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  Founder: Len Mullenger

The BBC Proms 2006

By the time that you read this, the world’s greatest festival of classical music for 2006 will have ended. This year, the Proms used two venues, the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall, with 81 classical concerts playing 116 hours of music.

Those interested in the Proms will have noticed that, in recent years, there has been a steady decline in the performance of British music. I venture to suggest that this is the worst year for British music since the Proms was established in 1895.

So for devotees of British music, what was on offer this year? Of greatest length was Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast. There were three works by Elgar, including his 2nd Symphony, Anthony Payne’s reconstruction of Pomp & Circumstance March No 6 and the Overture In the South. There was one short work by Benjamin Britten, the Colour Symphony by Arthur Bliss and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. And that’s it. Of course, there were the usual works by Elgar, Parry and Henry Wood on the last night. Total output was just over five hours. I’m sorry, but that is completely unacceptable.

Members of the RVW Society will be astonished that not one single note of VW’s music was played. But a host of other composers were also ignored.

It is only right and proper that music (both new and old) by Britain’s contemporary composers should be performed. This year there were 15 works by 12 composers, an output of just over four hours of music. Hardly impressive, is it?

And what of those four composers who have been knighted for services to music? There was one work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Master of the Queen’s Music. However, nothing was heard of the music of Sir John Tavener, Sir Harrison Birtwistle or Sir Malcolm Arnold.

All in all, the amount of British music ran to just nine hours, under 8% of the total output. Imagine a French music festival playing only 8% French music. C’est impossible!

This year, the Proms have marked three notable events, namely the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, the centenary of the birth of Shostakovich and the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Schumann. There were 55 works by Mozart, 23 by Shostakovich and 11 by Schumann. Isn’t nearly 90 works just a little over the top?

Although the Proms are, generally speaking, very good at marking anniversaries, this can be very selective. For instance, one would have thought that the Proms would have celebrated the 85th birthday of Britain’s oldest composer, namely Sir Malcolm Arnold. Furthermore, this year sees the 50th anniversary of the death of Gerald Finzi. No music by either composer was played ("snubbed", as a music critic described the neglect of Finzi in the Telegraph on 29th July). It would have been entirely possible to have marked both events, simply by reducing the coverage of music by Mozart, Shostakovich or Schumann.

Last year, the Proms celebrated the centenaries of Tippett (12 works) and Lambert (two works), but William Alwyn was completely ignored. Was that a balanced approach?

However, let us turn to the music of Vaughan Williams. Looking back over 30 years, there have only been three years when no VW has been played at all, namely 1977, 1984 and 2006. There have been 26 performances of VW symphonies, of which the 5th (with six performances) has been the most popular. However, numbers 7, 8 and 9 have only mustered one performance each.

The Lark Ascending, the Wasps Overture, the Tallis Fantasia and the Serenade to Music have all done reasonably well. Nevertheless, there have only been two performances of Job, Valiant for Truth and Toward the Unknown Region. There was just one performance of the Tuba Concerto, Oboe Concerto, On Wenlock Edge, the Songs of Travel, Dives & Lazarus and the Five Mystical Songs. Four relatively minor works were also played. However, with a total of 61 works in 30 years, the average is a miserable two per annum. Nevertheless, apart from the present year, there does seem to have been a greater inclusion of VW’s music in more recent years, as opposed to the earlier period.

Any devotee of VW’s music would have been extremely disappointed to have found not one single performance in that 30-year period of any VW opera, the House of Life, Dona Nobis Pacem, the Concerto Grosso, the Violin Concerto, the Partita for Orchestra, the Piano Concerto, Flos Campi, the Five Tudor Portraits, Norfolk Rhapsodies Nos 1 and 2, In the Fen Country, the Oxford Elegy or the English Folksong Suite. And, of course, my list is by no means exhaustive.

Some of these omissions (particularly the choral works) are surprising. Indeed, the omission of Dona Nobis Pacem is astonishing.

One can but hope that Stephen Connock will be successful in persuading Nicholas Kenyon, the Controller of Music BBC Proms to include many neglected works by VW when we commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 2008.

The 27 works played at the Proms over 30 years should be compared with the output of Classic FM during the 12 months from July 2005 to July 2006. During that period, 38 works by VW were broadcast, including the first six symphonies and Dona Nobis Pacem. Furthermore, VW had seven works in the Classic FM Top 300 for 2006.

So how have other British composers fared over the last 30 years? Gustav Holst was a contemporary and close friend of VW. As you would expect, the Planets Suite has featured predominantly, with no less than 17 performances. Ten other works have been played. However, on eight occasions, no Holst was played at all. The average is just one work per season.

Despite Sir Malcolm Arnold’s enormous output, he is now largely forgotten at the Proms. Of his nine symphonies, incredibly, just one has been played in 30 years. Only 11 works, in all, have been performed, of which the last (a film score) featured in the 1996 Proms. That coincides with Nicholas Kenyon’s appointment. Perhaps one should conclude that Mr Kenyon does not like the music of Arnold.

But what of other British symphonists? There has been one performance of a symphony by William Alwyn. Of Sir Arnold Bax’s seven, only the 5th has been performed (1984). The last time that a symphony by Sir Lennox Berkeley was played was in 1978. The Bliss Colour Symphony was performed in 1993 and again this year. The symphony by Sir Hamilton Harty has never been played. Of the 12 symphonies by George Lloyd, only the 6th has been heard. And the magnificent Symphony in G minor by E J Moeran was last heard in 1938!

The founders of British music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, namely Parry and Stanford, who between them composed 12 symphonies, have met with no success. Of Edmund Rubbra’s 11, only two have been heard. Even Sir Michael Tippett has not done that well, with just six performances of his symphonies (one every five years).

The symphonies of Havergal Brian, Alun Hoddinott, Robert Simpson, Sir Granville Bantock and Sir John McEwen have been completely forgotten. Plus many others too.

So what precisely is the problem with British music? A year or so ago, I wrote to Nicholas Kenyon enquiring why we had only heard one Bax symphony in 30 years. In his reply, he pointed out that when the 5th Symphony was played in 1984, the concert itself was probably the worst attended in living memory. As a result of that experience, it would appear that Mr Kenyon will not countenance any suggestion that a Bax symphony should be played again at a Prom. And yet, when you consider that in 1984 Bax was largely forgotten as a symphonist, is it really so surprising that so few people decided to attend that concert? There has, in more recent years, been a resurgence in interest in Bax symphonies, one of which (the 4th) even reaching the Classic FM Top 10, just a year or so ago. There have been a number of recordings of Bax symphonies and they are now generally far better known than they were during the early 1980s.

However, with all due credit to Mr Kenyon, he did include Bax’s Spring Fire in the 1996 programme and November Woods in 2003.

In contrast, during the last 30 years, there have been 29 performances of Prokofiev’s symphonies. All seven have been played.

Shostakovich has done even better, with 82 performances of his symphonies. Only one of the 16 composed has been omitted.

And why should Schumann’s four symphonies (19 performed in 30 years) be considered more worthy than Parry’s five or Stanford’s seven?

The lack of British music at the Proms is not a new problem. As long ago as 1981, the composer Robert Simpson (since deceased) wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Proms and Natural Justice – A Plan for Renewal". Therein, he mentioned that the BBC took over responsibility for the Proms in 1927. Until 1960, the Prom programme was settled by committee. However, in that year, William Glock took over as Controller of Music and promptly abolished the committee. Since then, the Controller has had exclusive jurisdiction over the entire content of the Prom programme. Glock was superseded by Robert Ponsonby in 1973. He was replaced by John Drummond in 1986 and Mr Kenyon took over in 1996. Whoever is appointed is not only responsible for the Proms, but also live events and TV classical music. If questioned about the content of the Proms programme, the controller will insist that he does consult. Nevertheless, as Dr Simpson pointed out in his article:-

The fact that a single individual has the complete authority, virtually unrestricted in time or scope, to decide all this detail, has been dangerous these 20 years, against the interest of equity and therefore not morally defensible… no matter how gifted or imaginative, how evangelistic for worthy causes, how inspired is one man, his idiosyncrasies and prejudices will feed themselves over a long period, try as he may to eliminate them.

Insofar as Mr Glock is concerned, he reigned supreme for nearly 14 years and was responsible for programming 718 concerts, containing nearly 3,000 musical items. And yet during his tenure, no music was played by: Howells, Leighton, McCabe or Stevens.

Less than an hour’s music in that entire 14-year period was played for each of the following composers: Bax, Rodney Bennett, Brian, Bush, Racine Fricker, Goehr, Rubbra, Searle, Stevenson.

He noted not one symphony by Bax, but simply a short choral piece and an orchestral arrangement of his oboe quintet. Nor were there any symphonies of Rubbra.

It is interesting to compare Dr Simpson’s analysis of the period 1960 to 1973 with the period 1977-2006.

Although I do not have the whole of Simpson’s pamphlet and am not therefore aware of his conclusions, one thing is clear and that is that the problem lies not with the controller of music, but with the BBC and the system which has been established.

It is easy to forget that the BBC stands for the British Broadcasting Corporation. An examination of this year’s programme at the Proms would lead one to believe that it should be renamed the European Broadcasting Corporation, because the majority of the music played was composed on the other side of the Channel. As Dr Simpson points out, the BBC is a publicly funded service. Today it has an income of nearly £3bn per annum. It can afford to award a three-year contract to Jonathan Ross paying him an astonishing £18m. The Proms generate an income of £3.4m each year for the BBC, but cost £6.5m. Concerts are well attended. In 2005, ticket sales were 86%, with 42% of concerts sold out.

Every concert is broadcast live on Radio 3. These concerts are repeated throughout the subsequent year. The Proms have no equal anywhere in the world. It is, therefore, a unique event, something of which we should be justly proud.

Of course, Mr Kenyon has an impossible job. He cannot please everyone. Nor can he include every composer. There are simply too many. The problem, though, is one of balance. At present, there is an obsession with European music and, clearly, an antipathy towards British music.

There is, sadly, a hostility towards British music in this country. British orchestras do not tend to play British music. They certainly do not take British music with them when they go touring abroad. And now we have lost Richard Hickox, that champion of British music, who has gone to conduct the Sydney Opera.

In April, Radio 3 devoted the whole of its St George’s Day broadcast to English music. This impelled the music critic Norman Lebrecht to devote a whole page of the Evening Standard on 26th April to an extraordinary article headed "Why should we fly the flag for English music?" Therein, Mr Lebrecht showed that he had little time for English music. Let me give you just one quote:-

Elgar, Walton and Bax wrote symphonies that trailed off after a movement or two.

The journalist A N Wilson, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 5th July 2004, said that looking for a great Russian painter was like searching for the great English symphonic composer: he does not exist.

And yet at the same time, more and more people are discovering British music and are delighted with what they hear. Five years ago, the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival was devoted to a festival of British music. Virtually the entire week’s output was devoted to British music. It was the most successful festival in the history of the Three Choirs. People have been badgering the festival directors for a repeat, ever since.

At last year’s Worcester festival, I heard works by Bairstow, Balfour Gardiner, Blake, Britten, Dyson, Elgar, Finzi, Goss-Custard, Handel, Harris, Holst, Howells, Ireland, Leighton, Lucas, Parry, Purcell, Quilter, Sumsion, Tallis, Tavener, Tippett, Tompkins and Vaughan Williams. And what a wonderful musical experience that was.

I attended my first concert 40 years ago this year. There is much that I have yet to hear in a British concert hall. I wonder whether I will ever get to hear a live performance of Moeran’s G minor symphony. His only work performed at the Proms in 30 years was the Sinfonietta in 1994.

People ask me what does it matter. Surely, I can hear all the music that I like by listening to a CD. It is true that an enormous amount of British music has been recorded during the last 25 years, much of it for the first time. However, there is nothing to match the experience of a live performance, even if you have to endure fidgeting, talking, sweet papers, mobile phones and coughing.

In the last issue of the RVW Society newsletter, Stephen Connock reviewed a performance of VW’s opera, Sir John in Love, performed earlier this year by English National Opera. He referred to it as "a life-enhancing experience". I too would like more life-enhancing experiences at the Proms, by listening to neglected British music.

So what can be done? Someone recently mentioned to me that it was only a matter of time before Mr Kenyon, a CBE, retires, followed with an automatic knighthood. However, I am told that he has no plans to retire. I fear that his eventual successor will be very much in the same mould as his three predecessors. And, of course, he will be given absolute power to decide the programme for over 80 concerts for ten years or more. Heaven forbid that he should prove to be someone who loathes and detests VW. But that is the problem. If the controller does not like a particular composer, you can be sure that that composer’s music will not be played.

To my mind, the British Broadcasting Corporation should give priority to British music. It is disgraceful that less than 10% of the output this year should be devoted to British music. It would be wonderful if we had a Prime Minister who loved British music and who would issue a decree that 25% of the 116 hours of music played at the Proms should be devoted to British music. Those 29 hours would give us 20 hours more than we hear at the moment. Nevertheless, the nightmare would be that the controller decided to play 20 hours of Harrison Birtwistle!

A radical solution would be to take away from the BBC the responsibility for running the Proms, but the BBC having done it for 80 years, the prospect of that happening is remote.

By all means write letters to the controller, imploring him to play this composer or that. Years ago, I wrote to Kenyon’s predecessor asking why we never heard a symphony by Parry or Stanford. He replied expressing his exasperation that so many people wrote to him in these terms. It never occurred to him that people wanted to hear music by those composers.

Perhaps one should involve the Arts Council for England. A correspondent to the Daily Telegraph recently wrote that he had attended a presentation by the Arts Council. This included ethnic minority musical traditions or music from deprived urban youth. There were Jewish folksongs, some bangra dance and a rap artist performance poet was also featured. There was not the slightest indication that the Arts Council valued mainstream Western classical music.

I am afraid that I have no answers to this problem, which seems to be utterly intractable. I appreciate that we now have a Delius festival in Bradford in July, an Arnold festival in Northampton in October, a proposed English Music Festival also in October quite apart from the Three Choirs Festival in August. But I – and I think many others too – want a lot more from the Proms. We are, of course, taxpayers and licence-payers. It is about time that the BBC started to listen to us.

Christopher Cope


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