This week, BBC radio is celebrating seventy years since the launch of the Third Programme, or, what we now know it as, Radio 3.
The format has had to move with the times and adapt to stiff competition, especially from successful and, perhaps, more accessible commercial enterprises; but those who want to change it too much forget that it is unlikely its original purpose would have altered if such competition had existed at the outset. Listening figures were never really the goal, they were not expected to be high: it was established to introduce an element of culture, with a greater emphasis then than now on the spoken word through plays and poetry, and accordingly the impression that it was, and still is, targeted at an elite has caused many since to dumb it down in an attempt to reach wider audiences.
The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate how classical music can be accessible without having to do that: it is understandable that cost pressures mean that listening figures are now more important to justify the programme’s existence, but sticking to its original principles can achieve that without trying to compete with what others may be providing. ‘Elite’ may have negative undertones of privileged or for a chosen few – but at its simplest, it means ‘best’. That is what it should strive for.
Victor Hely-Hutchinson, whose popular ‘Carol Symphony’ owes much to the emergence of commercial radio, was appointed Director of Music at the BBC in London in 1944, and was thus a key participant in the launch of the Third Programme in September 1946, but remains something of an unsung hero in the project. He was born in Capetown in 1901, the youngest son of Walter, the last Governor of Cape Colony, but educated in the UK when it was clear that he was a musical prodigy. In his short life (prematurely ended by pneumonia in 1947 after conserving fuel in a bitter winter by declining to turn on his office radiators) he was a well-loved administrator, broadcaster, composer and conductor. He was also a very talented pianist, who knew all the 32 Beethoven and 48 Bach sonatas by heart and performed Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto (my favourite of the five) at the Proms.
It would be easy to wait until Christmas and post about his most famous piece. But the anniversary of Radio 3 this week gives me the excuse to share something else, and a little different. Victor had a talent for improvisation, and much of what he wrote also reveals a healthy sense of humour.
Here is one such comic vignette. It’s only a couple of minutes, but will surely bring a chuckle. ‘Old Mother Hubbard in the style of Handel’ is performed here by American counter tenor David Daniels. For those of you who have heard it before, you may think it too fast; but I have heard many versions, and it is the speed of this which gives it that extra humour.
Everything I have read about Victor makes me regret that he did not live a lengthier life, not just because he would surely have gone on to compose much more and warrant a more deserving legacy; but simply that he seemed to be a truly loveable man, who, as my great uncle, I would have so enjoyed knowing.
It’s just a bit of fun, certainly not genius, but clever; and it comes from the hand of someone who worked for Radio 3, demonstrating that ‘best’ does not have to mean ‘stuffy’.