BBC fails to find harmony over the greatest composers

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The Independent Online
Brahms or Bowie, Mendelssohn or Marley? BBC executives preparing a series on the eight greatest composers of all time cannot agree who should be included in the hall of fame.

Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Mahler and Tchaikovsky are definitely in. But opinion is divided on who the remaining two composers should be. Among the names being argued over are Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Verdi, Puccini and Gershwin. Others are championing the cause of Duke Ellington, the late reggae star Bob Marley, and David Bowie, whose contribution to 20th-century culture includes such works as ``Space Oddity'' and ``Jean Genie''.

The BBC music and arts department wants at least some of the eight to be 20th-century composers, perhaps including a living composer. But Michael Jackson, head of BBC 2, is understood to want the music to be known and recognised by the person in the street, giving the series wider appeal.

``It is certainly dividing people here,'' admitted Avril MacRory, the BBC's head of music, yesterday. ``I can't remember such a strong, though friendly, debate over a series of programmes. Speaking personally I would undoubtedly say yes to 20th-century composers. However, making a series that has to appeal to a broad audience I would listen to the arguments coming from other people here.''

The series of programmes scheduled for BBC 2 in 1996 will reassess the reputations of the eight greatest composers of all time, and attempt to predict whether they will still be popular in 100 years.

It is sure to arouse controversy among musicians and other interested parties. Priti Paintal, the composer who has formed a group to encourage recognition of contemporary music, said last night that it would be wrong for the list to be totally Eurocentric. ``The BBC exercise all sounds quite traditional. There should be contemporary music in the broadest sense, interesting things in jazz and folk. And the word greatest is a bit of a misnomer. Greatest by which standard? It's very Eurocentric.

``Globally, less than one-third of the world's population has any knowledge of western classical music. And a lot of music around the world isn't composer-based: Tibetan chanting, for example.''

Others believe that modern classical music composers and indeed contemporary pop and jazz composers such as Bowie, Marley and Dizzy Gillespie should be on the list. Ms Paintal herself suggested the list should include Bowie, Gillespie, Bismillah Khan, Meredith Monk, Xenakis and Miriam Makeba, as well as Bach.

Sian Edwards, the music director of the English National Opera and another Marley fan, also wanted Stan Tracey, the British jazz pianist and composer, put on the list.

Nicholas Snowman, the South Bank Centre's director, called for the inclusion of the modernists Birtwistle and Berio. And Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, wanted an eclectic mix that would find room for Haydn, Stravinsky and Ellington.

Keith Clarke, editor of Classical Music magazine, said: ``I think it [the series] has to be for everyman, but it should be a series that educates people rather than just giving them the 1812 Overture again. The BBC ought to stick Britten in; a good, solid British composer.

``And, as a lover of song, I don't see how Avril MacRory can leave out Schubert. Even if you don't like much of the symphonic output, anybody who can sit down and write 600 decent songs and a fine body of piano sonatas must be in.''

(Photograph omitted)