> A Chronicle of First Broadcast Performances of Musical Works in the United Kingdom, 1923-1996,

Richard Blackford

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A Chronicle of First Broadcast Performances of Musical Works in the United Kingdom, 1923-1996, edited by Alastair Mitchell and Alan Poulton. Ashgate, 2001 xvi, 798 pages ISBN 1 85928 239 3 £75.


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Every so often someone’s life’s work of a project sees the light of day. Looking back we might see such personal landmarks as Cobbett’s Chamber Music in 1929, Kenneth Thompson’s listing of works and first performances by twentieth century composers, or Alan Poulton’s wonderful recently published encyclopaedic catalogues of 66 British composers. All seemingly impossible compilations of data which once brought together become an invaluable cornerstone of the literature. Inevitably getting such a work to fruition is fraught with all manner of difficulties, and predictably, once published, while admiring it for its ambition, we have the much easier task of nit-picking criticism. It is good to welcome this latest example, an enormous list of first broadcast performances of music in the UK from 1923 to 1996. At the very least, it is compelling evidence of the unique role of the BBC in maintaining the vigour of our musical life over more than 70 years. However, I am afraid any review of this wide-ranging and fascinating compilation tends to incline to the reporting of omissions, which in my case are based on my card index of cuttings from the Radio Times compiled over 40 years, and a first-hand knowledge of various composers’ surviving acetates of broadcast performances of their works. I regret to report there are omissions.

In his introduction Alastair Mitchell tells us he has relied on the BBC’s ‘Programme-as-broadcast’ daily programme log held at the BBC Written Archives at Caversham. However, it has not resulted in a compilation as comprehensively accurate as he clearly hoped, and it might have been wise to correlate back to The Radio Times, surviving acetates of actual broadcasts, and, for the big names, the composer files at Caversham. Even checking against the British Institute of Recorded Sound’s Handlist of Music by British Composers of the Twentieth Century (which only appeared as a ‘preliminary draft’ in 1967) shows omissions. For example, according to the BIRS, missing are Cardew’s Treatise (June 1967), Thomas Eastwood’s Solitudes (August 1964), and not least something as well-known as Walton’s The Twelve (January 1966), among quite a few others.

Soon after the book had arrived for review I found myself faced with a real practical query to put to it. I had then just been commissioned to write the notes for the new Dutton CD of Bantock’s Violin Sonatas 1 and 2 (just out on Dutton CDLX 7119 – Ed), both of which I knew had been first played on the BBC, but I did not have the dates. Mitchell and Poulton score a 50% success rate from this test - they list the First Sonata correctly, but of the Second they make no mention. Fortunately, I did not believe them, and I ploughed through a year of The Radio Times and eventually found it, broadcast 7 July 1940. Then, listening to the acetates (Leech collection in the British Library) of the BBC broadcast of the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony (24 June 1943), I had the unworthy thought of double checking in the Mitchell and Poulton index – and again it is not there. This is such a famous performance I had half expected they would have known of it themselves without any resort to BBC sources. Since then, whenever I have played an historical recording from an off-air source I have checked Mitchell and Poulton and found a fair number of omissions. For example, the broadcast of the first performance of Moeran’s Symphony in G minor (Queen’s Hall, 13 January 1938), or later Robert Simpson’s Piano Concerto (14 July 1967). Even more recently Trevor Hold’s Symphony (April 1988) and Patrick Piggott’s Piano Concerto ‘The Quest’ (April 1991) do not show. Indeed one wonders if they have something against poor Patrick whose other major orchestral works Prologue, Action and Denouement (1955) and Rosanes Lieder (1990) are not listed either, though I have the composer’s own off-air recordings of both.

This problem is compounded by their inclusions/exclusions policy. Take, for example, the Bloch Violin Concerto which had its first British performance at Queen’s Hall on 9 March 1939, a performance available commercially, with Szigeti and Beecham, which does not appear. But we do get the first UK performance of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, broadcast from Manchester in 1928. The Bloch was, similarly, the British premiere and surely worth listing, particularly with such prestigious artists. Indeed less well-known works which were being given their first British hearings are present – eg: Loeffler’s The Death of Tintagiles listed as UK first broadcast performance, or Julian Orbon Tres Versiones Sinfonicas described as first performance in the UK. Or take Julius Harrison’s Bredon Hill, a work first broadcast on the BBC overseas services, a performance then broadcast at home from transcription discs, but presumably omitted because not a straightforward mainstream broadcast from London.

It would also have been interesting to know when all Elgar’s major works had their first broadcast performances. Having admitted the principle of listing their first broadcasts by naming 21 Elgar works one wonders why the rest were not listed, particularly when there exists such a useful crib as Ronald Taylor’s chronological compilation of BBC broadcasts up to 1934. Interestingly, Mitchell and Poulton cite their earliest Elgar as Enigma on 24 October 1923. Taylor gives three pages of earlier listings back to September 1922, including Cockaigne in July 1923. Fascinating stuff: but highlighting a problem of what should and should not have been included and of consistency of selection criteria.

I can sympathise with the compilers’ problem: they needed to find ways of restricting the enormous extent of their project. The problem of doing this is that everything left out diminishes the end product and upsets someone. It would have been much better to have adopted a more compact on-page format, smaller type, and give more information in fewer pages. I am still far from clear whether this is a compilation of broadcast first performances or of first broadcast performances, the latter a much larger proposition. Both criteria seem to have been applied at different places and what we have is something which seems to have set out to be the former with an inconsistent number of exceptions as the latter.

One or two entries raise an eyebrow. What is Mozart’s ‘String Quartet in A, K 581’, which is listed as having a first UK broadcast as late as 1961. This is the Köchel number of the Clarinet Quintet – was it an arrangement? Then the fictitious Piotr Zak and his Mobile for tape and percussion is listed with a perfectly straight face as being an authentic work and ‘performance’, while the original workshop reconstructions of Mahler 10 and Elgar’s The Spanish Lady are not mentioned. Other works which were performed incomplete, a part at a time, or as a selection of movements, such as Bantock’s The Song of Songs in the 1920s and 30s, also do not show (though Bantock’s Omar Khayyam does).

Some operas whose first productions were broadcast, are not listed, presumably because the BBC chose to take a performance after the first, examples include Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, where the second performance was actually broadcast, and George Lloyd’s The Serf which was broadcast during the tour. George Lloyd along with Berthold Godschmidt, Karl Rankl, and presumably others, loses operatic listings because extracts rather than complete performances of operas were broadcast. Cyril Scott’s opera The Alchemist which many readers might remember as one of the most interesting British operas revived during the BBC’s ‘Fairest Isle’ programmes in 1995 was a British first as well as a first broadcast anywhere, and should appear.

Another problem is the authors’ decision of what is included from where. They have compiled a listing of nationally available broadcasts. Thus the important output broadcast regionally, particularly in Scotland between the 1950s and 1980s, and from local radio stations, notably BBC Radio London in the 1970s, is omitted. As an example of what is missing we might note the first performance of Constant Lambert’s early ballet Prize Fight, broadcast in the Midland Home Service (BBC Midland Light Orchestra) from the Bromsgrove Festival in May 1969.

Nevertheless the 724 pages of listings seem to have achieved a high level of accuracy as far as the actual entries are concerned. As a tool for reception studies of music in the twentieth century this is fascinating and gives us material for future analysis – for much the majority of the repertoire listed is, of course, the new music of the time. To see what was new, say during the war, and to compare it with the years immediately before and after is an eye-opener. Even more to see the pre-Glock years and compare them with post-Glock is to give a new complexion on our perceived history of the time. What would be most interesting is to know which of the performances listed survive, either on commercial issues, in the British Library or in private collections, for the technology was available to record the majority of the these performances and a high percentage probably exist somewhere. Enough of nit-picking: this is an enormously valuable compilation, though, as we have seen to be used with care as it is not the last word.

1) A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Composers. Faber, 1973
2) A Dictionary-Catalog of Modern British Composers. Greenwood Press, 3 vols, 2000.
3) A Chronological List of Live Broadcasts of Elgar's Music by the BBC November 1922 to February 1934. New Barnet, 1996


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