Music on Radio and Television

Hans Keller

There is no area of human endeavour on which we get a greater variety of opinions than on broadcasting, for the simple reason that everybody not only is but feels involved – as a listener and/or viewer, a broadcaster, or one who hates it all and makes a moral issue of it: I know more than one respectable mind who refuses to have a television set in the house – for his family’s sake and indeed his own. With a fair measure of boredom, then, the reader will expect yet another opinion from me – or rather, not another: by now, it is impossible for any opinion to be new.

Let me hasten to start by assuring him that there will be no opinion: at this stage in the history of our culture, what is required is what is true and what is right for a new culture yet to be bred, and to hell with points of view. It remains eternally true to say that Haydn is a great composer and Vivaldi isn’t, and it is right, therefore, that the broadcaster should treat Haydn with greater respect than Vivaldi. Obvious, you might say, but is it? For one thing, there’s Vivaldi all over the place, and never mind which broadcasting station we happen to listen to or view; for another, the shallow need for Vivaldi – a deep addiction to the baroque sound, regardless of whether it carries any meaning – is all over the place too, the need to be pleasantly paralysed.

For a third thing, while every responsible music broadcaster in the world would agree that – to take one basic example – the great Haydn quartets (45 of them, on a conservative count) should, regularly, be broadcast as a matter of cultural course, there is no radio station in the world which has yet solved this eminently solvable problem – the dependable representation of greatness. For those stations which, like the BBC, France Culture or Kol Israel, have reserved full-time airtime for serious music, it shouldn’t be a problem at all: a computer could provide the answer. Yet all these stations constantly commit the unpardonable cultural crime of neglecting or ignoring or forgetting greatness. It is wrong, disgraceful, unforgiveable that the BBC should not have broadcast Haydn’s String Quartet, Op.55, No 2 since November 1978 – and I am only picking this instance amongst many because I’ve picked it before, and I am interested to see how often I have to draw attention to it until something happens.

There is no excuse for treating such an omission lightly. Here is one of the human mind’s numerable gigantic achievements, and exceptional even among them: it is the later of the two master quartets Haydn wrote in F minor, his very own, highly-charged key which meant to him what B minor meant to Bach, G minor (and D minor!) to Mozart, C minor to Beethoven, E minor to Mendelssohn, D minor again to Schoenberg ... It is one of those works which makes you realise that life is worth living, whereas Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 1599, is one of those which is used to make you forget that life isn’t worth living.

At the same time, no Vivaldi would have to be sacrificed in order to make room for this quartet: let alone a reason, its omission doesn’t even have a cause, for no cause is needed in order for something not to happen. My criticism is so obvious, so banal, that I feel embarrassed about having to devote space to it – but the happening of such a broadcast evidently needs a cause or two. What is more, I submit it as a paradigmatic example of what this article is intended to provide instead of opinions. My ensuing truths, my later rightnesses, may not be such obviosities, but unless they live up to this one’s objectivity, I shall accept that I have failed.

Now, what gives me the right to imply that I speak with such authority on the rights and wrongs, the truths and delusions of broadcasting? There is one indispensable, outstanding source of authority – informedness. I have spent twenty years in the BBC’s music broadcasting, all barring a few months in senior positions, one or two of them gravely managerial. In addition, for half that time, I chaired a European Broadcasting Union working party, which job gave me protracted insight into the workings of sundry radio organisations – even outside Europe, for the EBU has highly active associate members. And on top of all that, as myself, I have broadcast for fifteen-odd stations in two languages: my activities have enabled me to look at broadcasting, simultaneously, from the production end, the conveying middle and the reception end.

In short, I know what I’m talking about – which, if nothing else, should make a sensational change in the field of radio criticism, though I hasten to add that so far as television is concerned, I chiefly speak as a viewer and a performer; my personal experience of televisual management and production is minimal. Nevertheless, it does enable me to say that the BBC’s total division between radio music and television music is wrong, and has the insanest of consequences. As an example, I offer what, in view of the wasted time involved, is destined to remain my star absurdity: it happened only the other month, when Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was broadcast on BBC 2 on a Saturday night, and on Radio 3 the following Sunday night!

Admittedly, this one is a problem in a vast and complex broadcasting organisation: little Radio Bremen finds it relatively easy to plan the two musics together – often with magnificent results, I might add. The fact remains that in the early Sixties, the BBC’s Controller, Music was, at least in theory, responsible for television music, too – nor did the theory remain unapplied to practice, even though there should have been more of it. But at the present stage, I know of no organisation in the world which evinces as little coordination between radio and television as does the BBC, though recent attempts at both simultaneous broadcasting on BBC 2 and Radio 3 and mutual trailing may indicate that the BBC is becoming aware of the need for integration; indeed, for quite a few years now, BBC Television has been receptive to the Proms.

It’s no good saying that there is too much to do as it is, that it is physically impossible to go far beyond the present stage of collaboration: BBC Radio is the only radio station in the world whose Music Department has two heads instead of one – each, of course, with his deputy. That is to say, there is Controller, Music with his Assistant to Controller, Music, and there is the Head of Music Programmes, Radio, with his Assistant Head of Music Programmes, Radio.

In the present financial crisis, we hear a lot about possible and indeed actual redundancies, invariably on the level of, say, library assistants; top jobs, top salaries are – ineluctably, it seems – taboo. Nor is our multi-headed Music Department (successfully single-headed, without deputy, for a few years in the Sixties!) the only glaring instance. Something like fifteen years ago, in Genoa (where we were for the Italia Prize), I went for a thoughtful walk with the then Director of Sound Broadcasting, Frank Gillard (the predecessor, at a removal or two, of Aubrey Singer) – who, I hope, is reading these lines and is invited to react to them. I drew his attention to the utter absurdity of our Gramophone Department’s responsibility for serious music broadcasting on commercial records, which resulted in Music Department being responsible for a broadcast of the aforementioned Haydn quartet if it went out live or on a BBC recording, while Gramophone Department, in another building under another head, would be responsible for the broadcast of the selfsame work, performed by the selfsame artists, if the recording was a commercial one. Never mind, said Frank, the nonsense, the waste is obvious, but one can’t do this to Anna Instone (the then Head of Gramophone Department – who, I readily agree, was an outstanding woman indeed). He reminded me that her retirement was impending, and assured me that immediately after it, the situation would be rationalised. Anna Instone retired and has meanwhile died – but Gramophone Department’s serious music hasn’t, and both money and untold possibilities of co-ordination between gramophone records and radio recordings are running down the drain – possibilities tellingly explored by many another radio station.

It is noteworthy that the two administrative issues I have so far raised combine cultural disadvantages with economic wastage: we are always being told the opposite – that any cultural misdemeanour is a evil, necessitated, that is, by lack of our low licence fees. Let us continue our, of inspection with my working hypothesis in mind – that in a complex organisation whose allocation of money can be subjected to infinite variations, the financial excuse can easily be shown to be so much gas. Within a few paragraphs, we have already exposed two powerful sources of saving; it may well be that there is ready money available elsewhere, equally undetected.

Artistically, the decline of live broadcasting is a catastrophe: by now, live broadcasts are confined to concerts and recitals in front of an audience; live studio work is virtually dead – or, one would hope, temporarily dead-alive. The catastrophe comprises two tragedies: on the one hand, faked performances (which recordings inevitably are) are replacing artistic events, with the result that while a mistake is assuming disproportionate importance, the conditio sine qua non of a truly musical performance, spontaneous risk-taking, is vanishing from the interpretative scene: what is art without the taking of risks? On the other hand, such novel programme-building as could not, at this stage, attract an audience to a concert hall has been largely abandoned, which means that the radiogenic concert par excellence, the concert which needs a studio in order to escape a depressingly empty (and expensive) concert hall, has become a thing of the past – and, the far-eared amongst us realise, the future. The amount of money which would be saved if studio recordings with their attendant editing sessions were, to a large extent, abandoned would prove downright sensational: energy, material and manpower could be drastically reduced.

With three categories of saving at our disposal, then, let us turn to what is the most topical evil of them all – the BBC’s projected orchestral cuts. For the first time in the modern history of industrial action, our cultural world is, to a man, on the side of the strikers – even though the demonstrably disastrous effects which the demise of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra would or will have are not remotely realised. They are simply ignored by BBC management – at any rate, so far as, again, the radiogenic part of a staff orchestra’s work is concerned. And once again, it is a matter of unconventional, culturally necessary programme-building: there are countless types of radio programmes for which there is no public replacement, countless important, new or unfamiliar works which only staff orchestras can take on because, as yet, they cannot feasibly be included in the repertoire of a public orchestra. Even if that public orchestra is promised a broadcast or two, it will hesitate to absorb a work which, when the broadcasts are over, threatens to turn into a deadweight.

The development of players and, quite especially, soloists and conductors is an equally essential, equally irreplaceable function: the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra itself has bred, almost given birth to, some of our most distinguished conductors. That the management of a radio organisation should remain unaware of the central part which radio orchestras play in the life, the survival, of our musical civilisation is all the more frightening since the more developed sister organisations – the German ones, for instance – are fully alive to the crucial significance of staff orchestras, notwithstanding their own managerial Philistinism. At the same time, it would be facile, flippant, untruthful to talk about the BBC’s attitude as if there were such a thing: when one objects to, disproves the validity of, official BBC policy, one must not forget that there is many a mind within the Corporation which clearly sees the truth – and not only in Music Department. If, instead of being reminded of ‘corporate loyalty’, everybody were invited to speak his mind, what has turned into a sterile struggle would become a fruitful fight, and internal disagreements would heighten the BBC’s reputation, which the present pretext of internal unity has gravely impaired. The hollowness of this pretext has become obvious ever since Robert Simpson, one of our leading composers, announced his resignation after decades of distinguished BBC service: the saddest event, this, in the BBC’s musical history.

Otherwise, the Corporation has succeeded, more or less, in keeping its dissidents from us: what, at least potentially, remains one of the most needful cultural institutions of our time behaves as if it were a useless army, blindly loyal. The BBC’s previous internal combustion, the row about ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, had this to be said in its favour: that we, the rebellious staff, made a public issue of what was regarded as our disloyalty, and what we regarded as our loyalty to the ideals of that selfsame cultural institution. The BBC would never be the same again, we were told. Fortunately not, we replied: the idiocy of a music tap and a speech tap would lead itself ad absurdum. Within a mere decade it has done so: Radio 4 prides itself on its often excellent music, Radio 3 on its often excellent speech, of which there should be more in order to turn every music broadcast into an event – in order to de-Vivaldise music.

Music as a drug is the gravest danger associated with broadcasting: it has proved its anti-cultural function. Music as meaning is its overriding responsibility: it has, intermittently, proved its revolutionary regenerative role. And money can be saved by pursuing this very aim: all my afore-listed savings serve it – which is not to say that other savings, particularly those in the world of tautological local radio, should be ignored.

On the televisual side, likewise, music could redeem itself culturally and financially by concentrating on meaning, visual meaning included, without depending on any of the big names hiding small minds. Paradoxically, though, television seems more conscious of the need for meaning – for the incidental reason that television music cannot, as easily, be used as a drug: the television producer has to invite his viewer to pay attention where the radio producer might merely invite his deaf listener to have the radio on while he drives or does his income tax. ‘Turn it on!’ says the television producer. Whereas the all too professional radio producer, or his manager, says: ‘Don’t turn it off!’ Where the television producer has become too professional is in his insane pursuit of non-verbal visual interest: musical discussions, once the pride of cultural television, have died of unnatural causes.

The prototype of the musical drug is, of course, the signature tune – the one moment of total thoughtlessness, total vegetation, total anti-musicality, in our modern existence, and inescapable to boot. If you want to hear or see a programme (be it only the news), you will find it very difficult to escape the signature tune: I know, because I never cease trying. Artistically speaking, a musical performance is unrepeatable: this is what it is about. The signature tune not only molests you with an unequalled number of repetitions, but turns into actual torture as soon as some of the specific characteristics of the performance become fore-hearable torture – and ultimately, they all do.

The worst comes to the worst if the tune itself is among the worst ever conceived. To give a fair measure of the abyss which separates a normal musical mind from a normal managerial mind when it comes to musical drug addiction, let me conclude with a little personal story – as toweringly significant as it is little. A year or so ago, I wrote to Monica Sims, the Controller of Radio 4, to object, as politely as I could, to the signature tune of Brain of Britain – an obscenely jazzed-down version of the theme of the Kleine Nachtmusik’s finale. At least as politely, she wrote back to say that nobody else had yet objected to the tune. So that was that, until a few months ago, in a broadcast, I made my objections public – whereupon, I gather, BBC Radio’s Head of Music wrote to the producer of the programme, supporting my criticism; if my information is correct, he relevantly said that the producer wouldn’t do to Shakespeare what he was doing to Mozart.

As many a reader will be aware, nothing has happened, even though by now everybody in the BBC must know that I am by no means the only objector: my public remarks were received with explosive enthusiasm. Quite rightly, the BBC goes out of its way not to hurt anyone’s feelings with, say, obscenities, or things that might be experienced as obscenities by a certain section of listeners. Yet, although the entire music-loving world agrees that you can’t easily hurt musical sensibilities more deeply than with this piece of filth, the tune is being retained – as a point of honour, it seems: what other reason could there be?

When I say by way of epitome, then, that my article is simply about truth, it is a truth that isn’t easy to get across – the objective truth of certain values. The theory of cognition need not, Kant-like, turn its back on ethics and aesthetics: eventually, it can be made to turn round, to face definable, ultimate values, and cognise them. The step from cognition to recognition does not offend against anything we know, or are capable of knowing. It only offends against ignorance – the proposition that Mozart can’t be mutilated.