Janet and John Go To The Proms
Last night was the First Night of the Proms. For the first time, the first hour was broadcast on BBC1 rather than BBC2. Flicking channels, I stumbled across it and was amazed to find that, for the benefit of the thickos who watch the BBC's mass audience channel, captions were being displayed along the bottom of the screen:
'The violinist is playing the main theme'.
'This theme is now taken up by the rest of the orchestra'.
'This man is called a conductor'.
'The stick he is waving is called a baton.'
OK, I made the last two up. Or maybe I didn't. I didn't stay with it long enough to see how detailed the explanations would become.
Was the coverage handed over to the Blue Peter production team?
Was this a laudable effort to make 'serious music' 'accessible' to a wider audience?
Or was it the most patronising load of bollocks ever perpetrated by the world's greatest broadcaster?
I'm unable to watch orchestras on television anyway. This is because of 'Lord Privy Seal' syndrome, a term coined by The Frost Report over 30 years ago. This requires that when the violins are playing, a camera is on the violins, ditto the brass, ditto the woodwind and every other section of the orchestra, with occasional shots of the conductor, preferably when he's at his most histrionic.
The effect is to deconstruct the piece of music, to break it down into its component parts. But music is to listen to. It's not a spectator sport. And when I listen to a symphony I'm not conscious of the individual instruments, just the overall sound and what the music is saying to me at an emotional level. I concede that this may partly be because I am so musically illiterate that I think a quaver is a crisp-like snack.
It wasn't always like this. When I was barely out of nappies, the single BBC TV channel broadcast concerts on Sunday afternoons. There was one camera in the auditorium giving a single view of the whole orchestra - much the same view you would get as a member of the audience in the hall. Little Willie would stand on a pouffe in our living room and conduct the orchestra with one of his mother's knitting needles.
[for overseas readers, and to avoid any confusion, a 'pouffe' is a type of small footstool or seat].
Unfortunately, my mother misinterpreted my behaviour and thought I was destined for a glittering musical career. The result was that I spent several traumatic years not learning to play the violin while a succession of tutors built conservatories and bought second homes on the proceeds of lying to my mother and saying I was 'coming along nicely'. I'll describe that in more detail one day when I've arranged to have a therapist on standby.
But my point is that my limited knowledge of classical music was mostly acquired from the BBC from a very early age and without any attempts at explanation, interpretation or making it 'accessible'.
Because music doesn't use language, there are no barriers to communication. You either like the sound it makes or you don't. You could explain and interpret Country and Western music to me from Nashville to Doomsday but the sound of it would still make me retch.
At secondary school a mad music teacher with a Hitler moustache used to play us Fingal's Cave and bend over an ancient record player, cupping his ear with his hand, and tell us that the music was making the sound of waves on the shore. With the greatest respect to Mendelssohn, it never sounded to me anything like waves breaking on the shore, just an orchestra going 'Da da, Da da da da'.
Admittedly, we were as far from the sea as you can get in England and on our occasional trips to Weston-Super-Mare the sea was a kind of distant mirage across the mud flats of the Bristol Channel, so we were no experts on the sounds of the sea. But as Huxley Junior said to me, it would surely have been a lot less trouble and have produced a less ambiguous result if Mendelssohn had stuck a microphone in the sand and recorded the actual sounds of the waves on an LP.
I tended to trust Huxley Junior's opinions on such matters, despite the fact that when he had tried to anticipate our sex education lesson by telling us where the man put his thing he had turned out to be alarmingly wide of the mark. But Huxley's reputation was such that one boy stubbornly clung to Huxley's version of reproduction and insisted that Doctor Robinson was lying to us as part of some adult conspiracy to keep us in ignorance.
As it happens, the BBC's fatuous subtitles were over a piece by Mendelsshon. And they told you as much about the music as a sex education lesson can tell you about sex. They were essentially about the mechanics of the piece. They told you a theme was being passed around from the soloist to the sections of the orchestra like a game of musical pass-the-parcel. It told you nothing about the experience of either playing the music or listening to it. And to understand and appreciate it - or not - you have to experience it. Not an easy thing to do if you're simultaneously trying to read a scrolling text that says 'here comes the secondary theme' and 'Mendelssohn wrote this for his friend who was a violinist'. It's about as transcendental and spontaneous an experience as making love with a Cosmopolitan feature 50 Ways To Please Your Man propped up on the pillow.
It doesn't greatly matter whether you think pizzicato is a pizza delivery service or that fellatio is a movement played in a descending scale. You'll still be able to make beautiful music between the sheets and the earth will still move for you when you listen to Mendelssohn or Mahler.
I seem to remember that although I couldn't play a note on the violin with the bow, I wasn't too bad at pizzicato. Indeed, I thought I once heard one of my violin teachers say to his wife "that little plucker is unbelievable."