After 30 years, is it time for Classic FM to change its tone?

“He Frequents His Audience” by Simon Heffer

What is a classical music radio used for? If it’s about providing a form of background sound for casual listeners, interspersed with silly commentary from presenters who are often ignorant of the classic canon, then Classic FM fits the bill perfectly. If it’s about expanding cultural understanding, stimulating intellectual curiosity, and encouraging deep engagement between the listener and the music he or she hears, then Classic FM isn’t even sure. the starting grid.

That it lasted 30 years suggests that it serves a useful function; but so are toilets, and Mr. Crapper’s invention lasted even longer. It is unquestionably popular. But this devalues ​​classical music by treating it as a commodity; worse, he treats his audience condescendingly, lulling them into a kind of Stockholm cultural syndrome where he mistakes mediocrity for excellence and where boundaries are rarely pushed back. Of course, it’s wonderful if people who were previously unattracted to classical music start listening to it and broaden the horizons of their taste. But the problem with Classic FM is that, as Matthew Arnold once said of Thomas Carlyle, it drags its converts into the desert and leaves them there.

They are spoon-fed small pieces of music – some classic, some mimicking the classical style – with which they may already have a slight familiarity, due to their use in television programs, commercials or films. . The familiar is used to coax them into a safe, unchallenging, and ultimately boring environment.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. A little time spent sampling other classical music stations shows a successful pattern of intelligent and competent presenters, and can offer additional context and listening suggestions.

The other depressing aspect of Classic FM is the severe limitation of its daytime playlist (there is sometimes more adventurous programming in the evenings). The same well-worn parts are reproduced day after day; once again, familiarity is an asset to be valued above curiosity and discovery. The playlist seems largely based on the station’s ridiculous “hall of fame,” an annual poll of its listeners in which they choose their 300 favorite pieces of music. One or two thought-provoking pieces slip through (Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand), but it’s a jumble of film music (according to station listener estimates, the Star Wars theme is over 250 seats above Elgar’s First Symphony) interlaced with music played to oblivion by the station. Listeners are helpfully informed that Holst’s planets include Jupiter and variations of Elgar’s Riddle include Nimrod. As a measure of the taste of the most gullible element of the British public, it is invaluable.

I defer to no one in my admiration for Ralph Vaughan Williams: but his Lark Ascending, which tops the poll, is far from his best piece of music. But many of Vaughan Williams’ truly great works – his fourth and sixth symphonies, Sancta Civitas, his piano concerto, the second string quartet – are not “gentle” (a word much loved by the station), but aggressive, sometimes violent. , disturbing, demanding. They are proof that music is sometimes a journey, and can be endless.

There are over 300 music tracks. Many are not smooth. Many were not used in the movies. Many are real classical composers and not people pretending to be them. Many are wonderful. I say to the incarcerated, dare. Turn off Classic FM and go find them. You have nothing to lose but your intellectual chains.

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