25 JUNE 1994, Page 33


The Proms

Three farts and a raspberry

Simon Heifer believes the Proms should always be the premier festival of British music hen Henry Wood founded the Proms in 1895 it was not as a festival of British music, for the very good reason that there was very little British music with which to festivate. However, the flowering of this peerless festival coincided with the great renaissance in English music. Within a generation Elgar and Vaughan Williams were established in the front rank of Europe's composers, and a generation later Britten and Walton had joined them. The Proms, which gave first performances to some notable works by these composers, became an ideal vehicle for this new national enthusiasm. This season, many of the works once premiered in this showcase are being played again. No fewer than 46 British composers (including, for the pur- poses of simplicity, Handel and Percy Grainger) have works included in the 100th season, a statistic of two in every three concerts. This more generous inclusion, than on some occasions in the past, of our native music, is perhaps partly explained by the celebration of the 100th season, with its overtly retrospective tone. The Proms also, naturally, became a vehicle of patronage; quite conspicuous patronage. Once the BBC began to sponsor the concerts the question of using them as a means to advance taste and the careers of individual composers was thrown into sharp relief. And, through the reigns of two controllers in particular, William Glock and Robert Ponsonby, there were contro- versies about exactly how well-judged and equable this use of patronage was. Dr Robert Simpson, one of whose works is included this year, was so outraged by what he perceived to be Ponsonby's preference for atonal music that he was moved, more than a decade ago, to write a work called The Proms and Natural Justice, outlining the type of favouritism and partiality of which he felt Ponsonby to be guilty. As well as sponsoring some of the more dreadful modern composers, Ponsonby was also grudging about their more melodious pre- decessors. By the mid-1980s the Proms seemed to be organised in an apparent spirit of contempt for the early masters of the English musical renaissance. Until this season this has been almost as true, to my mind, of the directorship of Mr John Drummond. Since Mr Drummond was succeeded as Controller of Radio Three by Mr Nicholas Kenyon, his policies at the Proms (which, until next year, he is continuing to programme) have contrasted interestingly with those of Mr Kenyon. Mr Kenyon has a reputation of being a natu- rally more broad-minded man than his pre- decessor; there is no question of his operating a blacklist in the way that Sir William Glock was notorious for doing. Mr Kenyon must also be conscious that, whether he likes it or not, he is having to compete with the symphonic wallpaper of Classic FM. Were he, in his schedules, to pump out a constant diet of the sort of music premiered at the Proms in the last 15 years his audience would disappear within days. As a result, the average week's sched- ules on Radio Three regularly contain some of the tonal rarities of the English canon of the sort not so often heard at the Proms.

There is a strong parallel between the debate about the value of modern music and that about the value of modern art, such as Mr Giles Auty has been conducting in these pages for years. One searches in vain in record shops for much of the new music of the last 15 years because few com- panies are commercially mad enough to record it. On the other hand one can find any amount of discs of the music of, say, George Lloyd, Britain's greatest living tonal composer, who sells abundantly to a classical music-loving public revolted by the squeals and plonks — what Kathleen Ferri- er once so aptly characterised as 'three farts and a raspberry orchestrated' — of most contemporary music. Mr Drummond, despite entreaties to do so, has resolutely refused to programme Mr Lloyd's music at the Proms. It is to be hoped that his succes- sor is neither so culturally blinkered nor so commercially myopic.

There is a great deal of self-delusion in the BBC about the success of the corpora- tion's music programming. The perfor- mances this season of some of the works commissioned from the Glock era onwards show a sad record of their failure to enter the standard repertoire. Nicholas Maw's Scenes and Arias, commissioned for the 1962 season, is described as one of the composer's 'most successful works°, which makes one fear for the rest of his output. Similarly, James Macmillan's The Confes- sion of Isobel Gowdie is included again this year, only four years after a debut at which, according to the official prospectus, this `highly successful commission . .. won a standing ovation'. What is meant by 'suc- cessful'? It seems a millennium ago, but in fact it was only in 1948-50, that the sixth symphony of Vaughan Williams (not heard at the Proms for years) received 100 per- formances within two years of its debut; that, for most people, would constitute `success'. Of course, just because a piece of music sinks without trace IT does not mean it is bad; but it is interesting how, ever since Glock took over the BBC music con- trollership in 1959, patronage of new music and new composers has been violently in the teeth of public taste. That is not my judgment; it is a deduction based on the failure of so much BBC-sponsored music to enter the repertoire, or to be found on the shelves of even the most comprehensive record shop. It is in those record shops and, to his credit, on the airwaves of Mr Kenyon's Radio Three, that one discovers much of the fruit of our musical renais- sance, ignored by concert programmers but still eagerly bought by the music-loving public. Perhaps what those who pro- gramme the Proms have, after all, been try- ing to tell us for years is that the public simply cannot be trusted to know what is good for them.

When he takes over the programming of the Proms, Mr Kenyon has an enviable opportunity; to introduce many of the Promenading public, whether in the Albert Hall or listening at home, to their musical heritage, as a proper British public service broadcasting outfit ought to do. He could remind them that Parry wrote five sym- phonies and the Lady Radnor Suite as well as Jerusalem; show those who, this season, will have the rare treat of hearing Moeran's Sinfonietta, that he also wrote one of the great symphonies of the century; unearth lesser known works by our better-known composers, like Elgar's Songs for Orchestra or Vaughan Williams's Partita for Double String Orchestra; or resurrect some works and composers who have been forgotten altogether, like the Dynamic Triptych of John Foulds, or the cantata Sweet Thames Run Softly by Sir George Dyson. Above all, he should aim to commission new works that audiences will want to hear again and again, and not simply treat as efforts to be cheered once on a summer's night on their way to oblivion. It is a popular myth that we do not make decent composers any- more; we just don't make decent patrons for them.