Radio round-up; A Land without Music R3

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The Independent Culture
Let others contend over who first called this fairest isle "a land without music". The slander still makes a slightly odd title to what is turning out, after three of four Saturday-afternoon instalments, to be a more than slightly disappointing inquiry into "What makes English music so quintessentially English?" (Even the announcers seem uncertain whether to deliver the title as a statement, or as an ironical question.) Then again, the series is written and introduced by Andrew Motion and proves to be as much about what makes English poetry so quintessentially English. But nobody ever called us a land without literature.

Nor does it end there. The series is largely centred on the 20th century when, it is generally agreed, this has turned into a land with quite a lot of music after all. Much of it has been closely bound up with poetry, and it is a pity that Motion has not gone into their interaction in more detail - in terms of word-setting and whatnot. His style has been rather to select a clutch of general themes and then to alternate choices of verse - some of them interestingly off the beaten track - with mostly more familiar pieces of music. Sound-bites from a select company of living composers, players and poets supply the punctuation.

The first programme, three weeks back, investigated "romanticism, patriotism and the effect of the First World War"; the second was about "pastoralism and the influence of the folk tradition, Tudor models and Purcell". Last Saturday it was the turn of "Celtic twilight, the transcendental and occult, the lure of the East and Christian Mysticism". Among the predictable Vaughan Williams and Bax, Yeats and De la Mare, there were some rarer items: a piano study using gamelan scales by John Foulds, and an incredibly purple invocation to Pan by Aleister "The Beast" Crowley that cried out for setting by one of our connoisseurs of kitsch such as Dr Robin Holloway. As usual, the question of the Englishness of English music - or whether it is a real question at all - was delicately skirted by the contributors. Motion started to say something about meaning "playing variations on certain themes... not sticking to them rigidly", but the point was then lost in a potted history of Delius.

Maybe the final instalment, exploring "the influence of jazz, Russian ballet, World War II, politics, refugees, popular culture, modernism and post-modernism", will succeed, if not in revealing all, at least in tying up loose ends. But the impression left so far, after six hours of broadcasting, presented by a distinguished writer and an equally distinguished range of commentators, with a century of marvellous music and literature at their disposal, has been little more demanding than a pleasant ramble. Did somebody deem a more penetrating inquiry inappropriate to a Saturday afternoon? And if so, who?

A Land without Music comes from Classic Arts, one of the most active of several independent production companies now filling quite a stretch of Radio 3 time. There is also Ladbroke Radio, currently offering a dismaying series of Musical Tales, in which Tony Robinson tells the stories of various ballets and tone-poems in silly voices over the music, so that one can hardly hear a note. There is Track Record, which sometimes supplies The Music Machine, and so on. What exactly, one wonders, is the relationship of these companies to Radio 3? Do they submit on spec, or fulfil precise editorial briefs? Or are Radio 3 and the production companies alike subject to something more insidious?

There is another current Classic Arts series on modern masterpieces at the Proms in which Steve Martland of all people is actually reduced to sounding like a schoolmaster giving a music appreciation lesson to a not very lively Fifth Form. Maybe that is the way Martland or Classic Arts wanted it. But anyone who has recently been involved in the making of a BBC music feature and watched the producer blanch at the merest mention of a technical term will know the score. It is, of course, an irony that as BBC management chants the mantra "accessibility" ever more frantically, its own jargon grows ever more incomprehensible. But the real question is just where the drive for the accessible edges over into an ever-so- well-intentioned intellectual censorship.