Robert Hanks: The Week In Radio

It's better to listen without prejudice
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The Independent Culture

Classic FM is running an advert at the moment for a new book, Classic FM: The Friendly Guide to Music, with the assurance that it contains "no tosh, no twaddle, and above all, no snobby bits". No snobby bits? Is that what puts people off classical music the fear of being patronised by some snooty, Schoenberg-loving bow-tie-wearer?

It seems unlikely. Snobbery has always been an important part of listening to music: jazz bores condescend to pop pickers, punks sneer at prog rockers, Stones fans feel slightly superior to the herd who listen to The Beatles, and for all I know the UK garage mob laugh at the simpletons who prefer grime, and vice versa. The most blatant instance of musical snobbery I've come across is on BBC 6 Music, a digital station that specialises in what you might call Soft Peel that it's imaginable John Peel would have played it (as opposed to the stuff he played that was completely unimaginable): every five minutes a slightly husky female voice identifies the station as "Closer to the music that matters" implicitly leaving it open to other, lesser radio stations to advertise themselves as "Closer to the utterly insignificant audio froth".

Classical music is arguably freer of this kind of tribalism than other kinds of music are. There's no dress code, no agreed set of piercings, to reinforce the barriers; there is the technical difficulty of the music the work involved in listening to, say, a Bruckner symphony would put off the mere poseur; and having put the work in, you're most likely to feel a touch of humility. But this is what Classic FM is really worried about: difficulty, awkwardness. You can tell this from the adverts for its new Relax album ("the most relaxing music in the world"), and from the names of the programmes: Smooth Classics at Seven, Chill, Friendly Guide to Music, Easier Breakfast. This last has a sponsorship deal: "Ease your way into the day by listening to Classic FM's Easier Breakfast with Kellogg's Bran Flakes." (Is there an implication that Classic FM's audience is of an age where it is likely to be worrying about its bowel movements? Perhaps that's what you get from too much relaxing.)

Difficulties in the music are smoothed away, too, by chopping it up into tiny chunks and by making sure that, by and large, you're not going to be shocked by its unfamiliarity. In fact, it's sometimes the familiarity that takes you by surprise: where have you heard this before, you wonder. (The answer is, you once watched Dances with Wolves, this being a soundtrack of which Simon Bates Norman's more socially adept brother, I like to think is particularly fond.)

But reducing classical music to pleasantness and relaxation is, fundamentally, a con. Fintan O'Toole published a book for reluctant literature students called Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life; the same applies to Beethoven. Though Radio 3 has its faults, it offers the constant possibility of being surprised, by melodies you hadn't heard or feelings you didn't know you had. Three years ago, I found myself listening to Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, and being flooded with grief the fact that I remember the occasion shows how powerful the feeling was. Music doesn't create such feelings, it reveals them; and we're better off for knowing they are there.

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