, at the same time, unashamedly ethical. His scrupulous analysis of the Proms’ past yields a practical proposal as well as what already seems to have proved an indisputable moral message – both substantiated by comprehensive, complex statistics, yet each glaringly simple in substance.

On the practical side, Dr Simpson shows that if the Proms confined themselves to, or at least concentrated on, the BBC’s own orchestral resources (including the regional symphony orchestras which, for financial reasons, were about to be crippled last year), no less than 62 per cent of the current orchestral costs could be saved, while the BBC and its Prom planner could gain complete command of repertoires, ensuring both range and coherence.

It is, in fact, Dr Simpson’s careful survey of past Prom programmes with their unavoidable, unfair exclusion or neglect, over decades, of composers highly regarded by at least a considerable section of the playing and listening world that enables him to demonstrate the inescapable ‘dangers of an indefinitely persisting control [of the Proms] by one person, whoever it might be’; since William Glock, it has been the BBC’s Controller, Music. The author’s moral principle ‘is not concerned with the particular virtues or flaws of the individuals in the case. It maintains that since everyone has prejudices, the dangers may be mitigated only by changing the person from time to time’, every few years; he can, but need not, come from inside the BBC or indeed this country.

When, prior to Glock’s takeover, the Proms were ruled by a committee, any fairness, balance, was bought at the expense of art, for ‘artistic conceptions are best from a single mind, prejudices and all.’ My own experience is that while art will never survive a committee, it can flower in a small group of congenial minds: where is there more art than in a mature string quartet? And the International String Quartet Seasons of the European Broadcasting Union were planned by a group of three musicians under my chairmanship, two of whom knew the string quartet, its entire weighty literature, from the inside. But this secondary contribution to the author’s case is not yet topical: his principle – the ineluctable evil of a Prom ruler whom only death or retirement can unseat – has to be accepted in the first place. So far as I can see, it has been – by wellnigh everybody who has written or talked about it – with the exception of one or two critics who, significantly, misquote the author for the purpose of invalidating his case.

Over a hundred million people listen to the Proms: in his incisive, crystal-clear style, Robert Simpson has raised our musical world’s profoundest administrative problem, pointing the solution, or one solution, equally convincingly. Since his case has remained uncontested by the entire musical profession and most critics (though Desmond Shawe-Taylor finds it ‘hard to decide’), the licence-payer is entitled to insist on learning the BBC’s own precise, concrete, practical and ethical reaction, which, despite some defensive voices from elevated quarters, has not been as much as attempted: let natural justice die a natural death.

How is it possible not to regard the many instances of prolonged neglect of important music which Robert Simpson specifically demonstrates as, simply, evil? On 17 July, a BBC spokesman informed the Sunday Times that ‘nothing will be said at all’ about either Barrie Hall’s book The Proms and the Men Who Made Them or the present piece: ‘it’s a decision by management.’ To one who has pumped many years of his life into the BBC’s middle management, it is downright distressing to find that what used to be an exemplary exponent of conflicting views, indeed the world’s most objective broadcasting organisation, the country’s ethical pride, can sink so low. We used to worry about the justest possible broadcasting of art, not about ourselves; needless to add, we felt in duty bound to consider and answer all informed public criticism. On one such occasion, I myself was appointed to do so, without being instructed what to say: I had complete freedom to say what I thought.

After almost thirty years of passionate, distinguished service, Robert Simpson himself resigned from the BBC last year on artistic and ethical grounds: their immoral silence does not now surprise him. Yet, when nothing is said and done, one still realises that there could be no replacement for the BBC – which, however, it is becoming ever more difficult to recognise. Individual consciences in the Corporation, unite! Or stir, anyway: you continue to exist, I know.

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