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What does the BBC have against classical music?

Another week, another hammer blow for British classical music. Following the devastating, much criticised funding cuts announced by Arts Council England in the autumn, the BBC has now declared that it is to scrap the BBC Singers and cut salaried posts in the BBC Symphony, Concert and Philharmonic Orchestras by 20 per cent.

It is tempting to rail at the government, and many have. But the government is not stipulating precisely how savings must be made. Someone in W1A is deciding where to wield the axe and has evidently decided that classical music (always an easy target as a supposed “minority interest”) is expendable. We are always being told that the excessive salaries paid to BBC “stars”, whether radio DJs, chat-show hosts or newsreaders (never mind sports presenters), are essential because these people are indispensable. But the UK’s only full-time professional chamber choir, with almost a century of history can, it would appear, simply be casually thrown away. 

The people in charge of our great cultural institutions — both ACE and the BBC — should hang their heads in shame. For not only are they removing musicians’ livelihoods and depriving audiences of the opportunity to hear wonderful performances (including many for free), but they are also grinding their own founding principles into the dirt. 

When it came to the Reithian values of informing, educating, and entertaining, classical music ticked all the boxes — and was given prominence on the early airwaves. 1920s listeners could tune in nightly at 7.15pm to hear a programme called “The Foundations of Music”. What would doubtless strike many today as a rather “dry” or “nerdy” programme inspired many people who knew little about classical music to go and seek out a live performance. By the late 1920s the BBC was broadcasting a colossal thirty specially recorded studio operas a year as well as numerous outside broadcasts. 

The early founders of the BBC were determined to democratise classical music. In its 1928 handbook the BBC spoke of its desire to take the best performances to everyone, whether they be a labourer living in a squalid tenement in an urban slum, a crofter in the remote Hebrides, or a lonely housebound invalid. None of these people could have attended a live concert by a top orchestra or an opera at Covent Garden, but on the radio they could occupy the best seat in the house.

What the early BBC was doing, then, was providing “access”, though it would never have expressed it in those terms. Now we hear the word all the time, but it becomes hollow and meaningless when opportunities for listeners to encounter the arts are simultaneously being removed. Some may now baulk at the Reithian BBC’s paternalistic attitude, but what was actually wrong with taking the so-called “high arts” and making them freely available to everyone? Oh, to return to a world where arts organisations, broadcasters and educational institutions weren’t hamstrung by constantly having to fret about “elitism” or “relatability”.

For a good many decades, respect for the arts came from the top. The post-war BBC management was prepared to stand up for the Third Programme, as a station serving a relatively small audience with specialist tastes and featuring “only items of artistic value or serious purpose”. Even as late as 1984, Brian Wenham, the BBC’s Director of Programmes, wrote an article for The Stage stressing the importance of range and quality in BBC programming over ratings. 

And the more classical music that was broadcast, the more people took an interest and felt it was for them. By the 1970s, classical music loomed ever larger on BBC television under the stewardship of Humphrey Burton, whom The Daily Mail approvingly called “the most important single patron of the arts since the medieval Venetians”. Opera relays on BBC1 were regularly drawing audiences of four million. Reflecting back on this period, the critic Rodney Milnes wrote ruefully in Opera magazine in 2008, “Those were the days: imagine today’s bright, thrusting Strictly-Come-Dancing-style BBC undertaking such impossibly elitist projects”.

There’s nothing wrong with Strictly, but other broadcasters do such fare just as well. Where they can’t compete is in offering specialist musical content performed by highly trained, in-house professionals. The very existence of the BBC orchestras and choir is often cited as a justification for the licence fee. Rather than spouting vague weasel words about “increased agility and flexibility” that smack of the gig economy, the BBC should be giving these prized performing forces more exposure, for to most licence payers they are currently more or less invisible except at the Proms.

Something seems to have gone terribly awry at the BBC

Something seems to have gone terribly awry at the BBC when it comes to classical music. A letter from Jonathan Manners and Rob Johnston, Acting Co-Directors of the BBC Singers, to the BBC Chairman, which was leaked to the Slipped Disc website, speaks of a culture of fear and paranoia and about decisions being taken without proper analysis or meaningful consultation. Many of those involved in the decision to close the BBC Singers are said to have never heard the choir sing; nor was there any consultation with the wider choral world. A new strategy for classical music at the BBC is said to have been neither fleshed out nor costed. Given the missionary zeal with which the BBC’s founders promoted classical music and the wider arts, it is depressing indeed to learn of such a “couldn’t give a damn” attitude at the top of the present-day corporation. 

The BBC categorically must take heed of the public outcry that has greeted this announcement and reverse its decision. If it wants to do so without losing face, it could look to historical precedent and simply give the choir a different name — just as the BBC Opera Orchestra, which was axed in 1952, was swiftly replaced by the BBC Concert Orchestra. A message to the management: treasure what you already have, broadcast the choir’s concerts on BBC2, give it a regular educational slot, and for goodness’ sake stop being so damn scared of classical music. It won’t bite.

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