Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
IN 1996, Nicholas Kenyan, then Controller of Radio 3, decided to celebrate the centenary of the Proms by instituting an annual Proms Lecture, in which an eminent speaker would be invited to expatiate on, or around, one of the chosen musical "themes" of the season, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience, the whole thing to be broadcast live. And since the 1996 season included a whole Stravinsky Day, who better to start with than Professor Richard Taruskin of Berkeley, California, author of a massive and revelatory new study of Stravinsky's earlier output?

Unfortunately, Taruskin chose to attack his subject with a carping political correctness straight out of what Harold Bloom had dubbed "The School of Resentment". Stravinsky was projected as the epitome of unfeeling High Modernism which had, among other things, made the Holocaust possible - and which, indeed, Stravinsky had condoned by setting, in 1951, a medieval text including just one anti-Semitic line. Evidently, the audience riposted with some heat; but the discussion was neither broadcast live, nor in the edited version listeners were promised.

By contrast, the Britten Weekend in 1997 prompted a notably sensitive lecture from Philip Brett, who suggested how, "in searching within himself for issues with which to deal in his music", while at the same time absorbing an eclectic array of influences, Britten overcame his initial "outsider" status to become a central figure in our cultural life.

The only trouble was that Professor Brett had already published most of this in an article for the 1997 Proms Programme book.

Last year brought a wider theme, "Music and Politics", and a highly musical non-musician, Professor George Steiner, to tackle it in a lecture which, while full of characteristic paradoxes about culture and barbarism, was chiefly memorable for a spirited denunciation of "dumbing down" on Radio 3 - not, one imagines, what the BBC management wanted to hear just when they were in the process of choosing a new Radio 3 Controller.

And this year? Since the season was to open with The Mask of Time by Tippett, which was inspired by Jacob Bronowski's famous television series, The Ascent of Man, it was decided to invite the historian and biographer Michael Ignatieff to talk about that. But what he actually offered last Sunday evening was rather different: an account of the emergence of the great Enlightenment project for human improvement and its seeming eclipse at the end of our own catastrophic century. The argument was lucidly laid out, with some charming personal memories of how Ignatieff first came to love the Enlightenment writers in his boyhood.

But the question trailed in Radio Times - "What does music have to say about the possibility of Utopia?" - was virtually ignored. No doubt an ensuing discussion could have drawn music back into the argument. But did one actually take place? The broadcast, at any rate, finished earlier than scheduled, leaving Radio 3 with some 15 minutes to fill.

Evidently there remains some indecision not only on the advisability of follow-up discussions, but on whether the Proms Lectures should be music-centred or more generally socio-cultural. Or does the uncertainty arise rather from the grand, loose, even potentially woozy, themes Kenyon and his fellow-planners seem increasingly to prefer?

Take Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony in next Wednesday's Prom: a graphic evocation of a hearty day's mountaineering, to be sure. But some wag in the Proms office must have been making a sly dig when he included Strauss's title in the Programme Book list of works representing this year's theme of - The Ascent of Man.