A Cause for Concern


November 1981

Composer Winter 1981 Issue 74 Front Cover.jpeg

Composer Winter 1981 Issue 74 Front Cover
Composer Winter 1981 Issue 74 Front Cover

The BBC has been for many decades the most prolific promoter of contemporary music of all kinds; an organisation that is the envy of millions in countries all over the world, which have nothing to compare with the efficiency, and extremely high standards of promotion and presentation that have become synonymous with the abbreviation BBC. The birth of the ‘Third Programme’ in I946 brought a degree of civilised culture to our post-war years, the profound effects of which, both in music and drama, still linger clearly with at least one who was but a handful of years old at the time. This service brought us music of all periods, in performances of astonishing clarity and standard. It brought, too, the new music, which the dark years had denied us, by unknown or unfamiliar names, who now are giants of our times, with an excitement and enthusiasm akin to that of the artistically glorious sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is still a broadcasting system which respects music and its makers in this country; equally there exists a reciprocal respect from composers and musicians towards the BBC. Anything that would threaten that respect on either side is dangerous, for once there is a lowering of standards, or a weakening of credibility, or an acceptance of anything less than the customary high professional standards in performance, production, selection, direction and presentation, then all will be lost, and it will become no more than any amateur group of stations, or a vehicle for commercial or politically orientated rubbish which is found in so many countries of the world and so easily switched 01f. It will become a disrespected service, and not one to be taken seriously at all.

However, we can grow accustomed to the gradual decline unless we are constantly aware; and such awareness as one needs to identify such a descent is usually a farsighted one. It is far more uncommon than it may seem to encounter one who knows what mature wine or cheese really tastes like. The ‘situation comedy’ programmes made for television rarely have a second or third set of six or ten programmes as vital and spontaneous as the first. John Cleese wisely resisted invitations to continue ‘Fawlty Towers’, and those few episodes that exist are rightly classics. Knowing when to stop is a great talent, and one not possessed by all composers! It is perhaps the inspiration of great men. But great men can often inspire an urge in others to continue something far beyond the natural stopping point; and curiously unnoticed or unrealised because of the generally felt enthusiasm, stagnation grows, a sham of progressiveness which, like most continuations (we call them traditions) has only superficial appeal, and no intrinsic value. It delights those who think little, and know nothing of value, unless it be its measurement against personal gain. It is ironic that great men who cause enthusiasm for the making of traditions are often real, and honest, and utterly committed, unlike those who are real and honest and utterly committed about prolonging the course of tradition, pumping new blood into Frankenstein’s unorthodox and useless friend.

Once a tradition outlives its original inspiration, and continues in a way contrary to what was at first intended, then other factors begin to be felt, and to assume growing importance; for example, economic pressures. The excuse of economic pressure is used to divert attention from the main issue, and maybe to keep something (or someone) other than the main issue active or in business.

It is astonishing that, in so many cases, the presentation of obvious economies is regarded with vague amusement. One would have to be extraordinarily isolated and rather stupid to be unaware that millions are unable to take seriously the officially agreed economical arguments, because they can see only too well the obvious and harmless economies - whether in the factory, the office, the school or college; or even in a series of spectacular events like the Promenade Concerts! Astonishing too, when carefully worked, plausible, practical economies, shown to be not only feasible but actually essential for the future health of both the organisation and the art it is presumed to support, are thrown out without digestion, and rejected, with the exhortation to believe that all is in better health than ever.

What can one be but suspicious? Dentists go on filling teeth unnecessarily in the cause of good health because they are paid by the filling, and the nation’s mouths are ruined as much as by sugar! The system has vested its interests so tightly and intricately that suggested reforms must be opposed as a matter of ‘programmed’ routine.

Much sour criticism, like political dissonance, does not and cannot offer any sympathetic, optimistic suggestion because it issues from unimaginative, ill-informed and fundamentally socially destructive minds (despite their characteristic conviction to the contrary); it is therefore useless. What is so admirable about Dr. Simpson’s lively criticisms (far, incidentally, from sour) is that they are all linked so closely with extremely practical and positive solutions. Nothing is criticised without an alternative being suggested. And for thinking people, his book (not as Peter Heyworth significantly slips, ‘his pamphlet”) is a clear, reasonable and uncomplicated document. Of course, it will not be so easy for those who cannot think too well, or whose thought-process is annulled by a programmed ‘black-out’ system whenever thought beyond the pre-digested opinion is threatened.

This is no incidental, unsupported document. It comes from one of our most profound symphonic composers, one who has also for thirty years worked with and for the BBC and music, and British music most especially. I have not yet read any derogatory criticism of his book by anyone that is so well supported as his proposals are. Apart from its central argument (still, I notice, deliberately misinterpreted by several who insist Dr. Simpson is saying what he is not), the book is a splendid source of provocative quotes:

‘The trouble with the watchdog theory is that the postman calls more than the burglar’

‘Optimism is more creative than timidity’

‘When all are making the same effort to be different, only the sameness of the effort 

characterises the majority’

‘If something is worth doing, and the spirit is there, and the work is correctly prepared, a sound administrative routine will soon present itself’

‘The persistence of a practice, even with success, does not itself provide moral justification.’

And that is what the book is about. The chapter ‘The Composer & The Audience’ is of special concern to us all.

I am reminded of the story of the young novice, constantly under critical pressure from the Mother Superior; this brought complaints from the other nuns of the Order, who thought it an unduly severe treatment. ‘On the contrary’ announced the Mother Superior, ‘she is the only one who is worth it !’ I am inclined to think the same could be said of our concern for broadcasting in general, and the prestigious ‘Proms’ festival in particular; and Dr. Simpson expresses both, on our behalf, with good sense and sound argument - not that this is the most subtle way of getting through the strong defences of authority. However, I would be confident that only fools will dispute the fundamental issues. The details of the positive plan should already be under discussion.