20 March 2023

The BBC’s philistine attitude to classical music betrays more than mere ignorance


It would be easy to attack as pure philistinism the BBC’s decision to abolish the BBC Singers and to sack some 20% of its orchestral musicians. Easy, because that’s what it is: philistinism.

But that doesn’t get us very far. Philistinism has a long history as one of the most influential forces behind arts policy – and especially BBC arts policy. But there is something else at play here.

For many decades, of course, the BBC was one of the greatest of all music impresarios. Its archives are a trove of remarkable performances from almost all the great classical musicians of the 20th century. But the key word here is ‘archive’. Because the BBC long ago stopped understanding the purpose of public service broadcasting and started to behave as if its role was to win a ratings war. (Ironically, the one area of the BBC that still attempts to live up to the ideals of public service broadcasting is BBC News, however much it is accused of bias or attacked for its editorial agenda.)

Given the threat to the license fee – especially today, when it seems so anachronistic – you might have thought the penny would at some point drop that the only way the BBC can survive in anything resembling its present form is if it offers something unique. But the intellectual and ideological obstacles, as exemplified in its attitude to classical music, are far too deep.

For many years, the BBC has treated classical music as some sort of embarrassment – an art form it knows it has to engage with but which is best approached with the least possible fuss. Take the Proms, which is usually trumpeted as showing the BBC’s commitment to the form. It used to be that the world’s oldest and longest classical music festival was, as billed, a festival of classical music. But over time it became, instead, a music festival which contained classical music.

Last year, for example, it began with ‘a late-night decompression session with Radio 1 Relax’ followed by a tribute to Aretha Franklin and ‘the South African Jazz Songbook’. Then there was ‘the first ever Gaming Prom’ in which ‘an electronically expanded Royal Philharmonic Orchestra explores the musical universe of gaming: from the classic console titles of the 1980s to the European concert premiere of a suite from Battlefield 2042’. Prom 58 offered an evening with a group of ‘retro-futurist rockers’ called – oh, the irony! – Public Service Broadcasting.

In a similar vein, in 2002 BBC4 was created so almost all classical music could be removed from BBC1 and BBC2 – a decision as far from the purpose of public broadcasting as could be imagined (more narrowcasting than broadcasting) and which, with the demise of BBC4 itself, means that classical music has been shunted off into the televisual ether.

Much of this is a consequence of ignorance, with next to no none in senior positions appreciating classical music, let alone having any serious interest in it. So when Buckingham Palace revealed earlier this month that Sir John Eliot Gardiner would conduct part of the Coronation, the BBC’s report was headlined: ‘Dorset farmer to conduct music at King’s coronation’. Presumably no one in the news room had heard of Sir John, one of this country’s greatest ever conductors, who happens also to own a farm.

But ignorance isn’t the real issue here. The problem is that the decision to abolish the BBC Singers is deliberate and intentional and targeted at classical music for being classical music. It’s ignorant, yes; but it is a kind of arrogant ideological ignorance, of a piece with the mindset which has denuded classical music on the BBC for so many years.

In 1987 Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. What was meant as a warning has become in effect a guide to recent history. Bloom showed how the cultural and moral relativism which had come to dominate academia did not, as was claimed, open minds; rather, it destroyed serious thought. Similarly, ‘value relativism’ dissolves into nihilism.

Recently accusations of sexism and misogyny, racism and colonialism in Western heritage have received a great deal of attention, as if these critiques were somehow new ideas.  They’re not – they are rehashes of the sort of post-modernism which Bloom railed against in 1987.

In this way, not only is the Western canon dismissed but, as Bloom adds, ‘our students have lost the practice of and the taste of reading’ and been left instead with ill-defined but deeply held ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. As for music, he notes that few students displayed even a superficial understanding of classical music, but ‘rock music is as unquestioned and un-problematic as the air the students breathe’.

Like literature, classical music is also seen as part of the wider classical tradition which represents Western colonisation and dominance. Breaking that dominance requires breaking that tradition.

We now have generations of senior leaders and decision-makers in all walks of life who were at university since this shaping of young minds began. This is the context of the decision to axe BBC Singers. The surprise in many ways is that they have somehow survived until now, rather than that they are now being targeted.

The issue is not that the BBC panjandrums are ignorant or Philistine (although they are both). It’s that they are, as a rule, incapable of seeing classical music – and the Western canon itself – through any eyes other than this post-Modern assault on our heritage and our culture. They are prisoners of what they believe to be their superior critical skills but which are, in reality, the very opposite. In their determination to be relevant, modern and aware, they are destructive of that which they do not understand and which, to them, has no place in a modern broadcasting organisation.

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Stephen Pollard is Editor-at-Large of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.