My previous posting — the one that discussed in detail what was revealed by some Radio 3 presenter trailing Holst’s Hammersmith as a ‘suite’ — has resulted in quite a postbag: nearly two dozen messages so far, and only one of them expressing any kind of disagreement. What I want to do here is talk about what happened when our presenter came back the next day and actually played the Holst piece that just 24 hours earlier she plainly didn’t know at all.
But before I do, there are a couple of other things to be mentioned.
The first of these is the amount of resentment and even anger towards the current, dumb-as-rocks Radio 3 that can be detected in many of the responses I received. The ones sent to me privately I will of course keep to myself; but among the messages posted openly on ‘social media’ were these two:
Every word you write is true. I was an absolutely devoted R3 listener from my teenage years till about 3 years ago. Now I have simply given up. […] Attention to detail is the key and nowadays there is none. There is only attention to personality.
I HAVE STOPPED LISTENING, RADIO 3 — DO YOU CARE????
If the BBC did care about the reactions of Radio 3’s ‘core audience’ — rather than simply not giving a monkey’s about what any mere licence-payer thinks — they’d be concerned about the widespread resentment being provoked by the ongoing and relentless stupidification of the nation’s only non-commercial classical music station. But since they don’t and aren’t, let me gently draw everyone’s attention to that fine campaigning group called Friends of Radio 3 — which now has a Facebook community as well. (They aren’t anything to do with me, in case you’re wondering: I just like what they do.)
My second incidental point concerns the impact which the process of policy-driven degradation has latterly been having on listener numbers. And, of course, my point is not as ‘incidental’ as all that: one of the reasons for throwing in your lot with a thoughtful and articulate crowd like Friends of Radio 3 (which isn’t an ‘Appreciation Society’, by the way!) is that eventually the people running Radio 3 will start to take note of their reasoned case — because, eventually, they’ll have to. The following graphic (which I’ve just nicked from the group’s Facebook page), presenting as it does the listening figures for another of the station’s chat-filled rag-bag slots, tells a tale that can’t be ignored forever…In case you don’t fancy doing the calculations yourself, what those figures reveal is a drop in audience of 15% over two years. Or, to put it another way, this hours-long daily botch is haemorrhaging listeners at an average rate of 975 every week — which is more than 4,000 every month. How long does anyone think that kind of decline can be sustained — especially in the case of a high-profile, peak-time programme specifically designed to attract new listeners? What will we start to hear being discussed if the show is allowed to continue, and the audience shrinks even further? Remember: we’ve already heard a proposal from Labour MP Tom Watson that Radio 3’s FM frequency should be taken away and given to ‘Radio 6 Music’ — leaving Radio 3 as an online and digital-only station…
But back to our sorry presenter. In the next day’s programme, we heard her introduce the Holst piece with the following words:
… Gustav Holst certainly achieved some intriguing effects in ‘Hammersmith’, named after the London borough where he worked as a music teacher for many years. The opening Prelude uses the lower instruments to bitter-sweet effect, sustained tones moving forward in a probing sort of way, with the higher woodwinds adding colour to the later Scherzo section.
Now, I think it’s pretty clear that by this point in time our presenter had actually discovered something about the piece beyond the fact that it was written for wind band. She’s now correctly referring to a Prelude and Scherzo (rather than calling the work a ‘suite’); and the Prelude does indeed use low instruments very prominently. It’s also true that Holst taught in the borough of Hammersmith for a long time.
In every other respect, however, this is an absolutely pitiable piece of presentation. If you want my honest opinion — and if you don’t, why are you reading this blog? — I’d say that the first thing Radio 3’s new Controller needs to do at 9am tomorrow is institute a proper system of editorial oversight for the scripts and crib-sheets that get used in programmes like this: it is simply not acceptable for Britain’s national broadcaster to be prefacing a substantial piece of British music with something that sounds like the homework of a none-too-interested 14-year-old required to write about a ‘set work’ and not having the musical or conceptual tools to do so.
I’m going to spend a few more paragraphs on that feeble introduction — not because I have anything against the presenter concerned (about whom I know next to nothing), but because it’s a textbook demonstration of just how urgently the modern, proudly imbecilic Radio 3 needs lessons in basic presentation.
For a start, most of what was said was simply space-filling piffle. ‘Intriguing‘ is a wishy-washy word that doesn’t convey a lot — though its use does hint at a certain level of unease about the piece itself. Yes: once again, something leaks out of the Radio 3 Happy House which reveals that the people inside actually have no confidence in the repertoire’s ability to connect with the listeners to whom they’re playing it. (‘Dissonance? Polytonality? They won’t stand for that! So tell them it’s intriguing: that’ll keep it at arm’s length!’)
Next, ask yourself whether ‘bitter-sweet‘ is a term that can sensibly be applied to what happens in the piece’s Prelude — which you can now hear in the very performance that the programme played:
Myself, I think that talking about music in terms derived from gustatory adjectives (sweet, rich, crisp, sugary, creamy, etc) is always a step in the wrong direction; but even if we allow that some listeners imagine it to be helpful, I really don’t hear the relevance of ‘bitter-sweet’ in this case.
Likewise, consider the statement that what we hear contains ‘sustained tones moving forward in a probing sort of way’. Don’t ‘sustained tones’ stay where they are, rather than ‘move forward’? What’s more, to my ear, an important component of the Prelude is the three-bar ground bass in F minor that’s played more than a dozen times: 12 notes moving up in two bars and coming down again in one. I don’t know about you, but it would seem to me that a diatonic shape that gets repeated over and over again is the very opposite of ‘probing’. Of course, maybe the other, mostly quicker instrumental parts are being referred to — the ones that inhabit a contradictory E major! — but if that’s the case, your presenter found a pretty rotten way of referring to them.
As for ‘the higher woodwinds adding colour to the later Scherzo section’, well, that’s just something that ends the sentence in a convenient way without meaning a great deal.
Naturally, if you happen to be someone in whom the ‘denialist’ urge is strong, you’ll feel inclined to dismiss all of those objections as just so much elitist pedantry. In which case, feel free. The fact is that the real problem isn’t what that paragraph contains, so much as what it could contain, and doesn’t — the ‘opportunity cost’, if you’ll allow me to borrow a concept from microeconomic theory (‘the value of the best alternative forgone’). For when you consider how desperately easy it is in the case of a piece like this — or indeed pretty well any piece from the classical repertoire! — to present the work as a multi-layered artefact threaded into all manner of poignant, surprising and thought-provoking stories, the decision not to spend a few dozen words placing it in a vivid context is a jolly serious dereliction.
In the case of Hammersmith, the nuggets of interesting detail — historical, biographical, programmatic, and even technical (if you know the right way to handle that) — are incredibly easy to collect: I submit that any half-dozen of the following numbered points (I promise to stop before I get to 20) would have made a far more intelligent — and, in terms of listener engagement and stimulation, vastly more successful! — piece of presentation than the twaddle we heard:
The work, (1) written just four years before Holst’s death and (2) the last of his several works for band, (3) was in fact commissioned by the BBC, (4) back in 1927, (5) when the BBC proper was less than five years old (6) and actually had its own (civilian and studio-based) military band. (7) Holst delivered the score of Hammersmith in 1930; but (8) though the BBC band rehearsed it, they never performed it. (9) The premiere took place in America, in 1932 — and, (10) remarkably for a work now seen as foundational to the band repertoire and (11) played by wind bands everywhere, (12) it was more than 20 years before there was a second performance, (13) which also took place in America, in 1954. (14) It was not until 1956 that the work was published — (15) which was 22 years after the composer’s death. It should be remembered, though, that (16) this is not the only form in which the work exists: a year after its completion, Holst made a version of Hammersmith for full orchestra, which has had its own performance history.
Descriptively, (17) the Prelude evokes the river Thames, “unnoticed and unconcerned” — while the Scherzo is intended to reflect the boisterous and exuberant atmosphere of the borough’s street markets and laughing, bustling crowds. (18) Holst himself was familiar with both upper and lower class Hammersmith, as he taught not only the girls of St Paul’s School, but also the mainly working class students at Morley College. (19) According to the composer’s daughter and biographer, Imogen, Hammersmith is ‘undoubtedly to be reckoned among his greatest works’.
Now, wouldn’t a few bits of that have been better — more informative, more lively, more likely to generate curiosity and willingness-to-hear — than a couple of lines that look like they’re trying to convey something about instrumental colour, but don’t really? Note, by the way, that I didn’t need to go near anything ‘forbiddingly technical’ — though I could very easily have done so: as every good music educator knows, there are ways of getting technical points across to a general audience — if you actually know what you’re doing.
Which very obviously isn’t the case where today’s Radio 3 is concerned. In fact, if you want to know how I would characterise Radio 3’s history over the last 30 years, I would say that it recalls the plight of a once-vigorous individual slipping further and further into a terrible dementia: every complex faculty eroding by slow degrees — memory, intellect, knowledge, curiosity, honesty, foresight, creativity, individuality — until nothing remains beyond the capacities of a small and incontinent child who can’t safely be left unsupervised, let alone trusted with anything precious or valuable.
And if Alan Davey really wants to sort this mess out, he’d better be quick about starting.
If you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.