Was There Life Before Classical Music?

I can only imagine what introduced me to good music. Certainly there was little to be cheery about in post-war Britain. A ration book austerity that today’s youngsters cannot imagine was the cross we all had to bear. In our 1950s humble home, with its four-station box radio we kids were told to hush when John McCormack, the love duet from Madame Butterfly or the prelude from La Traviata was playing.

I could see merit in classical but was seduced by Country Music and the 60s Mersey Sound when I reached my teens. Afterwards, I lost my appetite for music. Instead I focused on other interests but had some inclination towards military and brass bands. BBC 3 Radio was pompous, its musical offerings discordant and heavy. Its self-opinionated music snobs treated we plebs with contempt. BBC 2 did condescend to provide a few hours of light classical mostly on a Sunday evening such as Your 100 Best Tunes.

How do I define good music? By what we know to be popular, not what we are told is popular. Pulling into a garage my car was to be MOT tested. A summer’s day, the windows were down and I seem to recall the Love Duet from La Boheme was playing. What a conversation stopper. It was like one of those classical music flash mobs now so popular. Staff and customers were enchanted and their reaction was a sheer joy.

How I jumped for joy when in September 1992 I heard that a programme dedicated to popular classical was to go on the air. Classic FM was going to return to the people their music. After all, classical music, composed by mostly lower-class musicians, is the art form of the working classes. I looked forward to recovering our soul music from the snobbish bien-pensant set. That morning I was like a kid at Christmas when at 6 am the first track was played by the station’s Nick Bailey. I am no great fan of Handel’s Zadok the Priest but it was certainly music to my ears that golden dawn. Classic FM hoped that 2.8 million listeners would be attracted to its alternative to tedious non-pop discordance. By Christmas 4.3 million were tuning in every week and Classic FM was Britain’s fourth most popular radio station. I felt vindicated.

The popular station collected more silverware (almost) than did Liverpool Football Club. It is now listened to by 5.6 million people every week and in 2013, Classic FM was named UK Radio Brand of the Year at the Sony Awards.

Having retired to Spain I can still tune in by using my laptop and cunningly entering my old UK postal code. Mediterranean Spain’s broadcasters and other countries’ broadcasters ignore demand for good music. Yet, we now live in a much smaller world in which all national frontiers for music lovers are down. Denying good music to affluent audiences is an own goal.

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