Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Man from the BBC

BBC Radio 3 recently introduced a classical chart which has sharply divided critical opinion. On one hand, anything that encourages more people to listen to classical music - and indeed Radio 3 - can only be a good thing. Then again, should the publicly-funded BBC be muscling in on areas more than adequately covered by the likes of Classic FM? Should they instead let the popular fend for itself and focus on the unexpected? Is the whole idea of a classical chart rather ‘like a paunchy middle-aged man squeezing himself into a pair of tight blue jeans, looking a bit silly and terminally uncool’ according to critic Rupert Christiansen?

Long before the days of classical Top 20s came the Glock era (1959-1972), examined in
a new memoir by Leo Black published by Plumbago Books. Before he became an author of books on Schubert and Rubbra, Black was a BBC producer with an affinity for singers and Austro-German music. In his 28 years at the Corporation - years that extended well beyond 1972 - Black learnt the system, worked with leading BBC figures and musicians and produced countless programmes. In the first of a number of extracts from this delightful publication, Leo Black sets the scene:

At the end of the 1950s the BBC still enjoyed its monopoly, but a very limited range of stations had to cater for a wide variety of ‘brows’. Culturally, ever since the end of the war it had led the way with its Third Programme, the first European radio network devoted exclusively to music, drama and ‘the spoken word’. BBC Management, perhaps aware that its musical activities were in something of a rut, went in search of a dynamic, forward-looking new Controller for that output. As for me, I had spent two fraught years trying to prove myself in the strange and worldly business of music publishing, after a too-long five years in Oxford’s ivory tower. At the London branch of Universal Edition, Vienna (Alfred A. Kalmus Ltd.), I was feeling as near a nadir as I had with the parent firm in Vienna three years earlier, aware that I was proving ineffective apart from keeping the copyright registrations up to date, and that my social and spiritual lives were going nowhere fast.

With the BBC about to announce its new Controller, I had a pub talk with my closest friend, the composer Hugh Wood, which touched on the two most likely candidates. They were the publisher and notorious practical joker Howard Hartog (who, not that I knew it, had a background in broadcasting from his time with the British occupying forces in Germany) and the pianist, ex-music-critic and organizer of the Bryanston, later Dartington, Summer School, William Glock. Howard, then at the rival firm of Schott’s, had his eye on me and was noticeably friendly. As for Glock, I proclaimed that he was quite unlikely, for some reason or other, to be a viable candidate.

He was duly appointed; Hartog went on to run a top artists’ agency with Joan Ingpen, later a high-up at the Royal Opera House, and her dachshund Williams, whose subsequent life is not a matter of public record though the name survives. I became a small spoke in a large and involuted wheel that rolled waywardly on for a decade and more, until sociology caught up with it and classical music’s place in people’s lives began to change beyond recognition.

For a youngster, it was simply the time to add to his academic knowledge by learning from remarkable colleagues about music and life (an unending process still under way in his later seventies). Certain composers of particular importance to me meant little or nothing to Glock, particularly Franz Schmidt, who most strongly contradicts all the period’s short-lived current assumptions linking ‘progressiveness’ with musical substance. His gradual illumination of my life, from a low-point in a Viennese hospital onward, will emerge in due course. His exact contemporary and opposite-number, Arnold Schoenberg, dominated my existence for a good ten years, a chance conversation after a recording by his literary executor, the pianist Leonard Stein, leading to the first hundred thousand Schoenberg words out of roughly a million that I eventually translated. Post-First-World-War pupils of whom he thought highly were Roberto Gerhard, still a force during my early BBC years, and Hanns Eisler and Nikos Skalkottas, neither of whom I met (Skalkottas, indeed, had been dead for ten years when I joined). A significant figure in my early BBC life was Luigi Dallapiccola, and he is recalled at some length with great affection. Hugh Wood was certainly noticed by Glock, who commissioned more than one of his major early works, but his role for me has always been that of close friend and conscience.

More to follow in the coming weeks. BBC Music in the Glock Era and After by Leo Black is available in hardcover and paperback from Plumbago Books, distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

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