It's time to turn the tap back on

Music on the radio
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The Independent Culture
Dawn already? The hand strays sleepily towards the tranny. It turns out that the BBC World Service is just winding down; in five minutes there will be the 6.00am News Briefing. But first, day in, year out, there insinuates itself into the semi-consciousness what the announcer calls the "Radio 4 Theme". In fact, it comprises a whole posy of them, culled from all corners of the United Kingdom. With "Early one morning" as a modulatory refrain, "Annie Laurie" coyly counterpoints the "Londonderry Air", "Greensleeves" cavorts with "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and the sequence culminates in "Rule, Britannia!" garnished with the "Trumpet Voluntary". No one is ever credited with this orchestral quodlibet - which sounds as if it were got up by some light-music hand of the 1940s. But the salient point is that, at four and a half minutes, it now comprises about the longest unbroken stretch of music one is likely to hear most weekdays on Radio 4.

Of course there are the occasional series, such as Concerto, in which a handful of classics may be broadcast entire. Of course the network includes quite a lot about music: the immemorial nostalgias of Desert Island Discs, the musician-to-musician chat of Comparing Notes, the music reviews of Kaleidoscope, which often also runs to brief performances from studio guests. And, of course, there are the signature tunes, from the Archers to PM, which seem likely, one of these days, to provoke an article in themselves. Yet what has arguably got lost was suddenly summoned up in last Saturday's repeat of Comparing Notes when the doyen of living British composers of light music, Ernest Tomlinson, uttered, madeleine-like, the words "Morning Music".

Morning Music! Instantly your critic was back in primary school days of the late 1940s, crunching his Shredded Wheat through that ritual Home Service hour after the 8.00am news during which the various BBC light orchestras pumped out Sullivan, Edward German and Eric Coates, plus such then-current masters of the tuneful, well-crafted morceau as Robert Farnon and Ronald Binge. But, insisted Tomlinson, far from comprising mere Muzak, the light music tradition was intended to be listened to, perhaps even to nudge the hearer towards the more weighty classics. And the point about the Home Service - predecessor of Radio 4 itself - was that it allowed listeners to be so nudged: programming quite a range of standard classics and, in the summer, large chunks of the Proms. In this way, it also complemented the Third Programme, broadcasting from 6.00pm, which was by no means only a music service: on the contrary, it tried to plan its evenings of concerts, plays, talks and so on as entities, so that the open-minded listener might be led from one interest to another.

Then came streaming; initiated, alas, by the BBC Music Division in the early 1960s with the daytime Music Programme which linked up with the Third, eventually becoming Radio 3. Not everyone in the Division was happy about this. Hans Keller, fearing that continuous broadcasting might degrade even the greatest masterpieces into mere background music, took to commissioning little five-minute talks entitled In Short in order, as he put it, "to turn off the music tap". It is not difficult, though, to imagine the svelte managerial brush-off if one were to suggest, in reverse, that Radio 4 could now do with a little continuous music periodically to turn off the word tap: "My dear fellow, with the musical variety of Radios 1, 2 and 3 to turn to, I think you must allow us at least one speech-led network - and besides, we do carry Brian Kay's Music in Mind on Saturdays."

But there remains that notorious reluctance of radio listeners to switch networks; remains, too, the memory of just how popular such Home Service programmes as Music in Miniature - continuous little 15-minute sequences of short classics - were back in the 1950s and 1960s. Would the reintroduction of a couple of such sequences a day or even of single, more substantial, classics - not presented by Brian Kay or any interposing personality, just pure music - really threaten the integrity of Radio 4? Aside from what such programmes could do for music itself, they might wondrously freshen the ear for all those words.