Just in: BBC orders a review of classical music activities

Just in: BBC orders a review of classical music activities


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2022

Looking for departmental cuts as the Government freezes its income, the BBC has targeted classical music for a ‘review’ – a catch-all formula for nasty medicine.

The headline on the press release is typically euphemistic: ‘BBC to look at impact of pandemic and seek opportunities to broaden access to classical music for all.’

What follows is written by Patrick Holland; Director, Factual, Arts & Classical Music

Here’s the plan:

Since the BBC was created 100 years ago, classical music has been a major part of our remit. Whether that’s us being the most significant patron of new classical works and supporting cutting edge talent, or our adventurous concerts from the BBC Orchestras and Choirs in hard to reach areas. Or our projects to rewrite the classical music canon representing unfairly forgotten composers on BBC Radio 3, our performances and documentaries on TV, and our wide ranging learning and outreach activity. And of course, we’re the home to the biggest classical music festival in the world – the BBC Proms. All of this is such important public service work. Our footprint is international, UK wide, across the devolved nations and regionally in England. Much of what we do is only possible through working with partners across the classical world, and we know that over the last few years many of the venues, support organisations, talent, administrators, ensembles and more have been hit hard by the impact of Covid 19.

The effects on the cultural sector are still being felt. Add a rapidly changing digital landscape, with audiences finding ever new ways to access Classical Music and there has never been a more important time to understand the BBC’s role in the UK classical music ecosystem. Classical music performance, creation and curation are baked into our Charter, they help make us wholly distinctive, and it’s a role that we are fiercely proud of. The questions are how do we best plan for the next decade, to ensure we retain our unique position, reaching existing audiences whilst being ambitious to attract new ones too?

Given all these factors, and especially in our anniversary year, we want to take stock and explore the current state of the classical music sector in the UK, the BBC’s role in it and how we can continue to get the most audiences and cultural value from our classical music portfolio. We will be reviewing our activity in the coming weeks, seeking input from our own teams as well as various partner organisations, to hear their thoughts on how we can best work together in the future. The review will include audience and market analysis as well, and explore ways for the BBC to reach people across the UK in the nations and regions, encourage greater diversity and develop new talent. We also hope to identify new opportunities to broaden out access to the BBC’s classical offer, including through digital innovation and additional partnerships.

I’ll be devoting much of my time to leading the review over the next two months and I’m interested in seeing what we come across as part of it. After my years running BBC2 and BBC4, I’ve seen how audience habits have changed, and my time running Factual, Arts and Classical Music in TV has made me further appreciate the unique role our content plays in cultural life across the UK. I’ll be working with Rachel Jupp, editorial executive in the BBC’s Content division, and Alan Davey, Controller Radio 3, BBC Proms and BBC Orchestras and Choirs; as well as people across the BBC who are involved in our classical music activities. We’ll be making a summary of the report public, as well as plans that are developed as a result of it.

We are hugely proud to be one of the most significant players in the classical music industry, forming a vital part of the British cultural landscape and the international scene too. We’ve achieved this by never staying stagnant, always considering how we can best serve our audiences and our partners. We want to continue that conversation to ensure the BBC has the biggest impact for audiences; broadening access, education, participation to classical music and opening the doors for the next generation behind the baton. This review will help us to do so.

UPDATE: The administration at Radio 3 have notified us that, in their view, the review is ‘absolutely not linked to the Licence Fee Freeze.’


  • Y says:

    “Attracting new audiences” to classical music almost always means playing less classical music. Not a good sign.

  • Robert Roy says:

    The writing is on the wall!

  • William Evans says:

    “… rewrite the classical music canon. … get the most cultural value … encourage greater diversity …”. The alarm bells are ringing already.

  • Anon says:

    Classical music isn’t being targeted. *Every* bit of the beeb, from Eastenders to football to the news to the Asian Network to local radio is up for review because of the nasty vindictive actions of an incompetent government, let by a buffoon and with a free-market headbanger philistine in the culture chair.

    • Allen says:

      The BBC, not the government, decided it was appropriate to pay June Sarpong (Director, Creative Diversity) £267,000 pa for a three-day-week. She is in charge of a £100 million budget to boost diversity – not something the BBC has been accused of lacking.

      Then there’s Gary Lineker on £1.36M pa (previously £1.75M) to talk about football. The BBC justifies this on the grounds that the inflated salary is necessary to retain his considerable talent – a common justification for high BBC salaries which is never put to the test.

      The BBC has fingers in too many pies, invluding local news, which has had a devastating impact on the local newspaper industry and independent local journalism.

      And please explain why a soap opera like Eastenders should be subsidised by what is effectively a tax on TV use.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    The BBC coverage of classical music is woefully negligent and has been for decades. There is less classical music in terms of live – or even recorded – classical music on tv than there was in the halcyon days of the past when such delights as Andre Previn’s Music Night – shelved by the evil Auntie Beeb because On the Buses was getting higher ratings on the ‘other channel’ – and a regular programme called Diversions which featured all of the BBC Orchestras, were regular fare. Most Radio Three presenters do not seem to be knowledgeable enough about classical music and have ruined a station that has now, in effect, become a second Classic FM channel. BBC 4 started off with hope but the initial promise, or lie as it turned out, of a weekly LIVE classical music concert never materialised. It has instead become a graveyard of endless repeats of Top of the Pops which nobody is interested in anymore. Overall it is a pretty poor show for such a grossly inflated License fee.
    If this promised review produces a new and much needed direction and gives us more classical music concerts on tv and quality music documentaries I’ll be happy and will have proof that my many emails to the BBC on this subject have been read and understood, but I won’t hold my breath.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      R3 presenters are simply following the recent trend to sanctify anything that eats away at and subverts traditions and conventions. So get rid of all white, male, middle-class and middle-aged individuals fronting the output. Not everybody who is old(er) and experienced deserves to be shunted aside (the rot set in when Moira Stuart’s services were dispensed with years ago). A particularly notable and more recent example is installing a former R6 presenter with little awareness of classical music to look after early Saturday mornings on R3. Her laughable mispronunciations hit a new high for me when she told the audience that a piece of music had been conducted by Charles Monk with the Boston Symphony. I dare say she didn’t have the faintest clue who Charles Munch was or that he had once been a concertmaster under Furtwängler (whose existence would presumably also have been a mystery to her).

    • David62 says:

      BBC radio three used to be my favourite Radio channel until they started to mess with it and muck it up in the 1990s, but the 2000s heralded something much worse. The new batch of “presenters” are a disgrace and not many of them can pronounce names of composers or their works correctly. It’s such a contrast to the now the station operated in the 60s and 70s, some of those presenters/anchor announcers would turn in their grave to hear what we have now. Talk about dumbing down. The standard of programming is much reduced, even Record Review has mostly second rate critics on it now and the “building a library” slot has been ruined.

  • Armchair Bard says:


  • Maria Richard says:

    Classical music is a diverse art form which takes it’s essence from crossing cultural boundaries to create new worlds of artistic awareness. It never ceases to amaze me when any attempt is made to pigeonhole classical music. By it’s very being, classical music defies cultural and racial boundaries on all levels. For without it’s own vital creative cultural diversity, classical music and classical musicians simply would not exist.

    • La plus belle voix says:

      Re. the BBC, its interesting to read what you think it’s remit is. I guess it’s role is just how its interpreted. Its a matter of opinion of course, thats clear.

    • Geo says:

      “By it’s very being, classical music defies cultural and racial boundaries on all levels”.
      Potentially it is, and the Kanneh-Mason family are great examples of that, but they are a notable exception and not everyone agrees as you must know. There have been comments on this site and elsewhere staying flatly that classical music is “racist”, and “colonial”.
      Also the doctrine that “diversity” is always enriching is demonstrably false. It usually these days means dilution and dumbing down: clearly that is what has happened to Radio 3 and on BBC TV.
      And the “very being” of classical music is actually at risk these days. Children are no longer educated about it these days, thrre is no money or interest for it in schools any more. The KMs themselves have said that the opportunities they had in their school are not there now, and they fear for the consequences.
      If we simply follow the audience, as the BBC has declared it wants to and clearly is doing, the audience will increasingly have little knowledge or interest in classical music, and if schools are sidelining it too, how can we expect the audience to do other than reflect this back?
      So it’s a circular argument.
      Unless and until there are people taking a Reithian view to promote things like classical music, educate people, and re-establish its value and place in our world, it will either fade away, or be torn down by its enemies.
      Oh, and by the way, some of classical music’s enemies seem to hate it for that very quality of defying those cultural and racial boundaries that they want to build up, emphasise and make political capital with.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      Maria, I could have ignored one or two instances – but in the above you misused apostrophes (“it’s”) three times. Come on girl, step up a gear !

  • Nick2 says:

    In other words, prepare yourself for what is coming! Once again one or more BBC orchestras will surely be due for the axe unless funding comes from some other department of government which clearly is extremely unlikely.

    For those who will howl about lost jobs, communities being deprived of live music etc., I think it is really important to think back to the 1930s and the deal struck then by the BBC, the Musicians Union and the recording industry. That resulted in what we know as ‘needle time’ and it is been behind virtually every decision the BBC has made, often after very considerable public argument, ever since.

    Expect another public outcry once this report is published. Is there really a need today for the BBC licence fee to fund five full-time orchestras?

    • Althea T-H says:

      Seeing as the licence fee funds the over-inflated ‘talent’ salaries of a very small minority, why cavil at the expenditure incurred by orchestras, which employ so many people?

      At least they enjoy a reasonably even distribution of wealth.

    • Benjamin Bittern says:

      Considering how poorly paid British musicians are, how is this a problem?

  • George says:

    Wondering how much that review will cost.


    If this was done intelligently and without exclusive focus on cost savings, this review could be very useful. The questions of Radio 3’s identity, of music on BBC television, and the purpose of the BBC orchestras need to be freely aired

  • I could see this coming a long time ago.The BBC has never understood classical music,the morons now in charge would of course be more familiar with Rap and everything that goes with it.But at the end of the day it operates under a Charter granted by Parliament and the government of the day,so ultimately it is they who must take responsibility for what happens to this nations precious classical orchestras and musicians.Looking at the plebs in Westminster I imagine most of them have never attended an orchestral concert in their lives.

  • Springbeg says:

    When I read statements such as………….”….the BBC’s role in the UK’s classical music ecosystem.”…….my heart sinks.
    In their efforts to chase an elusive audience that may or may not be waiting in the wings, all they have achieved is to evermore alienate a loyal band of listeners.

  • Cultural Realist says:

    I note the point made that, “After my years running BBC2 and BBC4, I’ve seen how audience habits have changed”. My feeling is that many changes have been forced upon the audience of Radio 3, for example, when it was happy with how things stood.

    I’m guessing that any rethinking of classical music at the BBC (or cuts) will be driven by (blamed on) the need to seek new audiences through “innovative and ground breaking new initiatives and methods”, or some such.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The ‘innovative and ground breaking new initatives and methods’ are taken from the cupboard of modernity because the ‘experts’ think the art form has to ‘go with the times’, i.e. follow the herd, instead of focussing on education. While thinking they are serving modernity, in fact they lower music to the commercial restaurant model.

  • Dave says:

    Another money-pot for whichever bunch of culture-blind and deaf consultants are brought to carry out this review and/or the ensuing rebranding.

    I also wonder what this will mean for the future of the BBC’s East Bank development, which was due for completion in 2023 but when I last drove by it seemed to be lagging well behind the developments going on around it. Fast forward to 2026 when the last remaining BBC orchestra in England is still breathing in the asbestos at Maida Vale?

    I jest of course; the last remaining BBC orchestra in England will be in Manchester.

    • Benjamin Bittern says:

      What’s tragic is how many classical musicians “go with the times,” most particularly, composers, when truly classical music is truly timeless, not bound by the times, not an industrial product.

  • Puisín Galore says:

    Cherchez les hommes . . . et puis les hommes . . . et puis les hommes . . . et puis . . . et puis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  • Simon Scott says:

    IMO, the symphony orchestra is on it’s last legs..

    • La plus belle voix says:

      Yup, like just a question of what it’s like remit is and whether its gonna like change.

    • Gus says:

      There will always be an audience for symphonic works but with COVID there has been a drastic reduction in numbers of people now going to concerts. For my local BBC orchestra, there are hardly any seats sold for their next concert, where I sit not one seat has been sold. Audience numbers have been decreasing over the years and you would see regulars including medical consultants and professors at each concert. As they have moved on, their successors have not taken their place, why, are they too busy, not interested, never been to a classical concert, did it all die out in schools due to lack of curriculum time, etc?
      My hope is that COVID restrictions are lifted so that we can all get back to enjoying what these orchestras and soloists bring to music making.

      • Benjamin Bittern says:

        Surely the main focus of the BBC is broadcasting. Do live audiences matter so much as the listeners at home? They could expand internationally; I’ve never seen a BBC concert broadcast in the USA. What about other countries? The BBC International cable channel only shows the worst sitcoms, with constant commercial interruptions. Nothing cultural.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    You only have to examine what the traitorous Auntie has done with televised coverage in recent years of the ‘flagship’ classical musicfest that is the BBC Proms to realise what utter contempt the highly Broken Broadcasting Corporation has for classical music. No longer are any of the concerts shown LIVE as they used to be – not even the First and Last Nights -but are now parcelled up in neatly sanitised packages by the classical music surgeons – no doubt to get the coverage over and done with quickly in favour of something more interesting which the uncultured plebs can enjoy – and served up by its cast of glittering woke nobodies. I’m just glad I’m old enough to remember when it was done properly and with respect.

  • SlippedChat says:

    I’m in the United States (and will be writing this post with American spellings of certain words)

    When U.K. friends complain about deterioration in British rail service, I usually respond by saying, “That may be true, but when we visit the U.K., our ability to navigate the nation by train and bus feels like a miracle compared to the almost-Third-World conditions of intercity transit in America.” The first time we visited friends in Leicester (or Nottingham, or Cardiff or Edinburgh), they simply couldn’t comprehend how, in a supposedly advanced nation, our city of a million people could have only six trains per WEEK. A dozen trains per hour from a U.K. city to a variety of destinations vs. one perennially late east-west train per day? The former sounds wonderful to me.

    I have the same kind of response (and this is just a perspective, not a “criticism”), when I read expressions of alarm about the current, or possibly forthcoming, state of classical music in British broadcasting.

    In America, radio broadcasting of classical music is typically limited to “public” nonprofit stations where recorded music is interspersed with hours of non-musical news and “features” programming. On American television, classical music and opera programs, when carried at all, nearly always come from New York, as if the rest of America had no classical performing arts organizations worthy of any attention.

    There is some variation of programming from one city to another, but mostly great similarities, and a preponderance of pre-packaged programs from the same sources. Where I live, this means a lot of shows about nature, about travel, about cooking, about antique furniture and “collectibles,” about home renovation. And a lot of middle-of-the-road political/”public affairs” news commentary.

    And where I live, and where many other Americans live, “classical music” on television means a highly disproportionate number of events involving Andrea Bocelli or André Rieu or others of their type. I find this enormously dispiriting, and don’t watch it. Thank heavens for opera and orchestral concerts on CD, DVD/Blu-Ray, and streaming, because it’s easier for me to watch a performance from the BBC Proms, or from the Bavarian (or Frankfurt) Radio Symphony, on youtube than to see an American orchestra, from anywhere, on American television.

    So, I don’t for a moment underestimate the sadness, even anger, that people fond of really good classical music in the U.K. are going to feel if the BBC cuts back. But I also can’t even imagine any American public broadcasting organization proclaiming its “fierce” devotion to its classical music heritage, and therefore I’m confident that, whatever happens next at the BBC, classical music programming in the U.K. will remain enviable when compared to what’s available to most Americans.

    • CarlD says:

      Interesting and thoughtful, but LOL re the need to explain American spelling and the general tone is a bit too self-loathing for this Yank. Yes, the classical stations have take a step or two backward, both is quality and quantity, but they are still there and for the most part a lot more substantial than, say, Classic FM. Also, I find that BBC Radio 3’s main sin is way too much chat with less-than-riveting artists about oft gratuitous topics. Meanwhile, with the advent of SiriusXM app, I now can listen to full classical works beyond the warhorse canon in my car, at home or anywhere. And even my cable sub comes with a quite excellent symphonic channel — lots of contemporary composers and a deep batch all around, including regular full works by Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and a current obsession in regular rotation, Malcom Arnold. And then there is the availability of pretty much anything you might want to listen to from streaming services. Throw in the regular flow of new physical media — from new CD releases to box sets and classic reissues — and I feel most of us have never had it so good.

      • SlippedChat says:

        Your comment about “self-loathing” is both gratuitous and incorrect, as was your “LOL.” Both attempting to turn a subject-related discussion in a personal denigration.

        Your response was also off-target in general. The slippedisc news item was about the BBC. I was therefore comparing it to U.S. public broadcasting, its counterpart over here. And the classical music offerings on U.S. public television, at least where I live, range from pap (in my opinion) to none.

        I had already acknowledged the availability of music on audio and video discs and online, and expressed gratitude for them, so there was no need for you to enumerate examples. But the slippedisc item was about public or quasi-public broadcasting companies, and so that was also my own focus above.

        • CarlD says:

          Sorry if my post offended. As for its content, we’re discussing classical music in all media and many of the posts seem to lament the current state of affairs — which I find that way too glass-half-empty.

    • La plus belle voix says:

      Brilliantly argued. And at last a person who can differentiate between it’s and its. See above.

  • Christopher Beynon says:

    You can bet that all this will mean less ‘proper’ classical music and more ‘music to attract new audiences’. If BoJo the Clown and his Philistines have their way and the licence fee is abolished, we can all kiss goodbye to the radio 3 that we have known and loved for years. There are still good programmes on R3, but in much less quantity than of yore. Sometimes, I turn on the radio and wonder whether I’m tuned to the wrong station. Fortunately, there is the internet and there are some very good foreign classical stations (such as YLE Klassinen of Finland). And there is always the CD player and even maybe the record player!

  • Nick2 says:

    I think we have to remember, also, the massive expansion of the BBC in the 1960s and 70s, almost all of which had to come out of the licence fee.

    I cannot recall the full detail but after the government of the day had banned the hugely popular offshore radio stations, it decided that national radio had to be revamped and complemented by local radio stations. For some reason that has always escaped me, the BBC got the contract for the first 8. But whereas the BBC had the contracts, they were initially not allowed to take cash out of the licence fee to pay for them. Consequently, the government expected local governments to pay for their running. Faint hope! Most didn’t! And the fact that the stations could only broadcast on FM meant the number of listeners was very limited unless they purchased new radios.

    Even so, the government inexplicably then allowed the BBC to expand the number of their local stations to 20. And inevitably, some of the licence fee had to be hived off to keep these stations functioning. The fact that the commercial local stations that were eventually licensed were generally more popular and did not cost the licence payer a penny was conveniently glossed over.

    The point being that successive governments seemed to believe the BBC was the only legitimate provider of broadcasting in all its forms whereas the commercial sector was an inconvenient upstart. It is surely nonsensical that in this day and age the BBC runs five national TV channels, at least 6 national radio stations plus the World Service and more than 50 regional and local radio stations

    If the BBC was forced to give up even a portion of that monstrous output, it would have the funds to provide more quality classical music programmes properly presented. Like Corno di Caccia I have fond memories of Andre Previn’s Music Night. Indeed, it brought to my attention the great American virtuoso Earl Wild who should have enjoyed a far more prominent career in the UK than was the case. His Rachmaninoff concerto recordings made in Kingsway Hall at around that time with Jascha Horenstein and the RPO remain superb performances.

  • enquiring mind says:

    “…unfairly forgotten composers…”

    How is it determined, whether their being forgotten was unfair or fair? Skin color?

  • Steven van Staden says:

    I’m so tired of “diversity” which implies continued racial discrimination (really, largely cultural). I don’t “identify” with Wagner’s political views, but I enjoy listening to some of his music. It’s claimed that Chopin was a racist. I enjoy his music. I wish we could get on with life and have an end to these repetitive claims that music ought to be discarded if composed or performed by “colonialists”, “old white men”, racists and whatever other terms are thrown at the targets.