The BBC would like to apologise. . .

Still from BBC Four’s “The Sound and the Fury”

Last night, BBC Four aired the first episode in a new three-part series on modern classical music, entitled The Sound and The Fury.  For me, as a great fan of the screechy, discordant, hell-raising music of the 20th Century, it was a programme I was greatly looking forward to.  But I have to confess I found it a little disappointing.  Obviously, modern classical being the niche interest that it is, the show was aimed more at expanding the audience than in engaging the current one.   Fair enough, but in trying to explain and justify such ‘difficult’ music to a presumed audience of unbelievers, it made a cardinal mistake: it ended up apologising instead.

Schoenberg, we were told, was responsible “for the great rot that happened in classical music”.  The popular American composer John Adams pitched in to tell us that he liked Webern, “but I also find it extraordinarily emotionally stingy.”  His was music “that gave particular kinds of anal retentives a frisson of pleasure.”

Of course, there were a number of other talking heads, such as George Benjamin, Tom Service or the Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore, who were genuinely enthusiastic about the music.  But I suspect the average viewer at home would have been scratching their head during the justifications of the bizarre and unsettling music on screen, and instead found themselves nodding along vigorously with the dissenting views of Adams and co.  After all, everyone enjoys hearing their own prejudices confirmed.  “I find most of [Schoenberg’s] music amazingly aurally ugly,” said Adams.  I imagine many agreed.  “I’ve never ever been able to find a way into loving it.  I find it sensually very punishing to my ear.”  Hardly inspires you to dig deeper into Schoenberg’s fascinating and enormously inventive oeuvre, does it?

Make no mistake: this was television as apologia.  The BBC seemed to be saying, “Look, we know this music is horrendous to listen to.  We’re sorry.  We hate it too.  But it’s culture, so, you know.”

To me, this constant desire to make excuses for classical music is part of a wider problem, which is that it is almost impossible to read or hear about classical music in Britain as something that should simply be celebrated.  Instead, it is presented as something difficult that must be explained, or something unpleasant that must be made more palatable, or something broken that must be fixed.

This last charge is especially virulent.  The COO of Universal Music, Max Hole, recently gave a speech to the Association of British Orchestras in which he enumerated the many problems facing classical music today.  Orchestral musicians dress too formally.  Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders.  Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules.  The words “elitism”, “etiquette” and “tradition” were deployed in a pejorative manner.

I believe such proclamations are counter-productive.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the only serious problem facing classical music today is that people keep saying there is a problem with classical music.  There just isn’t.  It’s a myth.  This is music that has survived for hundreds of years, through countless upheavals in popular taste, and which has found its audience – a niche audience, to be fair – for generation after generation after generation.  Its audience is not young, nor trendy, nor especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert.  In short, it is an audience that loves classical music for what it is, not for what it’s not.

And this is where I think we can all make a difference, even in a small way.  Let us stop being shy about our love for classical music.  Let’s stop flagellating ourselves for the fact that it is inaccessible to the masses.  Let’s stop worrying about whether it is as popular as Jay-Z, because it really doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that it is great, great music – and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm.

So, celebrate it.  Enthuse to your non-classical-loving friends about your taste in music.  Tell them why you love it.  Explain to them why Beethoven stirs your senses like no other, or why Webern is so very far from “emotionally stingy”.  Share your passion.  Above all, sit your friends down and play them the music you love.  Play it loud.  Let them hear it with their ears wide open, rather than through a soggy blanket of apology.

And if they tell you that they don’t like it, enthuse some more.  Enthusiasm is infectious – even more so than dissent.

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24 thoughts on “The BBC would like to apologise. . .

    1. ciarán ó meachair

      this was a perfectly fine broad stroke romp through C20 music. i watched it with my children and we all enjoyed it very much.

      when you say that classical music has survived for hundreds of years, but become niche, you’re doing no more than acknowledging a point well made in the programme. it did become more difficult in the C20. it did lose audience. many people who admire and are influenced by it can’t love or even like it. & why be surprised that john adams is one of those?

      i took it to be a celebration. for the layperson certainly, but the ives section was well explained. varèse likewise – i loved in particular how they put film footage with amériques. why not celebrate this music without shying away from the obvious fact that it is difficult and unpopular.

      i saw no apology here, but love for the music. enthusiasm too. what’s not to like.

      1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff

        Hi Ciarán. Just to clarify, I meant to say that classical audiences have always been niche. Classical music was no more popular in Beethoven’s era than it is today. Almost certainly less so, in fact, as there were fewer concert halls, professional orchestras, and no recording media at all through which to disseminate the music.

        I also enjoyed the sections on Ives and Varèse, mostly because these sections really celebrated what was great about these composers rather than explaining how gnarly they are. But I’d always prefer to see more of Michael Tilson Thomas talking about Ives, music he has done a great deal to champion, than Eric Whitacre complaining about music he doesn’t really appreciate.

        That said, I’m particularly glad to hear your children liked the show. I have a friend who has raised his son on a diet of Xenakis and Stockhausen, and as a result his son is musically fearless. It just goes to show, if you don’t tell someone that something is difficult, they’ll never know. . .

  1. Ian

    I’m sorry you were disappointed. I would, however, like to say that this series was made by someone (me) who genuinely loves and listens to pretty much all of the music featured in the series. The aim was certainly not to apologise for it, but to have a discussion about the music within the films. The few negative comments on the Second Viennese School were certainly outweighed by the positive ones, and I would argue that in the context of the film itself were a very minor part of the overall (largely celebratory) narrative.

    1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff

      Thank you for sticking your head above the parapet, Ian!

      I could tell that the programme was made with much love, and indeed the fact that it has been made at all is testament to that. I also understand the intention behind showing the dissenting views.

      Unfortunately, though, I think viewers are likely to have come to the programme with this preconceived notion of 20th Century music as formidable and difficult to listen to. I know that such a reputation put me off exploring it for many years. And my concern is that by giving voice to such prejudices within the programme, especially from people who are held up to be experts in their field, you are giving viewers the easy option of simply agreeing with Eric Whitacre rather than with George Benjamin.

      Modern music is divisive, for sure, but I think the best way of overcoming that is to present it with unbridled enthusiasm. After all, you and I both know that there is a great deal to love about Schoenberg – even if it’s not immediately obvious!

      At any rate, kudos on your show and I will look forward to the rest of the series.

    2. Michelle

      I agree Ian – I was glad to hear the views of other musicians, even if occasionally negative. They were a small part of a more positive narrative as you said, and why shouldn’t they be there? New audiences won’t be encouraged by being told ‘this music is great because…’ A balanced and realistic discussion is needed as well as increased exposure. It is difficult music at times, and there is no point trying to ignore this – in some cases this was the point! I found this programme very interesting, and enjoyed the debate between musicians. Surely if only pro contemporary opinions were voiced it would be mis-representing the musical community? Ultimately the music will speak for itself, we just need more opportunities to engage with it (in everyday culture such as tv not just concert halls) and perhaps some help unpicking it at times, but a lack of engagement due to preconceptions, following opinions of others who agree with you and resistance to explore difficult works is a problem with the listener, not something exacerbated by the program and I don’t think should be pandered to. We don’t need to be spoon fed, we need more interesting and challenging programs like this to help us work out our own minds!

  2. Steve Vasta

    Just goes to show that different people will come to such a program with different viewpoints.

    I, personally, think that most twentieth- and twenty-first–century composition *is* “difficult,” and frequently “ugly.” Nor is that a preconceived notion I picked up from someone else: that’s the notion *I* picked up from listening to a variety of such compositions! Perhaps your notion of presenting such music with “unbridled enthusiasm” might have persuaded some viewers — particularly younger ones — but it’d only have confirmed the notion that “classical music is difficult” for others.

    Perhaps you’ve misidentified the problem. If the BBC wanted to do a program illustrating that “classical” music is *not* “difficult,” it should have avoided the more astringent stuff in the first place. If, on the other hand, they wanted to make a case for “newer” music (as I call it), they should simply have done so, and risked confusion among traditionalists. I don’t think you can do both these things at once!

    Steve Vasta in New York

    1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff

      You make it sound like “difficult” or “astringent” are inherently bad qualities. I don’t believe they are. I’m very comfortable with art that is challenging and disturbing, and I think it is interesting that the most visited museum in Europe is the Tate Modern, which is absolutely full of challenging, disturbing art. If people can accept that, why not Schoenberg?

      I don’t think there’s any use in pretending that 20th Century music is something it’s not, but nor do I think it should be castigated for being difficult. My favourite moment in last night’s programme was the quote from Schoenberg: “If it is art, it is not for all. And if it is for all, it is not art.”

  3. Paul

    As you say, niche interests….

    For any subject where you are already deeply immersed in the subject matter, a general interest programme is only ever going to scratch the surface and ultimately leave the aficionado feeling a little disappointed. This is how I feel about the majority of the BBC’s output on science and engineering matters. However…

    …I am not from a deeply musical background, but interested in the subject matter; I felt the programme was pitched at the right level, and did not see it in any way as an apology for 20th Century music. As a singer, I have performed some pieces by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives, etc.. and got to know each piece on its own terms. This programme helped put these composers and their works into a historical and evolutionary context.
    So what if John Adams dismissed Schoenberg’s music as ugly, and was a bit bitchy about people who enjoy Webern? It’s his opinion and he is entitled to express it if asked. Certainly, if I was asked 20 years ago, I would have expressed a similar opinion about Schoenberg – that is before I first heard “Friede auf Erden”. I think having opinions such as this expressed in the programme is a good thing, it is an opinion that a great many of the audience will have thought at one time or another, and it shows that not everyone has to agree that *all* 20th century is the best thing since sliced bread, but still demonstrate that there is much to enjoy and explore.
    I felt that any negativity or perception of the music being “difficult” was far outweighed by the genuine love and enthusiasm conveyed by Michael Tilson Thomas talking about Stravinsky, or the contributions from Tom Service and Gillian Moore et al.
    I am really looking forward to the next programmes in this series.

    1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff

      Hi Paul, great comments and I’m sure Ian will be happy to hear them. Interestingly I’ve found myself listening to the Second Viennese School all day as a direct result of the programme. But then again, I’m already a convert to that particular cause.

      I’m more concerned that people like Nigel Farndale at The Telegraph ( seem to have come away from the programme with the impression that “Schoenberg, godawful though he was, was necessary.” As if there is no intrinsic value to what Schoenberg did other than in its influence on other, more palatable composers.

      To me, a programme like this – designed to inspire people to investigate modern music – should not take the form of a virtual panel discussion. I can’t imagine Sir David Attenborough appearing on our televisions to tell us that “this rare badger. . . is of little interest”.

  4. The Boo-Hooray Theory

    Schoenberg occupies an unusual position in that his music plays a much bigger part in the various histories of music ( this program included) then in the concert hall or on the music stand. I can’t think of another composer for whom there is a greater gulf between historical significance and (lack of) public acceptance. As such, It’s not the BBC that usually does the apologizing but rather the listeners – who are often heard apologizing for their inadequacies in not appreciating Schoenberg to the extent they think they should.

    In this sense Nigel Farndale’s perspective that he has been ‘given permission to dislike Schoenberg‘ is, for him, a step in the right direction. In general terms it might be that those who have been similarly liberated can more easily move on to appreciate other composers (perhaps even near contemporaries to Schoenberg such as Vaughan Williams) without being made to feel they are enjoying ‘less important’ music.

  5. James

    Once my fellow classical musicians start acknowledging that there’s plenty of popular music that is “great, great music – and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm,” including music by the here-mentioned Jay-Z, then will they relinquish the need to apologize. But the fact is that it’s very difficult to walk through the hallways of any music conservatory today without hearing a conversation criticizing “rap” (as almost no one who listens to hip-hop calls it) and popular music, and unfairly (and illogically) comparing it to music of the Western Classical tradition. So until these conversations disappear, and classical musicians open their minds to embrace the popular music of today, conversations condemning the 20th Century music for which they advocate for will continue as well.

    1. TR

      Have you every actually been to a music conservatory? More importantly, have you ever been to a party thrown by conservatory students? What do you think they do, drink Chateau d’Yquem and listen to Gurre-Lieder?

      Yes, James, the true connoisseurs of hip-hop music look down their noses at the plebeians who dare refer to it as “rap”. What will they do next, call an orchestra a “band”? Refer to an opera libretto as “lyrics”? Tell you they like that “song” Beethoven’s Fifth?

  6. pkilbey

    Well said. Personal low point: the implication we shouldn’t bother with Webern’s music because of his apparent Fascist sympathies (R Strauss anyone? Wagner? Etc.?).

  7. Karen

    But not all classical music is great music. Some is, some isn’t. Greatness isn’t bestowed by virtue of belonging to a genre.

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  9. Stephen P Brown (@Stephen_P_Brown)

    Awesome article & comments. Bravo! Can’t say I agree with you, though: I just don’t see how ‘clever’ and intelligent head-based music like Schoenberg’s late stuff and Webern, etc. helps composers more interested in affecting a wider audience’s emotional capacities (in a similar way that the advanced specialty Formula 1 cars help develop those comfy yet safe vehicles we drive on a daily basis). But that’s just me ;-)

    1. Tristan Jakob-Hoff

      I think the real difficulty people have with the music of Schoenberg and Webern is less to do with the somewhat abstruse techniques they employ, and more to do with the extreme concision in their music. There is no repetition or padding in either composer’s mature music, which makes it all very, very dense and difficult to take in.

      But all the more reason for sticking with it, if you ask me! A work as moving as Schoenberg’s A Survivor in Warsaw ( is surely enough to dismiss allegations that these composers operated on a purely intellectual level. And you need only look at the likes of Alban Berg, or indeed the underrated Luigi Dallapiccola, to see the emotional and expressive possibilities of the language Schoenberg pioneered.

      1. mym

        I’d not heard Schoenberg’s ‘A Survivor in Warsaw’ before, so thanks for the link.
        It sounded like a parody of something, indeed (almost unbelievably, given what it is about) it was almost funny, though went on too long for that.
        Utterly unengaging, emotionally – and I cannot think of a worse criticism for publicly-directed music.

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