Some further thoughts about André Previn and classical music on TV

As I said in my little appreciation yesterday, following the announcement of his death, André Previn was a significant presence in my cultural upbringing, and his passing has given me pause to reflect on that.

André Previn (picture from ClassicFM)

There was always a lot of music at home – on the radio, on LPs and, significantly, on television; so much in fact that classical music felt like a normal part of the day-to-day cultural landscape of the 1970s and 80s. As a family, we enjoyed André Previn’s programmes where, with the LSO, he introduced the great works from the classical repertoire in a way which was engaging, informative, intelligent – and accessible. The orchestra eschewed their usual formal attire of white tie and tails, as did Previn as conductor, yet despite the more relaxed setting, Previn never dumbed down the subject matter nor patronised his audience, but explained aspects such as musical structure and form in a way which was comprehensible to the lay viewer/listener. Talking about it this morning with my husband (who is not a natural classical music fan but who, like me, comes from an ordinary middle class family who enjoyed music of all genres), he commented that at that time (mid 1970s) it didn’t seem that unusual to find a full symphony orchestra or a string quartet or piano trio performing on the telly. In his André Previn & Friends programmes, Previn was joined by musical friends and acquaintances who performed music together and talked about it in a casual yet informed way which allowed the viewer to get beyond the notes and also discover some insights into the life of a classical musician (what I’m attempting to do with the Meet the Artist series). Come to think of it, having a classical musician appear on the Morecombe & Wise show, as Previn memorably did (“Mr Andrew Preview”), perhaps indicated just how much classical music was part of the our mainstream culture in those days.

In addition to Previn’s programmes, there were broadcast masterclasses with, amongst others, the cellist Paul Tortelier (about whom my mum had a bit of a “thing”!) and pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim. I watched these programmes with great curiosity – as a fledgling piano player, I was fascinated by the students being put through their paces and the critical comments of the “master”, and when, as an “adult returner”, I participated in my first masterclass, I recalled these programmes with a Proustian rush of memories.

Face the Music was another popular television programme in the 1970s –  I loved it, taking pride in the rare occasions when I got a question right. Such an esoteric quiz show would never be shown on mainstream TV today, and in some ways Face the Music, with its intelligentsia-rich panel of people like Robin Ray and Bernard Levin, and hosted by accomplished pianist Joseph Cooper, was at the opposite end of the spectrum to Previn’s programmes, which demystified and democratised classical music by combining humour with breadth of knowledge, yet both were regular – and popular – features on the BBC.

Face the Music tv quiz show with Robin Ray, Joyce Grenfell and David Attenborough (front row)

Sadly, neither Previn’s programmes nor Face the Music would probably see the light of day on mainstream TV today (though FTM was revived, briefly and substantially dumbed down, in 2007 on BBCFour): both would be deemed too rarefied, too esoteric. We do of course still have programmes about classical music on the BBC but in general these are consigned to the relative backwater of BBCFour, which is where the BBC shows its more recondite programmes on, for example, art, history, music and drama. There have been some good classical music programmes on BBCFour, including The Sound and The Fury (broadcast in 2013 in conjunction with the Southbank Centre’s The Rest Is Noise festival of twentieth-century music) and Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the Nineteenth Century (2016), presented by Suzy Klein and featuring performances by pianist Daniel Grimwood. During the Proms season in the summer, the BBC broadcasts selected concerts, often edited to exclude modern, contemporary or potentially “difficult” music and to make the broadcast shorter (back in the good old days, Prom concerts were broadcast uncut). I know I am not alone in having an issue with this kind of presentation: it’s a form of censorship, the programme makers deeming what is acceptable for the viewer. It troubles me because if people are not exposed to modern or more challenging music how can they ever make a judgement about whether or not they actually like it or find it interesting? It also reveals a certain reverence towards the core canon of classical music, and a (possibly inaccurate) view that this is what the public wants. We also have the Proms Extra programme, which “casts an eye over the best of the action from the BBC Proms” and includes interviews and features with some of the performers. Personally, I find these programmes fairly anodyne, a kind of One Show for classical music. By contrast, Previn’s programmes, those masterclasses and other culture broadcasting now seems bold and challenging.

So why did classical music broadcasting on television become so dumbed down? In part, I think it is down to education: as music education has been eroded and devalued in our schools, so classical music in particular has dropped off the mainstream cultural radar. Now largely the preserve of the privileged few rather than the many, it is regarded as “elitist” and “inaccessible” and, importantly, unpopular. And so in an attempt to engage more people with the artform, some programme makers and presenters have sought to “trendify” or popularise classical music (the BBC’s Our Classical Century is, in my humble opinion, a cringeworthy current example of this). Take the BBC Young Musician competition. Once a serious music contest in which talented young players competed in instrumental categories to secure a place in the concerto final (and for many entry to a professional career), the focus of the competition now seems more geared to the back stories of the performers (and asking them immediately they come off stage “how did you feel?”), and attractive overly-enthusiastic presenters. The sets are flashy and in the midst of all the X-Factor style razzamatazz, the actual music – which is what the competition is meant to be about – feels rather sidelined. In fact, the performances are often edited to shorten them, usually to exclude that challenging contemporary music, and to make the show more appealing (for which read “popular”).

And this, I think, it what lies at the heart of presentation of classical music (what little there is now) on the BBC. As the corporation has had to become more commercial and competitive, so its programming has shifted towards the popular and populist.

I hope I do not come across as a classical music snob because I do not regard myself as one. I care very passionately about music and I want others to care as well. I also want people to engage with classical music, to discover just how wonderful and varied it really is, but not to be guided by presenters who cheerily tell us that Debussy’s Clair de Lune is “relaxing” rather than letting the music speak for itself. What André Previn did so successfully with his tv programmes was to raise “the public’s awareness of great music and its performance by demonstrating just how great – majestic, magical, exciting, moving – it actually is, as opposed to attempting to make it easy and approachable and thus losing almost everyone. ” (Peter Donohoe, concert pianist). Previn’s intelligent, informed and natural approach made the artform accessible, in the best possible sense of that word, rather than behaving as if it is some kind of taboo or weird hobby, to be whispered about behind one’s hand, as is too often the attitude now.

I’m not advocating a return to the 1970s style of broadcasting, but I think today’s programme makers and presenters could learn a lot from Previn’s unpretentious style and approach. I know some would argue that we have digital and streaming services like MediciTV and World Concert Hall which offer wall-to-wall classical music broadcasting – concerts, masterclasses, interviews, features et al – but the BBC does have a duty as a public service broadcaster to offer a broad range of programmes. Music is a key facet of our culture and heritage and as such should not be ignored nor devalued. We need music, and the BBC has within its remit the opportunity to foster an appreciation of and interest in music.

Watch Andre Previn at the BBC

The lost art of the classical music animateur