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Wireless music

30 September 2016


WHEN televisions began to colonise the living rooms of the modestly waged, the prognosis for radio was held to be dire. By the mid-1960s, it was thought, it would be only the blind who would be engaged by the wireless. The audience for the Third Programme, established in 1946, was, by the late ’50s, vanishingly small, its diet of high-end drama, academic discussion and music never coming close to the ten-per-cent audience share that had been hoped for.

As was explained by the historian of BBC music Jenny Doctor, on Music Matters (Radio 3, Saturday), Sir William Haley’s plan in establishing the Third Programme had been to create a pyramid of listeners: 60 per cent would tune in to the Light Programme, 30 per cent to the Home Service, and the remainder to the Third.

In time, the distribution would change, on the assumption that cultural engagement was an upwardly mobile phenomenon. It was not a model of which the great Lord Reith approved, but at its heart was a Reithian belief in the power of broadcasting to deliver cultural education.

During Radio 3’s 70-day celebration of the 70th anniversary, which begins this week with a series of programmes live from the South Bank, there will be plenty of opportunity to revisit this view of cultural education, not least since Radio 3 provides a perfect case-study in how Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” is traded in a marketplace dominated by a publicly funded organisation.

The Third Programme and Radio 3 have adopted all sorts of strategies to engage listeners: from the “streaming” of the Bill Haley era to the juxtapositioning of musical styles favoured by William Glock. Today, it is all about the time of day. You are unlikely to get anything heavier than Korngold with your cornflakes, but, once the sun is over the yardarm, you can expect pretty much anything.

As part of the Music Matters discussion, we heard from an early 1960s interview with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt, whose appeal to the “appropriate listener” was exactly the kind of thing that gave contemporary music a bad name. His music is lustrous, visceral, fascinating — if you like that kind of thing. But Babbitt was convinced that his listeners, were they to commit themselves to learning his system, would recognise and appreciate his language just as a German speaker might better appreciate a Lieder recital.

Babbitt is hardly a representative of the avant-garde in music at that time; but the distance from this attitude and that of today’s Classic FM, where presenters are not allowed to interpolate the phrase “of course” into their discussions of the music for fear of intimidating the audience — is still breathtaking.

As a reminder of the sort of classical music coming out in the year the Third Programme was born, Radio 3’s recital Sound Frontiers: 1946 (Saturday) provided an interesting sample: the approachable Frank Martin at one end of the spectrum, and Webern and Cage at the other.

If this season does its job properly, it should dispel some of the myths of post-war classical music, its oppressive modernism, and the part played by the BBC in its promotion.

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