I suppose it’s inevitable that TV and radio ‘theme tunes’ don’t get scrutinised particularly closely by the viewers and listeners who encounter them. In the very nature of things, most people hearing most theme tunes are interested in the programme that’s attached to them, and are more likely to be enjoying the familiar ambience than subjecting it to careful examination.
All the same, a theme tune has a job to do, and generally speaking is honed and crafted so as to do it very well — by which I mean efficiently and with a high degree of reliability. Take this one, for example:
I remember encountering this programme as a boy, and being astonished that anything could be broadcast with a theme so unashamedly moronic: four bars of introductory rhythmic vamp, followed by four unvaried presentations of a four-bar shape that itself manages to be internally repetitive — and only contains four different notes in any case. By the time it’s over, we’ve heard Three Blind Mice, slightly decorated, no fewer than eight times.
Which, of course, is precisely the point. What this theme has to make clear, in 30 seconds or less, is that the following programme raises absolutely no bar in terms of the education, intellect or cultural awareness expected or required of its audience. In the final analysis, this is a programme about muscles, and about all the endlessly repetitive and empty things that muscles have to do in order to triumph over other muscles — whether the muscles concerned are those of white people sailing yachts and riding horses, or black people running in circles and punching hell out of each other. What matters is that, mum aside, everyone feels welcome — and therefore what is needed at the start is a piece of music so completely music-free that there’s no possible danger of it speaking to one person and not to another.
Now let’s jump to a theme tune that I heard on Saturday night. Not on a prime-time TV programme designed to appeal to ‘dads and lads’ of every educational level and none, but on a late-night outing of a Radio 4 programme designed for the kind of listener who affects to take a certain kind of ‘knowledgeability’ very seriously indeed. (The clip is pretty old, but not much has changed since then):
Yes, the programme is Brain of Britain — and, naturally, the music is ‘classical music’. Equally inevitably, it’s Mozart — here co-opted as the most classical of the classical, the musically brainiest of the musically brainy. There’s a conversation to be had about whether this is any kind of sane or helpful choice of theme music in a world where the classical repertoire is already seen by an overwhelming majority of the population as something alien, off-putting and elitist; but that’s not why I’m referring to this tune here. What I have to report on this occasion is in fact vastly more depressing.
You see, week after week I hear all or most of Brain of Britain for the dullest, work-related reasons — and what I can’t help noticing is that, time and time again, the classical music questions have the contestants completely and totally baffled. Saturday night’s programme was a case in point — as you can hear (for a period of time) if you click here and jump to 20:46.
What we all heard on this occasion was a clip of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) singing an Italian aria — whereupon the four competing ‘brains’ (as the programme insists on calling them) were challenged to name the opera from which it comes. Here’s the recording we heard:
And here, in order, are the four spotlessly wrong answers provided by the contestants:
From which rather shocking result several conclusions require to be drawn:
(i) No-one actually knew the opera concerned — which is, of course, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1917-18), the third part of Il trittico, and not a work that can, in any sense, be considered ‘obscure’, even today.
(ii) No-one actually knew the aria either — the overwhelmingly famous ‘O mio babbino caro’ (‘Oh My Beloved Father’) — or there wouldn’t have been even the slightest hesitation in naming it or the work in which it is found. And by ‘not knowing it’, I mean something absolutely total: not only was it very plainly the case that none of the contestants had ever sung it for fun, or played it on the piano, but it was also absolutely clear that none of them had ever owned a record of ‘Puccini’s Greatest Hits’ — on which it would most assuredly have featured.
(iii) What we actually heard from the contestants were four wild stabs in the form of guesses involving the names of a few Italian operas that Every Educated Person has heard of. Yet, at the same time, and equally plainly, not one of the contestants was naming a work that he or she actually knew — since, if they had known it, they’d have known perfectly well that the tune didn’t appear in it.
Which brings us back to the programme’s theme music and my purpose in drawing attention to it, all those paragraphs ago. You see, the entire point of using a piece of Mozart to ‘top and tail’ a programme like Brain of Britain is to help to ‘brand’ the show by making use of the cosy assumption — supposedly a ‘fact’ known by broadcaster and audience alike — that classical music is brainy music for precisely the kind of brainy people who turn up on a programme like this being all brainy. Yet if the programme itself tells us anything at all, it is that this notion is a stereotype with absolutely no factual basis — that, apart from the occasional obvious music-lover, the kind of folks who get on the programme are mostly people to whom this repertoire means absolutely nothing whatsoever. In this respect, they are in precisely the same position as the rest of the British population — for the vast majority of whom it is now the easiest thing in the world to go for months and even years without encountering the faintest ‘mainstream’, mass-media reminder that this repertoire even exists. We have, in short, reached a stage when the thing most widely and obviously felt to connote ‘refined braininess’ is no longer a living reality to the very people whose refined braininess it is being used to refer to.
The reason this matters is that it relates directly to the precarious situation in which, I maintain, our classical repertoire currently finds itself — a state which I have characterised using the biological concept of ‘functional extinction’. Let me bring up another biological example to clarify my meaning.
The plight of the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) is currently pretty desperate: according to yesterday’s newspapers, the world now contains merely five individuals of that species — one male now permanently under armed guard, and four females. Whether there’s any way back from such a genetic precipice, I don’t know. But I do know that if the species is to be saved, this will only be because people were presented with the shocking facts of its treatment and decline, and realised that something had to be done, and soon.
Whereas as far as our classical repertoire is concerned, it would appear that every media outlet we see — and BBC Radio 4 above all — is smugly conspiring in the escapist fiction that this music is safe and well in the minds and hearts of an educated and intelligent elite — an educated and intelligent elite which, in reality, doesn’t know about it, and doesn’t care, either.
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