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Lighten the Mood

John Robert Brown

In February this year, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) gave a Wednesday matinee in Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Sitting in the hall, which holds 2260 people, I could hardly believe my ears when conductor John Wilson announced that the associated dance event (Symphony Ballroom) had sold out so quickly that TWO more such events had been hastily organised to take place on the following Friday and Sunday, to cater for the demand! Clearly, this is one of the good ideas of 2008 in terms of audience development for classical music.


You cannot change a universal language

What makes the sell-out particularly comment-worthy is that the programme was largely comprised of light music. In less than one week, in Birmingham, 10,000 people had turned out to hear music by Eric Coates, Ronald Binge and Albert Ketèlbey, the Beethoven of Aston'. We also heard Scapino (Walton), Lark Ascending (Vaughan Williams) and Tintagel (Bax). The CBSO played beautifully (of course), and entered into the fun spirit of the afternoon. Why, some even played novelty instruments, such as saxophones.

Many in the audience grumbled about the management of radio (both in BBC and commercial stations) being hostile to light music, and about the need for a Radio Two-and a-Half. John Wilson has some strong and well-argued opinions, as you might imagine. From the stage he reminded us that Coates' Dam Busters March spent 10 weeks at number one in the Top Ten in 1954, that Elizabethan Serenade (Binge) was heard everywhere during the late fifties, and that Binge's Sailing By, which still lulls Britain to sleep every night on Radio 4, provoked mass insurrection by BBC listeners when it was temporarily taken off the air in 1993.

"There's a demand for light music which you can only assess by putting concerts on and seeing who comes", says Wilson. "In the last three light music concerts I did one in Birmingham at Symphony Hall, one in a church in Longridge in Preston (with Ernest Tomlinson), and another one at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester not only were all three concerts very well sold, but they generated more post bag than any other concerts I've done, with letters from people saying: Why don't we hear more of this? I think that's a strong indicator as well, isn't it?

"If half a dozen people write, that's a big deal, it really is. But look at what's available on CD now that wasn't available fifteen years ago. Every corner of the light music repertoire has been explored, reissued and made available, not only as new performances, but as vintage performances."

"Why does Wilson mix the types of music? I think the best thing to be done is not to put light music into a ghetto," he says. "Put it in the mainstream. I think nothing of doing a concert where Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams sit alongside Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and Robert Farnon. Of course, light music needs advocates; not every conductor is interested. But I'm a different animal to most conductors, because I have my feet in both the serious music world and in jazz, light music and film music. So, whilst I don't touch the extremes of either, I straddle both."

"I think this is the rightful place for light music. Eric Coates is much more likely to crop up on BBC Radio Three than he is on Radio Two. Almost exclusively, the light music composers are taken more seriously now. We've had time to re-evaluate their contributions and to study their work. In truth, this phenomenon raises two questions: why did the genre of light music fall from favour, and why is it suddenly attracting huge audiences?"

"The term light music as used here is about light-orchestral music," says Ernest Tomlinson. "Just such music is the basic fare of this country's many flourishing wind bands and brass bands. It's only when orchestral concerts offer the same sort of repertoire that the high art lobby takes exception, though it's often considered perfectly acceptable if it's film music or TV theme tunes. BBC Radio is the chief culprit here, with enough channels (and a public service responsibility) to offer a true balance of music programmes. Instead it settles for an exclusively high art Radio 3, plus one or two evening spots on Radio 2, the rest being dominated by the various types of pop music."

John Wilson feels that light music also became a victim of its own success. "It was played so much, saturated the air waves for so many years, and had wide appeal. It was ripe for the pickings of the snobs," he says. "The more good music there is, the more bad music people have had to play for the good stuff to come to the top. So there was an awful lot of it about."

That is, the blame for neglect can be partly attributed to the disparaging term 'light music' (as though it's music for those of feeble intellect), partly because of over-exposure in a past era, and partly because of the policies of BBC. "There was that sea change", says Wilson, "When Sir William Glock took over the BBC Third Programme." Glock was the controller of Radio 3 from 1959-72. He left no place for light music, believes Wilson: "There was a clean sweep, the death knell. But looking at it historically, the best stuff survived which is the way it always is."

Ernest Tomlinson offers a different take: "Glock and others really believed that music was going to have a twentieth-century language. That was one of the failures of the twentieth-century. The language that they were talking about hasn't really established itself. However, there are people genuinely loving it. I don't demean [dodecaphonic music], but it's for devotees. There has always been this dislike, by the high art people, of composing in idioms that they feel are old hat."

"But I view it another way: music is a universal language," says Tomlinson. "You cannot change a universal language." As an example, he cites national anthems and hymn tunes. "I think Hans Keller looked forward to the time when everybody would be singing in the 12-note system, going around whistling the latest tone-row! I don't know what they were thinking about. In his later life Arnold Schoenberg said there was a lot of good music still to be written in C major. He had a go himself, but I thought it was very unconvincing."

This leads on to the question of snobbery. "At the time it was written, light music was played by experts," says John Wilson. "The quality of the players in the light music business was the best. If you were a star violinist, you aim was not to lead the London Symphony Orchestra. Your aim was to get a job playing in a hotel. That was the highest you could go. It's quite different now, of course. Albert Sammons, who led Beecham's orchestra, made his living in theatre orchestras, switching for the summers to a hotel band in Harrogate. Later, Beecham spotted him when he was having his dinner in the Waldorf Hotel in London. Max Jaffa played in the hotels, as did Reginald Leopold."

John Wilson has only experienced this sniffiness from a couple of amateur orchestras, ironically. "That was years ago, and never from pros," he says. "And although I say that about amateur orchestras, they end up loving it! Like a lot of things in music, snobbery stems from ignorance more than anything else. There are pieces that I've not taken to myself until I've had to do them. I remember finding Messiah deadly dull when I listened to it, years ago. Then, when I got involved with it, and conducted it, I suddenly realised what a masterpiece it was, and loved it. That's happened so many times with pieces. Involvement is the key thing."

Nostalgia is often cited as a source of much of the love of light music. Are we appreciating the music we hear for its own sake, or more because it was the theme tune for some much loved radio programme? The Devil's Gallop, by Charles Williams, was the theme for BBC Radio's Dick Barton, Special Agent in the 1940s. Coronation Scot, Vivian Ellis's popular tune, is still heard in BBC 7's repeats of the Paul Temple series. Are today's audiences comprised of nostalgic old people?

"The nostalgia thing doesn't enter into it, from my point of view," says Wilson. "I was born in 1972; I get nostalgic for the 70s and the 80s, not for light music. It's just good of its kind, taking its place now as part of the twentieth-century renaissance of English music. The best light music sat alongside works by Vaughan Williams, Bax, Elgar, Delius and Walton. It might not have the emotional breadth of that music, but it's as serious in its own particular purpose and craft."

Any deficiency in emotional depth is a matter of intent. By definition, good light music had more limited aims. It didn't aim for profundity, but was composed primarily to catch the listener's ear, to entertain. The emphasis was always on melody for its own sake. Ernest Tomlinson said that memorable melody was at the fountainhead of all good light music. And Andrew Gold, at the BBC, gave the best definition of light music that I've come across: Light Music is where the tune is more important than what you do with it.

In light music, I'm not sure that there's anything that hadn't been done by Debussy, or Ravel, twenty years earlier. Certainly, Eric Coates was one of the first composers to introduce syncopated elements into orchestral music. Robert Farnon brought a certain jazz voicing from the American dance idiom in his harmonies. But what stands out most when you look at the full scores is just how beautifully finished the music is. Coates could spend days on two bars of music; it's beautifully orchestrated, and plays itself, from beginning to end. It's so well calculated, you don't have to do any balancing.

From America we are now reading the results of a new study produced by Professor Robert J. Flanagan of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The report was commissioned by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to study statistics from the largest American orchestras between 1987 and 2003. Commenting on the report, Henry Fogel, one of the best most influential orchestra administrators in the US, said: "What I have learned, in four years of visiting and spending a day with 125 different American symphony orchestras, is that it is impossible to generalize - but that a great many of them have been very smart, very flexible, and dynamic in dealing with different economic conditions. Orchestras that are attentive to changing demands and the very nature of their audiences are not only maintaining but increasing attendance. Orchestras attentive to their entire communities (beyond just their subscribers) are also raising more money, and operating in fiscally balanced ways."

I guess that the same applies in the UK. If so, the CBSO is setting a good example.

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