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Why Does Classical Music No Longer Appear On Mainstream Television?

A dusty old violin rests sideways across a musical score. Only one line of the music is in focus.
A couple of weeks ago, BBC4 broadcast two programmes which celebrated the contribution to BBC TV of Leonard Bernstein and André Previn. It was to be expected that the quality of music making was remarkable from these two great musicians of the second half of the 20th century; as was their charisma in introducing and explaining the music in front of the camera. But what was striking was both what they were performing – including Shostakovich symphonies, Messiaen’s Turangalila and the Bach Magnificat – and that their programmes were watched by millions on prime-time TV. Unlike, presumably, the mere thousands watching these retrospectives, shunted on to BBC4.
It is difficult to imagine TV bosses commissioning similar programmes for mainstream TV now. Certainly, there are interesting programmes being made, but these are only seen on niche channels such as BBC4 or Sky Arts; and, while the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall (in which all of their concerts are both broadcast live and are available on demand) is tremendous, it is only available on subscription. Even the Proms, funded by the BBC, no longer include live broadcasts on BBC1 or BBC2, other than the First and Last Nights; and the format of the second half of the Last Night of the Proms – which is now the only classical music broadcast in the year on BBC1 (with ITV not even attempting) – has less of a relationship with real Classical Music (that amazing Art form which can give so much meaning to people’s lives, which excites, challenges, soothes, changes us) than Twenty20 has to Test Cricket. It seems that the TV controllers have decided that the days of classical music being broadcast to the core TV viewer are over.
This is more than a shame. It is a travesty, and could have far-reaching consequences for our society.
Everyone involved in Classical Music, whether as performer, composer or listener (and let’s remember that to listen is to participate), knows how special it is. Why are all so passionate about it? And why am I writing this article? Because we have all witnessed at first hand its capacity for transformation. Put bluntly, we have become different people through Music, and continue to develop as human beings through our involvement in Music. And what we have enjoyed for ourselves we want to share with as many people as possible. (For how many other aspects of life is this as true?) We get more intense about this as we get older – partly because we recognise that it is the gift which keeps on giving, yielding up yet more as we experience more in our lives. Those pieces which hooked us when we were teenagers continue to play a part in our lives (for me, this meant Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies, Bartok Piano Concertos and Verdi operas), but acquire greater depth and meaning; and, as we come to realise that life isn’t all plain sailing, we need find we need Music to help us. There’s nothing that we experience which hasn’t been experienced by others – and classical music has a miraculous way of connecting our emotions with those of countless others through time, in a far more profound way than words can ever achieve.
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When confronted about the disappearance of classical music from mainstream TV, those in the media often state that it’s their duty to reflect the audience rather than influence it. The audience loves talent shows, so the argument goes, and things that it likes (pretty much an exemplary circular argument), therefore Last Night of the Proms should consist only of singalong medleys and pieces lasting more than four minutes. It’s as if they’re terrified that the audience might disappear at any moment – an imaginary presidential debate worm reflecting the approval or disapproval of the viewer each second. We are in the world of instant gratification and the soundbite, and classical music adapt to this (one imagines them saying) if it is to remain popular.
And yet… the media is capable of taking decisions with the express purpose of influencing its audience, and has done so with profound effect in recent years. In combatting racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance, the media leads the way, understanding its role in getting under the skin of millions of people. There is considerable evidence, for example, to show that mainstream soap operas such as Coronation Street and Eastenders have broadened people’s social outlooks through their inclusion of characters and storylines concerning minority groups, while some of the programming for the youth channel BBC3 (such as its series The world’s worst place) is designed for its audience to discuss social equality at the water cooler. Our tolerant society has been directly influenced by the media’s ability to get where politicians can’t reach.
When it comes to classical music, however, there seems either to be institutional embarrassment, or just indifference. As a result, it is being pushed by the media into a ghetto, with its occasional public appearances taking the mantle of Are you being served‘s Mr Humphries – a weird but harmless eccentric with a catchphrase or two, but never allowed real expression.
The impact of this in our schools is profound. With classical music all but invisible in mainstream culture, only those children who have been born into a musical family (or who encounter knowledgeable and persistent music hubs and music teachers – and all power to them) are experiencing classical music. Orchestras, opera companies and choirs have great education programmes, but are frustrated by the capacity and desire of schools to become involved on a day-to-day basis, following up initial experiences with regular work. The lack of visibility and audibility of orchestras on TV means that violins or clarinets are seen by many as strange historical artefacts.
There is some light, however. The BBC’s Ten Pieces initiative, in which ten pieces of classical music have been filmed for schoolchildren and presented by TV stars, with masses of supporting material online including lesson plans, arrangements for beginner instrumentalists, and cross-curricular projects, has just been extended to secondary schools with a further ten pieces. The project has been seized upon with gratitude by music teachers up and down the country, with Music Hubs providing imaginative resources and orchestras connecting their programmes to the ten pieces. I have been working with Year 7 students at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton on the project, and it has been wonderful both to see their enthusiasm grow and what elements have grabbed them. They have produced imaginative compositions based on Stravinsky’s The Firebird and two of the Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes – on returning to listen to the original pieces after having done their own work, they have listened with such stillness and involvement. (It’s no different from how a child kicking a football around develops an understanding and love of the game – practical experience brings understanding.)
The biggest – and most pleasing – surprise, though, were their responses when watching the Ten Pieces II film. Designed for 11-14 year olds, many of the pieces are predictably energetic and loud – including Wagner Ride of the Valkyries, Verdi Dies Irae and Bernstein Mambo – and they loved these. Yet it was Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending which really reached their hearts. Molly Rainford’s introduction to the piece, explaining how music can provide us with much needed calm amid stress, and can heal us when upset, really seemed to strike a chord – admitting that life isn’t always easy, and that we need music to help us, was a bolt of truth in a rather manic film. After the film was over, it was this that they wanted to talk about. And they wanted to hear the whole piece again. It’s one of the many privileges of being a teacher when we witness moments of transformation. Children love classical music if we allow them to, and we don’t need to dumb down.
What about the future? I hope so much that Simon Rattle’s imminent return to the UK will be accompanied by an investment from the BBC to feature him regularly on BBC1 and BBC2, with his new orchestra, playing decent repertoire, in its new concert hall. The either/or argument that is currently going the rounds in the classical music world – that we should invest in music education rather than build a great concert hall – is ignoring the urgent need for Classical Music to be visible. Just as broadcasting major sporting events on TV encourages greater sporting participation, the same holds true for Music.
But it should also be noted that, while Bernstein and Previn were on TV, children had access to free instrumental tuition through their County Music Services. Now, if the corporate investment in Rattle’s concert hall could be matched, pound for pound, by investment in music hubs, enabling all children to learn an instrument and play in an orchestra, then we really would be on the brink of something positively seismic for our society. And our media would then have no excuse.
Simon Toyne is Executive Director of Music of the David Ross Education Trust and Malcolm Arnold Academy, and is a Director of the Eton Choral Courses.
Read more of his articles here.

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