BBC Radio 3 celebrates British music
Editor, New and Specialist Music
It’s not uncommon for Radio 3 to gather its skirts from time to time and do something of the moment - like focusing down on the life and work of one composer in particular, or opening up its lens to broader vistas, like a historical period or a certain type of music.
So over the years there’ve been immersive days, weekends or weeks on figures like Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Debussy, seasons devoted to the Baroque or Light Music, not to mention a whole year during which three composers - Henry Purcell, Felix Mendelssohn and Frederick Handel - dominated the schedule as their various multiple-centenaries unfolded.
What these gatherings throw up are usually two things: one, that the Radio 3 schedule is able, like the Olympic gymnasts we witnessed nearly a year back, to bend and flex in remarkable ways transforming itself into a streaming cornucopia of refreshed and related programmes, drilling down into a composer’s world at depth in a way that the occasional feature could never achieve; and two, it draws the production teams into a tighter community where, gathered under the one umbrella, programmes that might not ordinarily fit the theme get a chance to explore some their own heritage and shine a light on new currency. Think jazz, world music and modern composition sitting in a season of Baroque music for example. Impossible? Irrelevant? Not so. It was an ear- (and eye-) opener.
So many possibilities. Only on Radio 3.
So, with June seeing the 60th anniversary of the Coronation and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (pictured), now seemed like a good moment to put the festive bunting out and reflect on the music that these Isles have produced down the centuries.
Over the course of the month, Radio 3 will be home to a special celebration: of music produced, assimilated and championed before Britten and in his wake.
Britten was fond of the music of Henry Purcell, a man who in the 17th century was able to take the most fashionable and trend-setting styles drifting across the channel from Europe and make them into something uniquely his own: music which spoke with a particular British accent.
And despite Oscar Schmitz’s stinging conclusion, over a century ago, that this was ‘a land without music’ (actually he was writing about England specifically), Britain has been very much a land with music - a gathering point for music both native and foreign.
So throughout June, Radio 3 will gently infuse its schedule with more than six centuries’-worth of fine music and upwards of 300 works, produced in all parts of these islands.
There’s folk music from the 2013 Shetland Festival in World Routes and World on 3, a straight backbone of symphonic music running through Composer of the Week and Afternoon on 3, live concerts from the Aldeburgh and City of London Festivals, jazz from May's Derry-Londonderry Jazz Festival and the 'Private Musicke' that would have been heard in the inner circles of the royal courts from Henry VIII to George III and Mary Queen of Scots.
Additionally, along with all of the popular pieces, like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches, there’s live opera, compelling drama about British composers and some great new works, specially-commissioned by Radio 3 from a variety of composers (check out Guy Barker's big new piece retelling one of Henry James's ghost stories, with the great Kurt Elling taking a starring role - Live in Concert, 12 June, 7.30pm.
The BBC is the one of the most significant commissioners of new music in the world (during this year’s Proms season concert goers will get to hear new music by Anna Clyne, Edward Cowie, Diana Burrell, John McCabe, Julian Anderson and David Matthews).
During the month-long celebration on Radio 3 we’ll reflect that on-going commitment in works from all generations and nations, demonstrating how British music is in a really strong place, not just because of its often turbulent history but because of what that sense of history has produced today, a land brimming with music, singers, performers, composers.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to turn on, tune in and be immersed in music both familiar and soon-to-be-familiar; and to think perhaps: ‘we did that’.
Andrew Kurowski is Editor of New and Specialist Music at the BBC.
- Radio 3 is Celebrating British Music every day from 1-30 June.
- Watch the British Music Season trailer on YouTube.