Radio review: Sunday Feature: Radio controlled, and Sylvia Pankhurst: Hon­orary Ethiopian

16 February 2018

Felix Carey 

In Sunday Feature: Radio controlled (Radio 3, Sunday), Robert Worby tells how post-war West German radio was used to win the cultural Cold War

In Sunday Feature: Radio controlled (Radio 3, Sunday), Robert Worby tells how post-war West German radio was used to win the cultural Cold War

THERE are few indicators of a nation’s social politics so incisive as musical taste. Pierre Bourdieu knew it, when he spent so much time in his 1979 book Distinction discussing whether his subjects preferred Petula Clark to Pergolesi.

But, in post-war West Germany, the association of cheap and populist music with the Nazi era skewed the cultural shibboleths in a manner that now seems bizarre. “I would rather be a snob than a people’s comrade,” one producer for West German Radio declared in the late 1940s. He was defending the broadcaster’s enthusiastic patronage of esoteric, avant-garde music. Even those who can tolerate a bit of plinky-plonk will find this music challenging.

The story of this extraordinary period in musical and radio history was told by Robert Worby in Sunday Feature: Radio controlled (Radio 3, Sunday). Radio, as so often, was the first broadcast medium to recognise the new regime. And the determina­tion of radio producers and com­­posers to rid the airwaves of any trace of the Nazi sound-world re­­sulted in radiophonic experiments that make the Doctor Who theme tune sound like Bach.

The public-broadcasting institu­tion WDR, in Cologne, led the way, investing in an echo chamber to create reverberation effects, and a studio that could play back over four channels. “The most expensive broom cupboard in the history of radio” is how one witness described it; but it was in this broom cupboard that the early works of Stockhausen and others were created.

Mainstream classical music was not ignored, but, among the leading lights at WDR, the more difficult the music, the better; and the policy was given added credibility by the fact that, across the border in the Com­­munist East, the official radio sta­tions were pouring out the likes of Beethoven’s Fifth. Oppressive though the sound-world of Stock­hausen might seem, to the ears of the West Ger­­­­man cultural elite it was the sound of liberation.

I doubt, therefore, whether they would have approved of The Pank­hurst Anthem, a choral work by Lucy Pankhurst which the BBC are encour­aging choirs through­out the nation to adopt as part of the celebrations of women’s suffr­age. Massed choirs singing simple, stirring harmonies would have been highly suspect. They would, presumably, have ap­­proved the cause, which has occupied a great deal of the radio schedules.

The Pankhurst descendants have had a busy few months: great-grand-daughter Helen was responsible for one of the more eye-catching con­­tribu­tions. Sylvia Pankhurst: Hon­orary Ethiopian (Radio 4, Monday of last week) introduced us to Emmeline’s daughter, an inde­­fa­tig­­able socialist who, after the in­­vasion of Ethiopia by Mus­­solini, cham­pioned the Ethiopian cause.

Through her bulletins and letters, she clearly got under the skin of the Foreign Office. In one memo, a diplomat wrote that Sylvia was “a harridan”.

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