Classic’s birthday: an ear for the moderns – what really happened

In an otherwise excellent article on the birth of Classic FM for The Spectator, my fellow Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny – previously a colleague on Classic – states that when talking repertoire Classic’s powerhouse founder Michael Bukht insisted on  ‘nothing you’d want to switch off’. Mozart was king, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak — yes, please. Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten were to be treated with suspicion. And absolutely nothing contemporary, thanks very much.’

Well that wasn’t quite the case, at least not in practice; in fact, in those days all the major Classic FM hits were contemporary, and never more so than with the very first, Henryk Gorécki’s Third Symphony which swept the nation more potently than any large-scale contemporary piece before or since. And this is how it happened. From the first week of Cfm’s existence I co-hosted a show called Classic Verdict with a mate, the much missed Keith Shadwick (who tragically died back in 2008). Every week we’d choose a ‘Sure Shot’ which Paul Gambaccini picked up the following day (on his Saturday Show). First up was Gorécki 3, and that was the very first piece that marked the station out as bringing the world of great music into the nation’s consciousness. Much as I’m devoted to Radio 3, they had never managed it, and neither had any other radio station. But the combination of new-born Classic and Gorécki made people realise how a contemporary symphony could be beautiful, original, relevant and in a sense life-changing. The proof of Gorécki’s integrity, if such were needed, is in the nature of his Fourth – a different beast entirely. Not for him a profitable bandwagon.

There’s another twist to this tale. A month before Classic launched Johnny Black had asked me to step into his place on Frank Bough’s LBC show, bring along a trio of classics to review. That same Gorécki recording (Dawn Upshaw, London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Nonesuch) had just landed on my mat and I took it along. As I left the building, a receptionist rushed up to me and asked, ‘what was that CD just played? … our phone lines are jammed with people wanting to know’! So it was evidently the right piece at the right time.

Beyond Gorécki came Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Philips/Decca) and Officium with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM), both of them sure shots that ‘shot’ right to the top of the charts. Among other impactful choices were De Stilj by Andriessen, though Bukht balked at its aggression. And yet he had a broader musical mind than many people think – he allowed me a series of ‘Contemporary and Classics’ and an historical series ‘Our Musical Yesterdays’. So, Relaxing wasn’t always the main agenda! Comments please.

29 thoughts on “Classic’s birthday: an ear for the moderns – what really happened

  1. Pingback: Classic’s birthday: an ear for the moderns – what really happened | robccowan

    1. Graham Wiffen

      I was shocked and saddened to to hear that you are departing Radio 3. Over the years you have opened my ears to great performances of the standard repertoire but, more importantly, you have introduced me to so many works that were unfamiliar for which I shall be eternally grateful. Together with your regular contributions to the Gramophone you have enriched my life (and CD collection!). Essential Classics won’t be quite so essential in future but I wish you well and look forward to your new show on Classic FM where I hope you will continue to bring new repertoire to a new audience – just as you did with Gorecki.

      A thought for a future blog: streaming. Earlier this year I took the plunge and subscribed to Tidal (chosen as I listen to many different types of music). Searching is frustrating to say the least (Mozart is no longer an ‘artist’!). However the range is far beyond anything I could hope to own and the sound quality can be excellent. Thanks to your and colleagues’ Gramophone reviews reviews and other sources I can explore an extraordinary range of music and compare many different versions of the same work. Yes, I am buying fewer CDs (though more hi-res downloads particularly from Hyperion) but as long as the artists are appropriately remunerated by streaming companies there is much to said for this relatively new medium.

      Again, very best wishes for the future and enjoy not having to get up so early on weekday mornings.


  2. Robert Roy

    Although I love the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, there’s really nothing in it to ‘scare the horses’ unlike those uncouth radicals Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten. I feel that Classic FM and Radio3 are appealing to different audiences and it’s understandable that in appeasing advertisers, CFM can’t afford to have listeners switching off! Most ‘modern music’, whatever that means, requires a bit of input from the listener which many have neither the time or inclination to do and, if that suits CFM’s audience, then that’s fine.

    However, I think it’s essential that modern music IS commissioned, rehearsed properly, performed and listened to. Yes, a lot of it is ‘difficult’ but that should be a challenge that audiences accept. (And remember that Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet was shunned, some of Beethoven’s works were ‘corrected’ by the head of the Paris Conservatoire since Beethoven could not have allowed all those harsh harmonies and Brahms First Piano Concert was booed at its premier! Anton Rubinstein hated Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and the same composer’s Violin Concerto was described as ‘stinking to the ear!) The majority of ‘modern music’ will fall by the wayside BUT a few gems will provide the repertoire for the future.

    So, by all means, allow CFM’s audiences to ‘know what they like and like what they know’ and, should they feel adventurous, then BBC Radio3 is there. Let both CFM and BBC Radio3 co-exist in peace.


    1. I’ll second that Robert … and add that in those early days the presence of more radical pieces on CFM (like the Andriessen) excited the young – I remember the feedback. Also the chance to share great recordings of the past. Best. Rob


    2. But – there IS or could be crossover in audience tastes – I listen to both, though as I say below, less and less to CFM ( and it is not that that is how I began listening to classical music, just that it has changed to the point of not being rewarding most of the time for me). But say someone starts listening to classical music ( or its relatives via e.g. film music or suchlike) – likes it – but is unaware or even a bit scared of venturing into R3 because this divide between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ is promulgated. I was in fact pretty scared of R3 when i began listening to it as a child in the 60’s – it seemed then to be imhabited by people who were from a very very different world to me – but I was a stubborn lassie and in any case the music won me over. Happily now R3 is a much less intimidating source of music! My point is – if CFM never offers something a little less familiar/ more challenging – how are those listeners to grow in their exploration of music and maybe be encouraged to try other stations. I have just written to Alan Davey and the BBC Proms team regarding the dearth of televised proms that were not ‘populist’ in the content – for similar reasons as well as my own desire to see more of the Proms on TV.


      1. ‘I was a stubborn lassie and in any case the music won me over’. I’m glad Fizgil that you approve of R3’s move towards a less intimidating approach. Many years ago I took my eldest daughter (who I saw married just yesterday!) to the British Library to hear BBC Third Programme broadcasts of Sylvia Plath – she was studying Plath and Sexton. The ‘announcer’ was shockingly forbidding – as if to say,’away with you my boy, Plath and Sexton are not for you …. go and listen to some Elvis’! How different Ian McMillan whose welcoming approach must by now have converted thousands to poetry who might otherwise have dismissed the art as too airy-fairy. And so listeners and readers grow, develop, advance … see and feel further into the arts. Best.


  3. I came across Officium via R3’s Late Junction, I think – a programme that really should be a radio station in its own right…
    Before CFM launched I occasionally tuned in to R3 but found it quite impersonal – the approach the so-called ‘Friends of Radio 3’ want to return to. After a while spent listening to CFM and broadening my tastes somewhat, I eventually tired of the adverts and migrated back to R3 via a few weeks of R2, a long time on R4 (until I realised Today was likely to bring on a heart attack) and finally back to R3 which now appears to have struck a balance between friendly and authoritative. Still learning lots, still feel like I know the presenters, and realising that classical music is for enjoying and sharing rather than analysing (though I enjoy that too).


    1. That’s the intention Jonathan – the feeling that what we’re sharing is worth troubling over, and that in presenting it we’re attempting to convey what we want to say about the music rather than some pre-planned blurb that has been decided by an individual producer and by some committee or other. That virtually never happens nowadays. The Radio 3 mantra ‘a trusted guide’ is a good one. Hopefully we’ll stick to it. Best. Rob.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ha! I had to stop waking up to Today when I realised it might bring on terminal depression 🙂 Oh I do hope the ‘so-called Friends’ – who are they? Is it the let’s go back to everyone speaking in RP and presenting in DJs and bow-tie brigade that nearly made me turn off for ever ahead 10? – do not win the day! I don’t think they will. As you say, I think a balance has been found. But the old guard will still moan for sure… I worry that every time someone mentions twitter or facebook their blood pressure goes up a bit more and they will have a stroke..


      1. The joke about RP and DJs is in how the composers themselves would have viewed them. Can you imagine Beethoven in later life raging desperately against the elements of his spirit and intellect giving a toss about ‘poash’ presentation? Passion, yes; ‘poash, definitely not. Atb.


  4. David Edwards

    A fascinating piece of history from the inside Rob. Especially interesting for me, having never been a Classic FM listener. I had twinges of guilt about this when Michael’s widow and brother in law played a part in setting up a concert for me, so it was good to read about the breadth of Michael’s real musical sympathies,

    However, as Robert Roy suggests there is music which is contemporary in the purely chronological sense and there is what we usually mean by the expression ‘contemporary music’ – music that pushes boundaries, challenging performers as well as listeners, opening new territories be they of language or structure or genre or feeling. Such individuality can occasionally result in music of immediate attractiveness (Pärt’s tintinnabulism being the obvious example) but usually it creates an initial ‘difficulty’ and demands not just an openness to new experience but the kind of active listening which most of Classic FM’s output probably discourages.

    I readily convict myself of narrowness of sympathies and not I imagine the ones of the target cfm demographic. ‘Hear and Now’ is my absolute number one Radio 3 ‘must hear’ and nothing would make me reach for the off switch or the ear plugs faster than Gorécki’s 3rd symphony (in my catalogue of over twenty thousand recordings his name does not feature). Thanks to you, I now know that I should probably seek out his 4th!


    1. Many thanks David. Pushing boundaries does it for me, always has done: Bartók’s 4th Quartet changed my listening for ever, soon to be followed by the other five. I had already shot way into the ether on the shoulders of late Beethoven and, prior to my work for Radio 3, was forever inviting friends round to share the privilege. That was exciting and when I programme some work that packs a powerful punch on Radio 3 – Schnittke, maybe, or Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, or a Hartmann symphony,even some Second Viennese repertoire, the response is always positive. Even defensive snipers can tell you a thing or two about how people listen! Best.


      1. David Edwards

        “inviting friends round to share the privilege” is I think exactly what we feel you are doing in your broadcasts, and the answer to your question of months back about what presenters contributed – little bits of guidance, details to listen out for, contextualisation, etc. sure, but above all inviting us to share the incredible privilege of access to a far wider range of repertoire and performances than people of earlier generations ever enjoyed and communicating your own enthusiasm for it.


  5. Ralph Spurrier

    Hi Rob,
    You and I are of a similar age and the memory of my first encounter with classical music was when my much older sister brought her boyfriend into the house and with him came some discs of Wagner overtures and interludes – on 78s (in one of those bulky eight pocket record “books”). When they were out of the house I’d sneak in to her room and plonk the shellac on to the turntable, move the speed from 45 (my sister’s favoured pop singles and EP speed) to 78 and listen entranced to the wondrous sounds coming from the speaker. A couple of years later a teacher at the secondary school would hold a music class after hours and just play records – Ibert’s Divertissement being the favourite – and then in the 6th form we formed our own music group in which we would, in turn, play a set of pieces to the assembled members. It is noted in the school magazine which I still have that my choice of Varese’s “Ionisation” surprised not a few of the members.
    All of which is to say that the love of, interest in and journey with classical music was something organic within me and not necessarily nurtured by any outside source, i.e. the Third programme, R3 or CfM. I can recall “100 Best Tunes” on a Sunday night on the Light (or was it the Home?) programme and my mother taking me to assorted G & S operas (which I didn’t enjoy). However by the time I left school (probably around the same year as you) I was knee deep in Schoenberg, DSCH and Mahler. My first Mahler concert was the 1963 performance of the 2nd with Stokowski conducting at the Proms – a never to be forgotten occasion.
    The musical journey, for me at least, remains an intensely personal one and I rarely tune in to R3 these days not because of any inimical feelings towards the presenters (although there are a couple that can set the teeth on edge) but because I prefer to tread my own path of learning. It is only in the last 10 years or so that I have come to appreciate Berg’s Violin Concerto and William Alwyn’s Sinfonietta (there’s a contrast for you! – except that Alwyn quotes Berg in the final movement, the latter leading me to the former). Perhaps I never need to hear yet another playing of Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” or Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” or “Firebird” because there are still hidden gems out there to be discovered (Bantock’s Sappho song cycle) and life is getting all too short.
    Well, if you read this far – well done.
    Best wishes


    1. A great tale of adventure and journeying Ralph. You mentioning ‘100 Best Tunes’ reminds me how one week Alan Keith broadcast an amazing 78 of Chaliapin singing Massenet’s Elégie. I was utterly spellbound. The track had never been released on lp so I spent ages trying to locate a copy of the original. One day I came across an extremely old record shop in East Finchley, the proprietor even older. He still held a shelved stock of 78s and I asked about the Massenet. To my utter amazement he produced an unplayed copy … which he’d bought for stock when it was still in the catalogue. A precious memory. Best.


  6. Philip Anderton

    My late mother listened to CFM and I remember her telling me how she’d switched it off after Zadok The Priest came on for the third time that day! I’ve never been a CFM listener but recognise that it’s had its subtle effect on Radio 3. An old Midweek Choice broadcast I have on cassette from the 1980s when they played Lalo’s cello concerto for my mother sounds incredibly funereal by today’s standards. If a more cheerful presentational style has led to criticisms of ‘dumbing down’ for R3 then it’s not a criticism I would agree with. There are plenty of times I switch Radio 3 off because the music is too esoteric for me – the new commission which I hope to like but sounds just like all the others – pretty awful! But, believe me, I rejoice in their transmission along with everything else that isn’t for me. It’s what Radio 3 is there for.
    We would be impoverished without new commissions or obscure composers – Saint Saens’ Dance Macabre was booed at its first performance and that’s a regular on Radio 3 and Classic FM no doubt. But surely the most important thing of all is that people listen to classical music. I expect many more people listen because of Classic FM and there can be no loyalties for either station or snobbish put downs for popularism. If it’s done that then three (radio) cheers for Classic FM.


    1. Getting people to listen Philip … that is the thing! And the point you make about ‘popular’ pieces have been booed at their first performances is an important one. It’s easy to forget that for someone who hasn’t heard a popular piece – the experience can be thrilling in the extreme. Best.


  7. It’s really about ‘different worlds’ and different people’s perspectives about how music might or might not be ‘popular’. Simply, any music can only become popular if it is promoted. I remember some of what you say happening of course – and these particular pieces and composers being well know – or maybe ‘revealed’. ‘Jesus’s Blood’ I always thought would crossover into the ‘pop’ charts, but it never quite did. Though it’s a kind of ‘all-time’ sounding thing, massively emotional, so it still could – if it became the title theme to the next Sofia Coppola film for example. In the bigger picture, the really influential ‘hits’ were coming from Michael Nyman. What an important figure he has been. Right now, Anna Meredith is probably the most authentic voice in terms of moving between the ‘two worlds’. I’m not sure whether she is chalking up airtime on Classic FM. I kinda doubt it…


    1. Thanks Tot. ‘Any music can only become popular if it is promoted,’ you say. Is that true, strictly speaking? Or is it more a case of works being played because performers and audiences appreciate a certain set of qualities. Take Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten or Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. The elegiac falling cadences of the first and the enrapturing atmosphere of the second encourage people to make contact, such is their level of appreciation. It’s less a case of ‘promoting’ than plain and simple ‘exposure’: the listening public does the rest. Best.


      1. Isla Dowds

        Yes I remember those days of CFM. My questions is – why has it changed so that almost the only time I listen to it now is late at night ( when R3 i often too ‘challening’ – for me anyway! – or at least not conducive to heading toward sleep ) or when I lose signal in the car for R3 – or if there is something on R3 i don’t want to listen to ( quite rare). Theories? Answers? Has it anything to do with a move towards, shall we say, more presenters whose qualifications tend more toward presenting generally and entertainment than being musically erudite? Or is that a consequence of a programming policy change?


  8. Classic started exalting people to relax long after I completed my university dissertation on the differences between the Classic and Radio 3, back on 1995. (I spent a week at each station, observing editorial meetings.) Classic was still not relaxing by 1996, when I was editing R3 and Classic listings for Radio Times, though it had got rather horizontal by 1999, when I left for BBC Four (then BBC Knowledge) having billed Relaxing Classics at Seven for a couple of years by then.

    I think the exhortation to relax came from a modicum of success shifting Classic FM branded CDs (with Warner, perhaps?). This was the era of Enigma in the pop charts and Ministry of Sound Chilled club nights, so Classic was just an extension of this genre.


    1. There’s a tragedy of misconception here Simon that is twofold (not yours I hasten to add!). Firstly that any serious listener to, say, a Mozart slow movement should be ‘relaxed’ rather than ‘engaged’, and secondly that inquisitive newcomers crave a sort of easy listening experience rather than a challenging encounter. It’s less a case of relaxing than being held in a state of quiet tension, pleasurable tension maybe, the sort that makes you hold your breath. The alternative is to plunder concert music for ‘tunes’ that can be prostituted out of context. For example anyone who is offered the balmy middle movement of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K491 (No. 24) out of context cannot possibly guess the manner of high drama that characterises the middle movements. That’s simply unfair to Mozart. Best.


  9. I don’t have a hotline to the boardroom on this one Isla. Your ideas of presenters whose qualifications tend more toward presenting generally than being musically erudite seems fair (though there are notable exceptions such as John Suchet and David Mellor) with a programming policy change seems consistent with a station that values entertainment and ‘lifestyle’ as paramount – not that I’m criticising that as an overall policy. Radio 3 is above all a cultural institution, to be ‘listened to’ rather than merely ‘heard’, whereas CFM aims, in general, to be ‘heard’ with pleasure rather than listening to in a challenging way.


  10. It’s probably worth noting that the Classic FM repertoire we hear today is not the same as Classic FM of 20-25 years ago. In the early years the repertoire (playlist) was much larger and far more diverse than later years. I do recall that shortly after going on air, the Classic FM playlist had grown to something like 45,000 tracks available to be selected for normal programmes (i.e. other than the specialist shows, like Rob’s). As a presenter, I loved hearing composers new to me that popped up on my playlists ( Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one example) and managed to persuad our music librarian to schedule similar surprises and discoveries for my show. After around 5 years on-air, Classic FM underwent the ‘Relax’ branding, and I believe the playlist was reduced to about 5,000 tracks, with many of the less well known composers taken off the list.


    1. This is true Quentin and I’m beginning to get very jaded with the whole ‘relax culture. If I want to relax to music I’ll use Ella, or Johnny Hodges, or Eric Coates and a whole host of other English ‘lights’ or some tuneful pop … but the Classics climb higher and climbing takes energy. Best.


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