THE radio would not be most people’s medium of choice when it comes to a coronation, but music aficionados have much to savour in retrospect on the Radio 3 section of BBC Sounds. Viewers and listeners alike will have heard the music from the ceremony itself, in The Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla (Radio 3, Saturday), but Radio 3 listeners will have witnessed a preliminary concert of extraordinary richness in The Coronation: Celebratory music, live from Westminster Abbey, starting with Bach’s Magnificat, directed by the “Dorset farmer” Sir John Eliot Gardiner. While viewers watched the golden carriage clatter along the Mall, listeners heard a miscellany of the contemporary and historic, including a substantial new work by Judith Weir (a demotion for the Master of the King’s Music?), and a musical “triptych” by Shirley Thompson, Nigel Hess, and Roderick Williams.
The notion of three composers’ contributing to the same work in a form of musical relay is not entirely new; there is, for example, a composite mass in honour of St Cecilia to which the likes of Palestrina and Victoria contributed in 16th-century Rome. But the idea makes one wonder about the frenziedly inclusive nature of the commissioning process: there were more than a dozen new pieces, none of a length that might risk ennui, but, therefore, also none of a stature which might earn classic status. Would any of these works enjoy a revival at a future coronation?
On Sunday (Radio 4), Roxanna Panufnik spoke of the very specific instructions that she had received for her commission: length, mood, and forces all carefully prescribed. In contrast, Sarah Glass, on Front Row (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), welcomed the flexibility of the commission — but her métier is film and TV music, where the composer is required to work within the most constrained of aesthetic parameters. As a result, the event was, indeed, a most polished piece of television.
Not so long ago, there was a running joke involving a sycophantic (and entirely fictional) correspondent to the Radio Times, declaring that such-and-such a programme was so good that it alone justified the cost of the BBC licence fee. At some point in the not so distant future, this kind of calculation will have to be made in earnest: which programmes, and BBC activities, are worth the cost of the licence fee? Currently, the decisions are being made for us, and without great success — witness the débâcle over the BBC Singers and orchestras (News, 10 March, Comment, 31 March). Presumably, events involving Crown Jewels will remain among the BBC’s crown jewels, but what else?
My list will undoubtedly include In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), which gave a typically cogent account of the Dead Sea Scrolls: their discovery, history, and significance. The take-home message here was that the Scrolls presented a far more diverse and fluid account of “late Judaism” than either present-day Christians or Jews gave credit for. This was not a moribund culture, but one that was rich, creative, and vibrant.