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Return to Chapter 24



A Time of Change

Orchestras face increasing financial problems – reduction in recording work. Classic FM. Raymond Gubbay. ‘Classical-crossover’. Jazz – dance bands – popular singers. The arrival of pop and rock music. World Music.

Gradually, towards the mid-1970s, those of us who had been playing in the London orchestras during the 1940s, 50s and 60s and seen the growth of audiences for symphony concerts and recordings became aware that all was not continuing as we would have wished. When I was chairman of the Philharmonia, during the second half of the 1970s, somewhat exaggerated reports of the poor audience attendance figures for the concerts given by the London orchestras began to appear in the press. They were accompanied from time to time by the recommendation that a new ‘super orchestra’ should be created by amalgamating at least two of the London orchestras. This was not a new idea. It had been around ever since the Goodman report in 1965 and came from those who wanted to save money. Others believed it might be possible by combining the best players from each orchestra to create one that would be better than any of those we already had. The financial problems the orchestras in Britain were grappling with were not improved when in 1979 the Conservative Party was elected with a mandate to reduce taxation. It was not long before there was a reduction in arts funding in general. The Minister for the Arts thought that the reduction in personal taxation would leave more money for patronage. The natural scepticism of the members of the orchestras was in the event justified: there was no increase in patronage.

The orchestras in London, used to their schedule of concerts and tours being financially supported by the many recording sessions they had undertaken over the past thirty years, were by the early 1980s just starting to feel the impact of the reduction in the number of sessions on offer. It was not only in Britain that the audience for classical music was declining, though it was to take quite a while before it became as noticeable in those countries where there had been a tradition of permanent orchestras and regular concert attendance. By the beginning of the 21st century the programmes of the major orchestras in France, Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries had become very similar to those in Britain. The only orchestras that can afford to play new music fairly regularly – it is noticeable that more often than not it is music by one of their own national composers – remains the radio orchestras. A good deal of contemporary music for chamber ensemble and chamber orchestra is performed but, of course, the cost of the extra rehearsals required is very much less than for a large symphony orchestra and their concerts take place in smaller venues and to relatively small and rather specialist audiences.

In 1986 the lack of sufficient financial support nearly everywhere around the world, and the complaint by composers and critics that the performance of contemporary music was being neglected, led to the Wheatland Foundation conference, about which I have written in an earlier chapter. The conference was concerned with the decline in the audiences for symphony orchestra concerts and whether the contemporary orchestra was, as it had been called ‘an obsolescent instrument’. How might it evolve and change to meet the new needs of composers, performers and audiences? The conference came to no conclusion because, in my view, it was unwilling to face two important facts: the symphony orchestra, able to play the symphonic repertoire from Haydn to Shostakovich, was no longer the instrument contemporary composers required and the mainstream audience for classical music continued to find (as twenty years later it still does) most of the orchestral music written since 1960 not to its taste. Neither William Glock, when he was Controller of Music at the BBC, with his declared intention in 1959 to provide listeners with ‘What they would like tomorrow’ nor Pierre Boulez at IRCAM in Paris, nor the effort of others to bring about what Glock had tried so hard to achieve seem to have had any effect. Now nearly fifty years later nothing has changed. Nor did the Wheatland conference take into account the increase in other forms of entertainment that had become available or the changes in social behaviour.

Today’s audiences for symphony concerts, opera and chamber music are very different from those when the music was written during the 18th and 19th centuries, who mainly came from the middle and upper-middle classes. They had servants and the time to prepare themselves for an evening’s entertainment and would have changed out of the clothes they had been wearing during the day. Those in the stalls and boxes will have been in formal evening dress, the dress imitated by the members of the orchestra at that time and which continues to be worn by the orchestras today, though the dress code for audiences now varies from smart casual to unsuitably informal.

Until the beginning of the 20th century and to some extent as late as 1939 and the start of the 2nd World War, a good deal of the music played at concerts and at the opera will have been by composers whose chamber music quite a number of the audience will have played themselves. It was not at all unusual for families and friends to play chamber music, trios, quartets and piano quartets for their own pleasure and sometimes to be joined by one or more wind instrumentalists. The chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert was already standard fare and as chamber music by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak and others was published throughout the 19th century it soon became part of the repertoire for many groups of amateur musicians. Some of them will have been very good players though no doubt some will only have been of a standard similar to that I have written about in reporting my early experiences of playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. Until the early years of the 20th century a lot of orchestral music and opera was also published in piano arrangements for four hands.

The children of these families will have heard this music from an early age without even being aware of it. There was no need for them to attend children’s concerts at which they would have to sit quietly and listen to music that was unfamiliar and have it explained to them. At the many children’s concerts I have taken part in I am sure there will have been some for whom this will have been a wonderful experience and the start of a lifetime love of music. A rather larger number of the young people were quite obviously bored and often misbehaved. For them the concerts were not a natural occasion for enjoyment but part of the school curriculum. If children are to develop a love of classical music they need to have the opportunity of hearing it from as early an age as possible; not in a formal way, but as part of their environment. They should hear it from the radio and CDs while having breakfast and at other times when they will absorb it unconsciously. But since the beginning of the 20th century there has been very little chamber music suitable for the average amateur and gradually the opportunity for children to hear music played within the home environment virtually disappeared. In fact it is an entirely different kind of music that has for the past many years been part of their aural background.

The decline in patronage and subsidy, essential if a symphony orchestra is to remain solvent, already a cause for concern in 1986, continued to decline until by 2000 it was causing many orchestras and opera houses to restrict their programmes and in some cases to cease altogether. It was not only in Britain that national and local authorities responding to increased demands on their funds and not wishing to increase taxation began to economise by making cuts where they felt it would cause the least unfavourable response. They recognised that symphony orchestra concerts and operas were of interest to only a minority of their taxpayers and that this would be the easiest place to start making economies. In some places there were even demands that support for something of interest to so few should not be supported by taxation from the many.

Why is it that very little classical music composed after the middle of the 20th century is still only able to attract a small audience? Though there had been far fewer concerts and no recordings or broadcasts during the one hundred and twenty-five years between 1780 and 1902, the innovative compositions by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner and all the major orchestral compositions by Richard Strauss had been accepted into the repertoire in their own lifetimes. In contrast, in the first decade of the 21st century symphony orchestra concert programmes in Europe still remain much as they have been for a hundred years or more. With the exception of Shostakovich, Messiaen and Britten, there are hardly any other composers who were born after 1905 whose works have entered the repertoire to any extent. A young musician joining an orchestra in 1892, fifty years before I did and having a career lasting forty years would by 1932 have played a very similar repertoire to that which I played and which the orchestras are still playing now. By 1950 the compositions by Richard Strauss, Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev Hindemith, Walton and even Alban Berg’s atonal Violin Concerto had become accepted and regularly performed. Many of the compositions first performed between 1880 and 1930 that were new in style and content soon became part of the repertoire. Even The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had been the cause of such an unprecedented uproar and scandal in 1913, could be played at the Queen’s Hall in musically conservative Britain in 1931 without comment. During my own time as an orchestral musician I took part in the first performances in Britain of a number of compositions that are now part of the repertoire, though there are hardly any new compositions I first played after about 1965 that have gained a place in the public’s affection.

Though the major symphony orchestras have continued to have financial problems caused by falling audiences and insufficient patronage or subsidy, it is evident that there is still a considerable audience for the popular classical and romantic repertoire, including music composed in the first part of the 20th century. The Raymond Gubbay concerts and the Classic FM broadcasts still continue to attract very large audiences.

The concerts promoted by Raymond Gubbay year after year, with virtually the same programmes, fill the Royal Albert and Barbican Halls. His ‘Classical Spectacular’ concerts, which have attracted audiences for over 15 years – there have been about 200 performances – not only take place in London and other cities in Britain, but are now successful throughout Europe and in Australia. The programmes for these extremely popular concerts are much more like those we played when I was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1940s. There were usually between four and seven items, in contrast to the programmes of the major orchestras in more recent years when they seldom consist of more than three compositions, two in the first half and one in the second, usually a work lasting between forty minutes to an hour – sometimes longer.

At a time when television and the computer dominate so many of our lives it seems that the eye has become more important than the ear. Gubbay has responded by making many of his presentations both visually and musically attractive. The ‘Classical Spectacular’ concerts, which nearly always include the 1812 Overture ‘with Thundering Cannons and Muskets and Indoor Fireworks’, or his ‘Mozart Festival’, ‘Johann Strauss’ Orchestra, Mozart by Candlelight and Johann Strauss Gala concerts, all have a visual element absent from the regular symphony concerts. Whilst the symphony orchestras agonised about whether men should continue to wear the traditional ‘tails’ and women wear ‘long black’, or if they should find some more contemporary dress, Gubbay did not hesitate to advertise that for his Mozart concerts the musicians would be dressed in ‘authentic 18th century costumes’ and for the Strauss and Viennese programmes the orchestra would be ‘directed from the violin in the traditional Viennese manner’.

As well as his own orchestra, the London Concert Orchestra, made up of free-lance musicians, Gubbay also regularly employs the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia and English Chamber Orchestras, often playing programmes that include Beethoven’s Eroica or 9th symphonies and the well known violin concertos, piano concertos and overtures.

Gubbay has also established a large audience for ballet and opera by staging spectacular arena productions of both genres at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the last decade his staged events together with his concert runs, means that his company is now the hall’s biggest annual tenant after the Proms. In 2005 over Christmas and the New Year he presented 150 Festive Classical Concerts around Britain, including 18 at the Albert Hall and 15 at the Barbican.. In all, the Gubbay organisation presents some 600 opera, ballet and concert performances at major concert venues each year.

His spectacular productions of opera or ballet, staged ‘in the round’ in the arena at the Royal Albert Hall are more visually exciting than is possible in an opera house. Though his concerts have rarely received any attention in the press, the operas have been given enthusiastic notices by the critics. And, in the same way that English National Opera bridged the gap between opera and musical theatre when it staged Bernstein’s On the Town, Gubbay has presented a massive in-the-round staging of Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 Broadway classic Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello, whose production for Gubbay of La Bohéme at the Royal Albert Hall was also so well received.

The symphony orchestras and opera houses everywhere, with various levels of subsidy, have experienced financial difficulties, frequently going into debt. But Raymond Gubbay who has always attracted large audiences, never employs expensive conductors or soloists and has the minimum of rehearsals – very rarely more than one for a concert – has actually made a profit. Clearly it is not whether there is a ‘big name’ conductor or soloist or which orchestra is playing that attracts so many people to attend these events: it is what music is on the programme, what music they will hear. Another important element is that a Gubbay concert has for many come to stand for an event that one can trust to provide an enjoyable night out, even if you don’t know the names of the pieces on the programme. Simon Rattle, when he was at Birmingham, built up this degree of trust in his audience so that he was able to put on programmes, including contemporary compositions, that in London would have played to only a small audience.

When Classic FM, the commercial radio station playing recordings of classical music, first started in 1992 it was ridiculed because it was obvious that most of their presenters were not conversant with the classical music repertoire. Musical gaffes and mispronunciations abounded. But the informal, laid-back style of the presentation met with approval. Within quite a short time their presenters became more expert and the criticism disappeared. The station which claimed to play ‘the world’s most beautiful music’ had realised that what most listeners wanted to hear was well-known and well-loved music. There is no doubt that BBC Radio 3, however much it denies that the changes in its programming have not been influenced by this new upstart classical music station, has introduced programmes that have become increasingly more like those of Classic FM in form, though the content has as a rule remained more serious and has been aimed at the more informed listener. Now BBC Radio 3 broadcasts much more ‘light music’ and jazz than it did in the past.

Classic FM has from its inception been the most listened to classical music station and has consistently attracted a larger audience than BBC Radio 3. I have been surprised that many of my friends and other members of the audience I meet at concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and elsewhere tell me that they prefer to listen to Classic FM, even with the interminable adverts, than Radio 3, which a number of them feel tends to treat its listeners as if they were music students and, in an effort to avoid playing too many ‘favourites’, seek out more recherché repertoire that sometimes might be of interest to a more specialist audience. At the end of 2005 Classic FM was reported as having 4.1% (5.3 million) of the national weekly share of the radio audience for classical music, as compared with 1.2% (2.1 million) for BBC Radio 3. But, during the same period the figures for BBC Radio1, broadcasting pop recordings and BBC Radio 2 middle-of-the-road music, were very much larger, 9.4% (10.3 million) and 15.6% (12.9 million). The other stations broadcasting music (virtually all on recordings of pop music), the commercial radio stations and BBC Local Radio had over 50% of the listening audience.

The concerts promoted by Raymond Gubbay and the success of the commercial radio station Classic FM continue to prove that there is a very large audience for orchestral music composed before about 1960. But it seems that what the majority of listeners still want more than anything else are good tunes. As he so often did, Sir Thomas Beecham put it most succinctly. In an interview, printed in the New York Times when he was living in the USA in 1942, he is reported as saying ‘The only music that lives does so because of its melodic beauty and significance, which makes it remembered.’ Compositions that stir the emotions and are not too long tend to be most popular, as do extracts from longer works – one or two movements from a symphony or concerto. It seems that nothing has changed very much since Sir Henry Wood started conducting the Proms in 1895.

In September 1997 at the Klassik Komm Conference in Hamburg, Peter Gelb, then the President of Sony Classical, no doubt prompted by the problems his company was experiencing is reported as saying, ‘For the classical record industry, the writing is already on the wall’. All the major record labels were suffering significant declines in sales of standard repertoire recordings, but were at first very reluctant to admit or even to try to understand the causes. By 1995 Sony had been obliged to shut down its headquarters in Hamburg, even though it had started two high profile projects, one with Giulini and another recording the Verdi operas at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. It had also acquired the video productions of Herbert von Karajan. They had been very expensive but found few sales. Gelb went on to say, ‘had the record labels been cultivating and encouraging greater originality and creativity from performers and composers in recent decades, instead of passively and almost exclusively recording standard works without consideration of popular demand, but only at the whim of a handful of maestros eager to see their own performances permanently documented on disc, the collapse wouldn’t have been so sudden or dramatic. But, unlike the pop sector of the record industry where creativity is encouraged, classical record executives long preferred to solely play the role of curators … nothing more. So, all they recorded were the same pieces over and over again.’

Gelb, not satisfied with lambasting his colleagues in the record industry, then attacked the critics who he said seemed to share a common goal, ‘to confine all new classical music to an elite intellectual exercise with very limited audience appeal. By their rules, any new classical composition that enjoys commercial success is no good. To become successful new music must be heard in concert halls, on classical radio stations and television so that audiences have the opportunity to hear the music – and to respond.’ He thought that the way forward lay in encouraging composers to write works for the widest possible audience, sometimes by connecting them to a prominent soloist or to a feature film, and by more artists performing and recording popular, less demanding music. If the classical record industry was to be revitalised it must develop its marketing and recording strategies. In recommending what by then was already being called ‘classical crossover’ he attracted some adverse criticism.

But when Peter Gelb suggested that classical artists should take part in recordings of more popular compositions he was only harking back to what had been commonplace in the early days of recording. The great operatic artists regularly recorded much lighter, more popular music as well as operas and the well-known operatic arias. Enrico Caruso, as well as recording arias from Rigoletto, Tosca, Otello and many other operas, recorded drawing-room ballads, Neapolitan songs, such as O Sole Mio, and even lighter fare, O’Hara’s ,’Your eyes have told me what I did not know’ and the patriotic first world war favourite ‘Over There’, by the American super-star George M Cohan, best known now for the song Yankee Doodle Dandy. Amelia (often called Amelita) Galli-Curci, the highest paid singer of her day (she was paid even more than Caruso), recorded Abide with me, Mah Lindy Lou and Home Sweet Home, as well as a wide-ranging operatic repertoire that included Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Meyerbeer – The Shadow Song, from his opera Dinorah, was one of her favourites. The Irish tenor John McCormack, another very fine artist, was immensely popular with lovers of opera and popular music alike. He made recordings of Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet and Puccini arias alongside Victor Herbert’s I’m falling in love with someone, many Irish songs – Mother Machree, The Garden Where the Praties Grow, Trottin’ to the Fair, and his collaboration with the great violinist Fritz Kreisler in arrangements such as the Berceuse from the opera Jocelyn by Godard and Serenata by Moritz Moszkowski

The music that the great artists in the first part of the 20th century were performing was still part of a much more integrated repertoire. But after the middle of the century very little classical music has been composed that has become popular enough to carry on this tradition. Until the beginning of the 1900s there had only been folk music and art or composed music. Composed music included music for the church, the concert hall and opera house, and chamber music, originally played in a domestic setting, as well as the music played in the theatres, restaurants and on bandstands and most importantly for dancing. Composers from the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to Sibelius, Elgar and Stravinsky composed music for many kinds of occasions – religious music, symphonies, sonatas and short pieces of a much lighter character. In the 18th century they were quite happy to compose marches and, in the time of the earlier composers, dances and what was in effect ‘background’ music. The waltzes of the Strauss family, Lanner and Waldteufel, the Savoy operettas by Arthur Sullivan and the at one time popular compositions by Albert Ketelbey – In a Monastery Garden and In a Persian Market, all inhabit the same milieu.

The Parting of the Ways

But then, from about 1910 onwards a new kind of music started to arrive from America – ragtime, blues and jazz. This was to be the beginning of an ever-increasing divide between popular and classical music that was to continue throughout the rest of the century. This new music originated in the southern states of America at the turn of the century, to a large extent in the mixed Negro and Creole community in New Orleans, where the many brass bands that led the parades and celebration marches would ‘rag’ or ‘jazz-up’ the music. When these bands accompanied a funeral cortege to the cemetery it was customary to play a dirge, very slowly and mournfully, or an old Negro spiritual such as Nearer My God to Thee, but on returning home the band would break into a fast upbeat version of When the Saints Go Marching In or a ragtime song such as Didn’t He Ramble and those following the procession, the famous ‘second line’ would strut, dance and sing. The ‘first line’ were the family members of the deceased, the hearse and the band. This tradition still continued in New Orleans even when the style of music changed with the brass bands continuing to improvise and ‘funk-up’ contemporary pop songs.

As well as the numerous society dances that required skilled musical ensembles at which waltzes and quadrilles were played – the music of the middle class – there were also the many dance halls and brothels in the Storyville District, where the musicians played the new syncopated, jazz music similar to that which they played in the Parade bands.

New Orleans was the home of many of the early jazz musicians who can still be heard on the recordings they made: the trumpet players Joe ‘King’ Oliver and his pupil, the great Louis Armstrong, the trombonist Kid Ory, the clarinettists – Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone and Sidney Bechet – and the bass player ‘Pops’ Foster, to name only a few. The Dixieland revival in the 1940s brought back some of the musicians who had been obliged to find other work during the long years of the depression. It was some of these musicians, now elderly, that I heard when I visited New Orleans in 1950 with the Royal Philharmonic. They were playing in the Bunk Johnson band (though Johnson had died just the previous year) and Papa Celestin’s with Alphonse Picou, by then seventy-eight, and still going strong.

In 1919 Sidney Bechet had come to London with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra where he was heard by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. Ansermet was enormously enthusiastic about Bechet’s playing and the music this group played. In one of the first serious reviews of this new style of music and playing he wrote in Revue Romande, published in Switzerland: They are so entirely possessed by the music they play, that they can’t stop themselves from dancing inwardly to it in such a way that their playing is a real show. When they indulge in one of their favourite effects, which is to take up the refrain of a dance in a tempo suddenly twice as slow and with redoubled intensity and figuration, a truly gripping thing takes place: it seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy.

Not only was the music new it also required a new kind of musician. To play this new syncopated music the musicians needed to be more relaxed and respond to a rhythm and style for which their training and experience had not prepared them. To begin with the new dances were played by the same kind of bands as before except that the wind instruments, in particular the cornet or trumpet, were given the melody more frequently. At the same time as the arrival of this new music the development of the improved double-sided ten-inch record allowed a few early recordings of ragtime, dixieland, the blues and jazz, most often recorded by military bands, to become available in Britain. After 1918 as more recordings became available and some of the returning soldiers reported what they had heard the US bands playing, ballroom dancers wanted to have the new music played more authentically.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) made what is reputed to be the first Jazz record in 1917. Two years later in 1919 as part of their tour in Europe they played at the London Hippodrome. Though British bands had made some recordings of ragtime music from 1912 it was not until after the ODJB’s visit that jazz-styled dance bands really took off in Britain. From 1920 more and more small British bands were formed and by 1925 the bands led by Jack Hylton, Henry Hall, Jack Payne, Billy Cotton and Debroy Somers and his Savoy Orpheans Orchestra were playing in the best hotels in London and elsewhere. The visits of several American bands to Britain led to complaints by British musicians and in the mid- 20s the Musicians’ Union was able to get a ban imposed on visiting bands that remained in force for over thirty years. I remember how after the war ended in 1945 my non-orchestral colleagues had started complaining that they did not have the opportunity to hear and meet the outstanding American players. It was in fact the British jazz musicians complaints that played a major part in the ban at last being rescinded in 1956.

Click for larger picture

However, this ban did not preclude individual American musicians from working in Britain. One of the most outstanding was Adrian Rollini, a wonderful player of the rarely heard bass saxophone. The only British player of renown who regularly played this very large instrument was Harry Gold, who had a group aptly called Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight. He was a very small man, barely taller than his saxophone. When I interviewed him for Music Preserved’s Oral History of Musicians in Britain he was already in his nineties. At the end of the interview he apologised for not being able to offer me a cup of tea as he had to hurry off to a session. When we left his flat together I offered him a lift in my car. He refused my offer saying it would be easier by train, and to my astonishment he hurried off to the nearby Underground station carrying his large heavy instrument. Rollini was noted for playing unusual instruments and invented two: one was the ‘goofus’, a sort of harmonica. Very few were made, but a development, the melodica can still occasionally be found. He also invented a tiny clarinet, about 10 or 12 inches long, which the famous music firm Keith Prowse offered for sale. It was made of ebonite and called ‘The Hot Fountain Pen’. When I played the Eb clarinet I remember that some of the dance band musicians I worked with called my small clarinet a Red Hot Fountain Pen.

Adrian Rollini was one of several white American jazz musicians who came to Britain and played at the Savoy Hotel with Fred Elizalde, now largely forgotten but who influenced many jazz musicians and other band leaders. Other American musicians that came to Britain were the saxophone/clarinettist Danny Polo and Van Phillips. I met Van Phillips at meetings of the Musicians’ Union in the 1940s when I was only eighteen or nineteen, when he played an important role in the Union’s development, and to some extent mine, too. As well as being a fine musician, by then he had ceased playing and was a theatre conductor for musicals. The Starita brothers, Al and Ray, two more American musicians, had bands in which some of the best young British jazz musicians played and who were later to have bands themselves. At the same time as these musicians were coming to Britain some British bandleaders were visiting America: Ambrose, Spike Hughes (his book Opening Bars is worth reading by anyone interested in the early days of jazz) and Ray Noble

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