Close-up: Charles Hazlewood

Why borders couldn't hold the conductor back in his tribute to British music

Charles Hazlewood has come a long way since the BBC parachuted him in as the youthful new face of classical music in 2003. In the beginning, he was awkward, struggling to find that essential but elusive "common touch". But those who tune in to BBC2's new four-parter The Birth of British Music will find a man at ease both with himself and his tale – a paean to our assimilative skills.

He's focusing on Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn – four composers who became seminal figures in British music culture. "Yet three of them were not British. What does that say about us?" he asks. "That we were culturally impoverished? The Germans thought so, and dismissed us as the land without music. But the truth is, we have a unique pragmatic ability to look beyond our borders and absorb what we see – we've done it in architecture and food as well. Being an island race has let us dip into what lies around us. It indicates an underlying assurance."

So Hazlewood, 42, will be showing how Handel responded to Britain's singing tradition by developing the oratorio; how Haydn – fascinated by London – was moved by those oratorios to compose his "Creation"; and how Mendelssohn was inspired by the indigenous choral-society tradition to write "Elijah". Purcell, who didn't have to assimilate himself, rather spliced musical elements from Versailles with English folk tunes to create music of haunting sadness. "His Englishness came out in his laments. We don't do miserable as the Russians do, but we do melancholic wonderfully well."

'The Birth of British Music' airs on BBC2 from Saturday; 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is at Middle Temple Hall, London EC4 (020 7427 5641 ), on Tuesday

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