Classical: On The Air

ONE OF the best focused strands in the BBC's Sounding the Century project is the Sunday afternoon programme on Radio 3 which compiles works which were first performed in a particular year. The presenter, who also chooses the music, has to make a judgement about historical significance. The Year is a sort of sketch of music history, unlike those millennial league tables of "top" musicians or musical works, which are merely a game.

Yet some years are more significant than others, and whole decades - to take an arbitrary period - vary in intensity. The 1940s, for instance, were quite miserable in terms of classical music, not because good individual works were not written, but because there were no compelling movements or innovations: the Zeitgeist was not exciting.

Last Sunday, Anthony Burton introduced works first performed in 1947, the year he was born. To his credit, he made no cheap capital out of this and only alluded to it by way of mentioning rationing. It was the start of the Cold War and also the first year of the Edinburgh International Festival, which just supports my long-held belief that cultural festivals only draw attention to cultural poverty. Music should be an integral part of life, not some sort of holiday package.

As music history, The Year only begins to outline how the selected works fitted into, or arose from, musical life. You might say, anyway, that a symposium on music criticism at Harvard University - the occasion for the first performance of Schoenberg's String Trio - was hardly part of musical life. Then again, Edmund Rubbra's Festival Overture was an "occasional" piece written for a festival in rural Worcestershire, where there was little musical life if you define it by professional metropolitan standards.

In one of his most telling observations, Burton said that there appeared to be a tendency to revive a relaxed, "divertissement" type of Neo-Classicism. He was a little too polite, though, in attributing this to a reaction to the horrors of war. Surely it showed a deep sense of exhaustion, and a failure of nerve, though 50 years later, we are in a similar creative slump, and should know how it feels. Stravinsky, who was referred to but not represented, was in fact coming to the end of his long Neo-Classical period in the late Forties. And in Britain, Elisabeth Lutyens was striking out with her own brand of serial lyricism in her setting of Rimbaud for soprano and strings, O saisons, o chateaux. Whether her music was neglected at the time because of its language, because she was a woman or because she was personally abrasive, Burton left us to decide.

So, 1947 may not have been a heroic year, but it was the year when Britten decided to put on a festival at Aldeburgh, which started the following year, and which - exceptionally among festivals - had far-reaching effects on the musical life of this country, becoming, eventually, as much the Establishment as any other institution.

Finally, an all-too-brief word of praise for Opera in Action on Monday afternoons, in which the conductor Martin Handley covers all sorts of topics - this week it was opera in the vernacular. He's an excellent communicator, comfortable at the microphone, and offers genuine insights. What a pity it isn't repeated.

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