So there I was, driving down a country road, when the car radio’s ‘search’ function took it upon itself to re-tune the set to Radio 3. And since I can’t bear to listen to that national embarrassment any more, I was about to push the button for something else … when I realised that the wind-band arrangement of ‘The Londonderry Air’ that was playing sounded like it had to be by that great original, Percy Grainger (1882-1961). Since I’m the kind of guy who likes to know whether he’s right about something, I thought I’d listen till the end and hear the identifying back-announcement.
And sure enough, the piece was revealed to be this one.
Now, since I’m also the sort of guy who’s always jolly happy when he’s proved right about something, I felt sufficiently relaxed and generous to go on listening for a bit — even though it seemed pretty inevitable that the programme itself would turn out to be yet another of those presenter-led and drivel-filled morning rag-bag slots whose unpopularity with the station’s ‘core audience’ (and lack of popularity with everyone else) the BBC completely refuses to acknowledge.
And, of course, I was right about that too. In fact, it was only a matter of seconds until a piece of utter drivel hit me — and it’s this that I’m going to be discussing at length here. What happened was that the announcer, I mean presenter, finished back-announcing the Grainger — and, right away, launched into this:
And tomorrow I’ll be sharing another reason to love wind band music, with Holst’s suite ‘Hammersmith’, showing the subtlety of instrumental colour that the composer achieved with the wind band.
I daresay there will be readers who don’t know their Holst well enough (tut, tut!) to be able to see the problem in that pseudo-sentence; so let me quickly explain that Gustav Holst (1874-1934) — one of our greatest British composers (in case his foreign-looking name makes anyone think he was from somewhere else!) — wrote several suites for military and brass band, all of which I think are perfectly loveable. For military band, there’s the First Suite in E flat (1909) and the Second Suite in F (1911) — while for brass band there’s the much later A Moorside Suite (1928). What you won’t find on any list of Holst’s suites is one called ‘Hammersmith’ — for the good and simple reason that the late and challenging Hammersmith (1930), originally written for military band, isn’t any kind of ‘suite’ at all: as the score and a whole succession of LP and CD covers make clear, it’s a ‘Prelude and Scherzo’.
Now, whether or not you spotted that slip, I’d be prepared to bet that you aren’t taking it as seriously as I think you really ought to. And the reason I feel confident saying that is because I’ve discussed Radio 3’s descent into absolute cluelessness on other occasions, and I know what happens when I do. It’s at this point, for example, that my interlocutor usually starts jabbing a finger at me and spluttering that to be talking about ‘such a trivial mistake’ is ‘exactly the sort of pedantry that drives people away from classical music’, and that ‘this sort of purism is something that the population just won’t stand for these days’. And if that’s the thought currently passing through your mind, dear reader, then I hope you’ll permit me to indicate that it shows you’ve completely missed the point.
For a start, Radio 3 is not some ramshackle profit-seeking outfit that’s run on a shoestring and grubs for money by advertising Specsavers and Benecol — it is (God help us!) an arm of Britain’s national broadcaster, and is publicly funded to the tune of £1 million pounds every week. (Yes, for Radio 3 to spend what it spends, 350,000 people have to pay the licence fee.) We are therefore entitled to expect — by which I mean demand — that it maintains at least a minimal level of competence, not least where a towering figure from Britain’s own musical history is concerned, and quite especially when the station has become just about the only one of the Corporation’s many dozens of radio outfalls where a piece like Hammersmith can even be talked about, let alone played. There is simply no excuse at all for any piece of Radio 3 presentation — however ‘approachable’ it wants to appear — being written or delivered by someone who doesn’t know, won’t ask, and can’t be bothered to check.
What’s more, if you stop and think about it, calling Holst’s Hammersmith a ‘suite’ is actually a pretty weird mistake to make. I mean, the definition of ‘suite’ is hardly one of musicology’s knottiest problems (for clarification, see here). On top of which, the presenter (and presumed scriptwriter) of this programme apparently ‘studied music at Royal Holloway College and Reading University, where she specialised in performance’: wouldn’t such a person be absolutely certain to know what a suite is? Doesn’t every music-lover, in fact, know enough suites — ‘Nutcracker’ Suite, ‘Peer Gynt’ Suite No. 1, and so on — to have figured out for themselves pretty rapidly what the term means, without much conscious effort at all? I myself managed to work it out from literally the first piece of classical music I ever noticed: since I knew what a ‘three-piece suite’ was, Holst’s own seven-piece ‘Suite for Large Orchestra’ The Planets (1914-16) caused me no confusion whatsoever.
And just in case anyone is wondering if they themselves might have been capable of mistaking Hammersmith for a ‘suite’, here’s a recording that you can listen to while you go through the paragraphs that follow — yes, for once, I’m going to encourage everyone to listen while they read. Here’s the Holst piece that all this is about:
Now, I’m on my way to a rather shocking conclusion, so I hope you’ll click on that recording and give it a couple of minutes before you read on.
* * *
All right, here goes. To begin with, Hammersmith is — as I hope you are now discovering! — one of those uncompromising and exploratory pieces of ‘late Holst’ that, once heard, will never be forgotten. Whether or not you like this ‘prelude and scherzo’ (and when I first heard it, round about 1979, I didn’t like its dissonance and polytonality one little bit), the fact is that you won’t ever make the mistake of thinking that what you’ve been listening to is a ‘suite’ — any more than you’d come away from Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue or Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro imagining that you’d heard a ‘suite’.
You can tell, I think, what it is I’m leading up to. Since there’s nothing ambiguous or obscure about the term ‘suite’, and since Hammersmith isn’t one; isn’t called one; doesn’t sound like one; and won’t be misremembered as one (Google for “Holst’s suite Hammersmith” and you’ll get literally no ‘hits’ at all), it seems an inescapable conclusion that the presenter was talking about a piece that she didn’t actually know. For, as far as I can see, the only time that such an error can come about is when all the people responsible for the writing and reading of a piece of presentation have no acquaintance at all with the work itself, or with the literature on it.
And it is at this point that my complaint switches from the factual to the ethical dimension .
For it follows that, in such a context, describing Hammersmith as ‘another reason to love wind band music’ is the merest, emptiest manipulation. If someone doesn’t actually know a given piece, then they are in no position whatever to be able to say what it does or doesn’t make possible in terms of the listener’s attitude to the genre — and anything they try to say on the subject will be totally and utterly fraudulent. And just in case anyone wants to pretend that I’m wrong about this piece of presentation being empty verbiage with no knowledge or familiarity behind it, the final proof comes in that bit about ‘the subtlety of instrumental colour that the composer achieved with the wind band’: someone who actually knew Hammersmith well enough to be commenting upon its ‘subtle instrumental colour’ would certainly know it well enough to be aware that it’s not any kind of ‘suite’.
What that presenter was engaged in, then, was pure hustle: the next day’s programme was being sold to us by means of an outpouring of verbal effluent every bit as cynical as the performance of some famous personality paid to stand before a camera and deliver an endorsement of a product he’s never been near. In other words, Radio 3 was doing what I find it doing every single time I switch it on: serving up a mixture of fake enthusiasm and pretended knowledge in an attempt to keep us listening and make us all ‘tune in again’ — a ploy that shows total contempt for the station’s listeners, exploiting as it does the fact that most of them will have no way of knowing that their ‘trusted presenter’ is putting out PR boilerplate with no grounding in anyone’s real experience.
And it is at this point that my real-world interlocutor’s admonitory digit starts wagging once again, and the spluttering resumes. ‘That sort of thing doesn’t matter’, I get told. ‘What’s important is that people do tune in again, and hear the piece. How you get them to do that is of no significance’. And if that’s the thought currently passing through your mind, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point all over again.
First of all, if you really consider it acceptable behaviour to go around saying whatever you think will get you what you want, without regard for veracity and sincerity, then you are someone with the mind and morals of a con-man: not only do you have no place working in ostensibly ‘public service’ arts broadcasting, but you actually deserve to be shunned by decent society.
Secondly, and no less importantly, there is what requires to be considered as the third of my complaint’s three dimensions — the practical aspect.
You see, all those modern-minded broadcasters who believe they don’t actually need to know the pieces they present — because all that’s really necessary is to talk about everything as if it’s wonderfully wonderful in its wonderfulness — should be aware that this is a technique that simply doesn’t work in the long run. The moment someone twigs that what you’re offering in the guise of ‘expert commentary’ is in fact mere huckstering, then you’ve lost the only thing that distinguishes you from a door-to-door salesman. Naturally, I don’t expect the BBC itself — its reputation for honesty and trustworthiness collapsing day by day in every area of its operation — to be remotely interested in what I’m saying. But one or two individuals among Radio 3’s chat-obsessed disc-jockeys might care to think about it. For, having spotted that presenter’s shenanigans where Hammersmith was concerned, I’ll never, ever, trust another word she says: as far as integrity and credibility are concerned, she’s now Nick Clegg.
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