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David Dewar: The BBC’s Music Reading Panel

By rmablogadmin / / Feature / No Comments

David is an MPhil/PhD Musicology student at the University of Bristol, and a professional conductor, organist, and harsichordist.  His current research builds on insights from the life and work of Eric Thiman (1900-1975) and his contemporaries working in the intersection between professional and amateur music, to discern ways in which their activities fostered and encouraged music as a means of building societal cohesion in stressful times.

 

 

 

 

 

In my research a question arose in relation to the BBC’s relationship with some of the composers I’m studying.   So, I thought it would be good to visit the BBC Written Archives.    Given the period of time I have been studying (roughly 1919 – 1939) it soon became apparent that the BBC’s Music Reading Panel (MRP) was of particular interest  – partly because the reason for its inception was relevant, and partly because its workings were so intriguing.   It’s important to realize that not all records of its activities have survived in the archives.

I’ve made two visits, and the rest of this is a description of what I found interesting so far.   In the nature of things, the BBC’s rules mean that I can’t produce specific documents in a public forum, but I can quote examples.

The Music Reading Panel (to give it its most common name, which is also most descriptive of its activities, though it went under several during its life) was set up in the late 1920s/early30s with the active encouragement of the then Director of Music at the BBC (Mr, later Sir, Adrian Boult), and the founding Director General (Sir John, later Lord, Reith) – for brevity, I’ll call it the MRP or ‘the panel’.     The reason for forming it was born out of some complaint from the profession about the competence and qualifications of those BBC employees who were then compiling programmes for broadcast.   There is a, perhaps very BBC, sense in which this panel was to advise the BBC’s Music Advisory Committee.   In any case, documents show that there was a wish to compensate for the fact that the Advisory Committee had “hardly one member … who has any understanding of, or live interest in present day musical developments”.

There are numerous documents, some descriptive of ill-tempered meetings, in the Archive which deal with the process of setting up the MRP.  Amongst these, the representatives of complainers (Allen of the RCM and McEwen of the RAM) mentioned that the panel “…should have the accumulated weight of two or three men, well-known in the profession…”.   It was also apparent that these men, were one to be from the RCM, then another should be appointed from the RAM – to avert strife between the two establishments.  McEwen at a meeting railed against the BBC’s frequent use of foreign artists and compositions and the BBC’s “senseless predilection for Vienna and Berlin” – which only met with the response from the BBC’s Assistant Director of Music that English professionals were not good enough for the most important performances.   It was hardly pouring oil on troubled waters for McEwen then to speak of the BBC’s programming staff as incompetent.      Despite such bad-tempered meetings, the idea of creating the panel nonetheless persisted.  The initial idea was that new music to be broadcast would be submitted to the panel, who would meet, study it, and opine on its suitability for broadcast.    (This idea of ‘suitability’ was entirely congruent with the Reithian triple values for the BBC to ‘educate, inform, and entertain’ – in that order.)

This was how it started – with three individuals, initially Arthur Bliss, Sydney Waddington from the RCM, and Benjamin Dale of the RAM.    Its first meeting appears to have taken place on the 24th April, 1934, with Bliss in the chair.

The documents disclose that the membership should be kept fresh through the means of one member in rotation retiring each year, to be replaced by a newcomer.   This seemed, when I read it, to be a very workable arrangement.    In the event, however, various issues arose over the ensuing decade or so (including the advent of World War Two) which completely stymied this idea, and the original three stayed on in their posts (these were paid positions) for a considerable time.   Arthur Bliss seems to have acted as Chairman, and indeed, appears to have made most of the running, or was the most vocal.   At the outset of war, in 1939, the BBC’s music department was dispersed around the country, with its headquarters relocated to Bristol.   Bliss himself, was in America at the start, and only returned some time later.    The other two found it difficult or inconvenient in war-time to travel to Bristol for MRP meetings.    Consequently, the meeting frequency diminished, and alongside that, the scope of the panel.    As the started to involve some other members replacing the original three (some new members were also famous names in the profession) some papers record that the BBC made good quality receiving apparatus (wireless sets) available for the panel members – though these were supposed to have been relinquished once a term of service on the panel was completed.

[I was also intrigued to find, in the RMA’s archives of meetings, that Arthur Bliss in 1923 had proposed the establishment of a parallel scheme of advanced musical education to that which existed for aspiring professionals – to cater for (aspiring) amateurs.    He had delivered himself of something of a diatribe against amateur musicians of indifferent standard performing in public, and performing the music of him and his colleagues, at that!]

The Panel’s reports were received solely inside the BBC, and so their opinions were insulated from the composers on whom they were pronouncing.   A composer, having submitted a work, would receive ultimately a letter from a BBC administrator either accepting their work for broadcast at some future date, or apologizing formally for rejection.   The latter could be quite terse – though not as terse as some of the reports!     From some members of the panel, a comment of “Not good enough!”, in relation to a submitted overture, was positively verbose.    A simple ‘No’ could be all that was said.   At times, it’s striking quite how condemnatory, and even personal the language of rejection could be.

Some examples:

A truly terrible piece of writing.   The voice-part is impossibly angular and cannot possibly have been truly felt as a musical setting of the words, “Contemporary music” at its worst.”, from GJ.

WA dismisses the same work, thus,

These wilful distortions of the haunting lyricism of the poem seem to me singularly inappropriate.   Even if a singer was willing to submit to this vocal line, I should feel she should be discouraged from doing so.   [This composer] by now surely must have the sense not to wish [to] revive this impersonation of a Pierette Lunaire.”

GJ again, opining on another work, from a different composer,

This is an example of the (rather superficial) view that the more lines there are in a score the fewer the ideas.   Actually I have no hesitation in labelling it as bogus.   The composer has a working idea of the orchestra and writes a score with the outward semblance of music but without its substance.”, and, again, “These little snippets are of no value whatever.  They vary in length from about 9 to 20 bars, and are too silly for words (at any rate parliamentary ones!).

Harking back to early days, this from a panellist with an indecipherable name:

I’m sorry, I find this exactly like every other work of [this composer] that I’ve ever seen, i.e. completely unprofitable.”

There are numerous other examples of this kind of thing (and there are also examples of positivity – though my feeling is that fewer of these have survived).

The overall impression is that, as time went on, the MRP acted as a gate-keeper to the airwaves.    They seemed at pains to enable the BBC to broadcast a certain type of composers’ work, and to reject others.   It remains to be seen whether this was intentional, or an accident.    Nonetheless, they were capable of changing their minds – for example, a British composer whose work seemed to be rejected time and again, was, it seems suddenly, in favour.

Perhaps it was good that the MRP seems to have been disbanded in the early 1950s!

For me, this has been a good example of how pursuing one channel of research can lead to another, and of how reading and researching away from the main thrust of a principal research strand can lead to interest and new insights.

Glossary:

BBC – British Broadcasting Corporation, earlier British Broadcasting Company

RCM – Royal College of Music, Prince Consort Road, London

RAM – Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone Road, London

RMA – Royal Musical Association, UK

 

Note: all quoted material exists in the files of the BBC’s Written Archives centre, mostly in the form of carbon copies on extremely flimsy paper.

 


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