BBC plans expose classical failure

BBC plans expose classical failure


norman lebrecht

April 02, 2020

The BBC’s music plans for the Coronavirus lockdown serve only to expose the derelicition of classical music on TV and the loss of imagination on Radio 3. Very little in the plans announced yesterday is original, exciting or in any way unexpected.

A European radio moment with Max Richter’s Sleep – an eight hour ‘lullaby for a frenetic world’ . Literally, a yawn

– The virtual choir – BBC Four to broadcast the first ever TV concert where none of the participants will meet. This is going on all over social media, possibly with higher production standards.
– Home Sessions – Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Andreas Scholl, Mahan Esfahani, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Ksenija Sidorova, Craig Ogden, Olivia Chaney, and others will bring home performances to Radio 3 audiences. Most are doing so already on their social media.
– Postcards From Composers – contemporary composers to write musical messages to listeners at home on BBC Radio 3. Ahem
– BBC Young Musician returns – one of the oldest musical talent competitions is to return to BBC Four and BBC Radio 3 celebrating the best of British talent with full broadcasts of the category finals of this world famous young talent competition. These are the category finals that the BBC has failed to broadcast live in recent years. This particular set was recorded just before the lockdown and is still unseen.
– Classical Companion – a collection of online gems from the archive including mixes, collections, quizzes, essential daily symphonies and podcasts. So what’s new?
– BBC Orchestras and Choirs to record ensemble and solo works remotely for Afternoon Concert. As above.

No new documentaries. No treasures from the archives. No interaction with users. That’s how far BBCTV and Radio3 have fallen.

Now spare a thought for the Controllers who are having to decide, practically from one day to the next, whether the Proms will go ahead and, if (as seems likely) not, what to do with the BBC orchestras and choruses for the duration of plague time.

I am not privy to these discussions and will not speculate on the outcome. I am a lifelong supporter of public service broadcasting and believe the BBC needs all the help it can get at the moment.

However, what we have here is an institutional collapse of emergency planning, leadership and creativity.

The BBC has failed the nation on the classical music front.


  • Thinking aloud says:

    Agree completely with your comment about BBC’s failure on the classical music front, not just now but all the time.
    They seem to think everyone wants to listen to pop music. Like a lot of institutions they try to pander to the young and completely neglect the rest of their listeners.
    It’s hardly surprising they are in such difficulties. A great pity, BBC used to be the go to Chanel for quality music programmes, unfortunately not any more.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Das Land ohne Musik?

  • voxclamans says:

    The BBC has, for a LONG time, been failing “classical” music. It is terrified of value judgments, the majority of its presenters are ignorant, the music ist commissions (at the Proms, especially) is SO boring, it’s live opera broadcasts just get worse and worse, etc. I could write a very long litany of complaint here, but whatr IS the point? Those “in power” at the Beeb don;t care, have no standards, and are desperate to keep their jobs, so fall into linbe with all of the latest Fads – they have no culture, so they have no ability to discern – it’s hopeless.

    • Lordgeous says:

      Wouldn’t this be an ideal time for the Beeb to draw on their huge archive of interesting and historic radio and TV broadcasts? Eg John Amis’s interviews with performers and composers, Hans Keller’s talks etc. No doubt there would be xome copyright problems for concerts, but…

      • david hilton says:

        Don’t forget that “their huge archive of interesting and historic radio and TV broadcasts” are all by law required to be deposited in the National Sound Archive at the British Library. There is no reason why our nation’s national library cannot fill the gap left by the BBC’s retreat from supporting classical music, through the BL making these great performances available through online streaming at last.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    “Treasures from the archives” don’t put money into the pockets of musicians who are out of work now; nor do they replace live performance. At least some of the measures above do attempt to do this, and should be commended.

  • erich says:

    Whilst sitting at home, I revisited the iconic series W1A. When it was first shown, one could simply not believe that such incompetence was possible in an institution one revered. The passing of time has sadly revealed that the Tony Hall regime has been an absolute disaster and that his appointments (that Mekon Alan Davey among them) have brought the Corporation to its knees.

  • Bryn Lewis says:

    I’m afraid I must forcefully disagree with the negative views above. Radio 3 if one really takes the time to pay attention to the huge breadth of its inclusive output is still a very fine , serious , radio station and The Proms ( a BBC productIon) are universally recognised world wide as a festival of outstanding quality and interest.
    It may be fashionable to bash the BBC and particularly at the moment with the current political regime.
    Of course all institutions have highs and lows but now is absolutely not the time to apparently only criticise an internationally recognised cultural icon, warts and all.
    Without radio 3 the classical offering on radio would be Classic FM – fine for those who like it- but in no way something attempting to extend people’s horizons. New art has often been dismissed at the time of its creation, some of it will not survive , some of it will and in future be deemed iconic.
    Please can we be careful about jumping on bandwagons of destruction regarding what is , in my opinion , a cultural gem.

    • Michael Turner says:

      I take on board much of what you say. However, my issue is that the BBC’s classical output on radio and TV used to be even better.

      I agree that Radio 3’s output is still far wider-ranging than Classic FM. However, I wish that we could return to the days when we used to get a higher percentage of complete works, rather than a single movement of a concerto here or an isolated song from a cycle there.

      In relation to supporting the current crop of musicians who, like me, have seen work dry-up, there is a health crop of more recent Proms performances, for example, to be drawn upon. As has been the case in a number of industries, I would have thought that there would be deals to be done whereby an emergency rate card of royalty payments could be negotiated so as not to cripple the broadcaster but also ensure that the performer does have some income flowing to them.

      Another facility that could come into its own now surely is iPlayer. I have loved listening to concerts of Cage, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Glass and others that are there. However, the crop that these are part of was set up over 2 years ago now and is surely due a refresh at least. This is where You Tube is actually more satisfying, for me.

  • Leo Doherty says:

    The very least I would like to see is a past concert from the Proms shown every night on BBC 4 and radio 3 for the duration of the cancelled proms this year. That might help my sanity.

  • Sara E. says:

    Why surprising? Britain was America Lite.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      Actually, German classical public radio stations have dumbed down their programs with plenty of “crossover” nonsense as well. In fact, as much as I hate to say this, there are plenty of excellent American classical stations. Probably more than in most European countries. Just check out Chicago’s WFMT…

      • Una says:

        There used to be WNIB Classical 97 in Chicago until it went to the wall – room not there for two classical music stations.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I don’t know about radio 3 but BBC television is hopeless as far as classical music is concerned. One remembers institutions like International Concert Hall and now considers the tripe being offered on BBC4 in the way of music with repeats of Top of the Pops. Surely with the plethora of opera and concert recordings available it would not be beyond the wit and wisdom of the BBC as our national broadcaster to programme some of them. But then it is constantly seeking after ratings rather than style.

  • David A, Boxwell says:

    Music must not be too: “classical”, old, white, male, socioeconomically privileged, European, and traditionally named or formed.

  • CGDA says:

    Hans Richter! What a laugh!

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Given the worldwide situation and the grave danger everybody is in, I don’t see this as the time and place to harp about the BBC (pun not intended). Classical music will survive in some form or another. Give it a rest. I appreciate the BBC lending us Americans a much more ‘international’ perspective on the news.

  • Alasdair Munro says:

    How about cycles of the symphonies of Haydn and Havergal Bryan?

  • Helena Green says:

    Get real, Norman Lebrecht! R3 isn’t failing us! All the radio stations are doing their best! I wonder how you would fare as backroom worker! God bless them all for what they are providing.

  • Peter Owen says:

    That BBC Four is running repeats of Some Mothers Do ‘ave ’em says it all.