BBC announces it’s ditching the BBC Singers plus 20% of musicians in English orchestras in a bid to meet shortfall

I see this morning that Gary Lineker presenter of Match of the Day will be ‘spoken to’ by BBC people about his tweet about the Government’s recently announced asylum seeker legislation. He says that the language used in it is reminiscent of 1930s Germany.

He may or may not be correct about that and he’s certainly entitled to hold that opinion, it’s just that BBC guidelines for presenters and staff make it quite clear that expressing that view publically is A Bad Thing as its calls into question the BBC’s impartiality.

It’s not the first time Lineker has caused a bit of a storm in this way. In my memory, he’s often needed to be ‘spoken to’. And yet Lineker’s still there being paid £1.35 million to present football fixtures on Match of the Day.

This is irritating because £1.35million is around about the same amount of money they BBC hopes to save in relation t other cuts its announced yesterday to performing groups in order to help mitigate the Licence Fee shortfall. The announcement was backed up by a report carried out last year investigating the impact the BBC had on the UK musical output. 20% of all musicians in the BBC’s English orchestras will be cut. The entire BBC Singers will be got rid of, just short of its 100th anniversary.

Simon Webb, the BBC’s newly appointed Head of Orchestras (formerly General Manager of the BBC Philharmonic) was on Radio 3’s In Tune and Radio 4’s Front Row defending the announcement, suggesting there was some wriggle room in all of this given that the BBC would now be entering into ‘consultations’ with the Musicians Union over their plans.

In my experience, the BBC person defending unpopular cuts is rarely the person who has taken the decision. Indeed decisions like these are rarely taken in isolation and nearly always form part of an extended series of other changes, including putting someone in post who can then act as a mouthpiece for those unpopular cuts. The collection of decision-makers in such situations is nearly always found higher up the food chain, not being grilled on air, hiding behind a curtain somewhere.

Thus, in the hours that followed the BBC issuing a statement on 20% cuts to BBC Orchestra jobs, and the entire BBC Singers group months short of its 100th anniversary, the question isn’t only why did they thinking cutting the only singing group would be best of clutch of stinky ideas, but what message are you actually putting out? (I’ll come on to this later). Also, who were the other people in the decision-making process? Do they know anything about classical music? Why didn’t any of them make a stand and come up with a more creative solution, or even a more progressive idea?

Arguably this is just the next step in a long series of steps which started a few months ago, signalled by the departure of various people from the BBC’s classical music ecosystem. First, the news of the intended departure of the Head of PR and Comms for the BBC Proms and Performing Groups in 2022. Later, the departure of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s General Manager Paul Hughes followed by the creation of the Head of Orchestras role.

In the past few months, Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey has signalled his departure, his replacement Sam Jackson has been announced, and most recently producer and Proms editor Edward Blakeman has retired. The timing of these departures isn’t a coincidence and the order of those announcements was important too. Presumably, some saw the writing on the wall and felt it wasn’t something they wanted to be associated with. Or maybe they began to realise that their advocacy wasn’t being listened to and that they risked being associated with a spot of cultural vandalism.

There is I learn a lack of understanding of the contribution the BBC’s performing groups really make to the UK cultural landscape, with more of a bias towards pop which is presumably for those decision-makers a whole lot ‘easier’ to understand. How could someone who appreciates the genre think this decision made sense?

Maybe the writing was on the wall when that person was put in post (see the announcement of Lorna Clarke’s appointment here) by Chief Content Officer Charlotte Moore who herself is on £430,000. Maybe it was this reorganisation that signalled why so many key managers started to abandon ship, therefore making it easier to implement a strategy that was intended all along. It’s just a theory.

These plans are it seems to me only the overture. All eyes should be on the Proms line-up announced in a few weeks’ time. I can’t believe they’ll escape unscathed (although interestingly the changes there will be more difficult to discern and criticism easier to bat away). Presumably, there will be further cuts down the line too. After all, a group of decision-makers who don’t care about classical music are surely going to look at three English orchestras as over-providing and cut it right back to one.

In the meantime, there is one lasting message communicated by this announcement: the BBC doesn’t really understand classical music. It doesn’t really care about it. It doesn’t really care that we know it doesn’t care either. Thus, making the decision to cut an entire performing group a relatively straightforward decision to take.

It shows that the BBC has fallen in line with the Government. Music isn’t important. It has no value. It is just an on-demand service. That’s why it feels able to ditch the BBC Singers. They’re happy to pay for Lineker and repeatedly risk its organisational reputation, than make a stand for its own heritage. For music. For the future.

Spineless ignorant fools.

Update (12 March 2023)

Whilst Lorna Clarke no doubt carries an enormous amount of the responsibility here for some mind-bogglingly stupid decision-making, there is one other person whose cone-headedness plays an important role in the clusterfuck too.

Back in 2010 Davie was interviewed by John Plunkett, defending his decision to cut 6Music. There was an almighty outcry when the then Head of Radio and Music sought to cut a well-loved radio station. The resulting audience and industry led-campaign was the bête noire of the Press Office and BBC Radio. 6Music was eventually saved.

Thirteen years later the former ‘Pepsi Boy’ has amongst his senior team people who seek to cut one of the BBC’s core performing groups and 20% of its orchestral players contracted to English orchestras.

All this whilst attention is focussed on a sports presenter who pulls in at best 2.5m viewers for a football magazine programme, the same person who has sailed close to the wind publishing personal views on government policy. The arguments for Lineker’s case seem much easier to understand now.

Davie must be – despite appearances in his interview – nervous about what might transpire. Who goes? Will it be Davie or Lineker? It surely can’t be both.

Arguably, Lineker doesn’t need the money the BBC throws his way. The irony is that the former Pepsi Marketer thinks that cutting a significant number of BBC musicians is a far more effective way of cutting costs. It seems he displays as much knowledge about the classical music industry as he did about the 6Music audience 13 years ago.

Whether Lineker goes and the BBC Singers remain or vice versa, there is one thing for certain. Just like last year (assuming he’s still in post) you can be guaranteed that Davie will take his seat in the stalls at the First Night of the BBC Proms this year, just as he did last year. (I sat in the row in front of him).

As in previous years pre-pandemic, the First Night is a potent opportunity to ‘sell’ the BBC to policymakers and MPs. It is the DG’s night. I do so hope that every person on the guest list makes a point of reminding Davie how he and his senior advisers want to cut by 20% the very orchestra playing the opening night they’re all settling down to watch.

I have shifted my position on Lineker. Nearly seven days after Simon Webb and Lorna Clarke’s laughable ‘New Strategy for Classical Music’ was released, I’m thinking that it would be better to keep Lineker and wave goodbye to Tim Davie. At least that way we might stand a better chance of saving the talent that provides the most value to the most people for the most time.

This post was updated on 12 March 2023 after having researched more about previous decisions executed by Tim Davie.

Balance between risk and reward

Professor Linda Bauld (Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health in The Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh) talks to Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell on Broadcasting House on Sunday 5 September 2021 about research into the spread of COVID at large-scale events

Off the back of a short package previewing the Proms Festival Orchestra appearance later this week at the Royal Albert Hall, Broadcasting House presenter Paddy O’Connell spoke to Professor Linda Bauld about early research published by the Events Research Programme which has been investigating the risk of COVID at mass gatherings and live events.

The news is broadly good with the spike in cases recorded at the Euros this year explained by the unique characteristics about the footballing tournament where fans congregated in pubs, homes, and stadia. In one case a total of 9000 cases were reported in the run up to and two days after one event. No surprise perhaps.

“It’s a balance between risk and reward, isn’t it?” asked Paddy O’Connell.

“Governments don’t want to locker down again, ” replied Professor Bauld. “We don’t want these musicians not to work again. Let’s say if you’ve got very high levels of covid in a particular place that has to be taken into account. You can see that from the Programme. Many of these events happened when there were very low levels of COVID in the community. When its much higher you have more infected people attended and the risks are not zero and an event could add to infections rising in a location.”

Manchester Collective at the BBC Proms 2021

An epic night. Wild rhythms and visceral textures from the Manchester Collective – their debut at the BBC Proms – and Mahan Esfahani. Listening to the broadcast felt like earwigging a textbook Proms gig, the kind where excitement and anticipation spill out from stage and auditorium, evident too online.

That excitement is in no small part down to the sincerity of the offer Manchester Collective consistently brings – a reflection of founders Adam Szabo and Raki Singh vision evident right from the start of their creative endeavour. There is integrity and authenticity to their work which results in them creating concert experiences that are fascinating and compelling. There was a sense that those I knew in attendance in the hall were there to witness a significant milestone in the group’s five years of existence.

Three standout performances in this Prom picked out below with illustrative clips.

Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto

There was a rock-gig feel to Mahan Esfahani’s keyboard work in Gorecki’s Harpischord Concerto, the music of which holds absolutely no prisoners with a driving incessant rhythm. The rust-like feel in the combined textures of harpischord and strings gave proceedings a creepy edge. The frenzied cacophony had a tinge of madness about it that was magnetic and repellant. Music that brings about strong contradictory emotions. Efficient writing. Electrifying playing.

Joseph Horovitz’s Jazz Concerto

I studied Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet when I was a student and loved his playfully light combination of classical and jazz. The same approach is evident in his Jazz Concerto for Harpishord and Strings, only this work has all of those trademark elements of Horovitz’s musical language really ramped up. None more so than in the final movement (opening clipped above) when the harpsichord lets rip, fingers crawling up and down the keyboard with all sorts of unexpected chromatic notes that theoretically shouldn’t be there but fit the bill for those who see a cranky miraculous world only just hanging together.

Kilar’s Orawa

Especially captivating in Manchester Collective’s encore Orawa by Polish composer Kilar was the extreme textural contrasts, heard in this clip at 7 seconds in.

I adored the dry sequences that seemed to favour a percussive textural effect over any discernible pitch, a texture I wanted to carry on indefinitely even though I knew it couldn’t – the musical equivalent of wanting to devour an entire family bag of your crisps after you’ve taken just one bite.

Be sure to watch the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s equally compelling lockdown recording of the piece (below) published last year.

Listen to the Manchester Collective Prom via BBC Sounds

Incredible

Not the greatest day. MPs reconvene in the House of Commons to debate the complete balls-up in Afghanistan, seemingly happy to overlook mask-wearing and social-distancing, whilst UK orchestras still have to be distanced in concert venues.

It appears that orchestral musicians are more of a risk to the health and safety of society than politicians.

Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart 24 with the Philharmonia at the BBC Proms 2021

Víkingur Ólafsson’s sizzling performance of Mozart Piano Concerto No.24 needs a quick noting down in the journal.

The detail in Víkingur Ólafsson’s playing itself I enjoyed most was most evident in the first movement where the piano part wasn’t always the dominant voice. That meant we got to hear alternative or ‘lesser-heard’ voices given more attention. There were many times when the piano, in particular the right-hand upper notes, were reduced in volume by Ólafsson, giving more prominence to the flute in some places.

And in one sequence clipped below it was being able to hear a melodic line in the ‘middle’ of the piano that really took me (pleasantly) by surprise, almost as though Olafsson had lifted the bonnet of the car he was driving and was pointing excitedly at the fuel injector.

Ólafsson and the Philharmonia with Järvi play Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24

There’s a directness or firmness to Ólafsson’s tone too which I’ve not heard in a performance of this concerto. And I rather like that too. The Guardian’s Andrew Clements didn’t agree who described the performance as ‘bizarrely anachronistic’.

Tthe listening path is worth documenting too. I watched first on TV. Josie D’Arby is by far the best Proms presenter on TV (sorry Katie, Tom and Jess), achieving that rare balance of authority, accessibility, sincerity and warmth. The audio felt as though it battled for my attention with the visuals so I didn’t really pick up on the detail in the playing (it was the Stradal arrangement of a Bach Organ Sonata that worked best on TV). It was only later listening to the radio broadcast I got to the detail in the sound production.

It’s the second time in a week that actively ‘leaning in’ to the detail in a live broadcast has brought me out of a motivation-less fug. It is by listening for detail that my mood is transformed, resulting in renewed impetus (hence the post about Thoroughly Good in a Nutshell). That merely listening in a focused way can have this transformative effect is another reminder of how I draw so much value from this genre.

Listen to Víkingur Ólafsson with the Philharmonia and Paavo Järvi playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor via BBC Sounds.

What matters most

As I write I’m listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven 6.

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard this work, but this feels fresh. Particularly the second movement.

So much character is created in the different textures in the strings, right from the beginning when the gossamer lines, undulating movement, and gentle industry make me feel as though someone’s pushed a boat out onto a lake.

In the basses in particular there’s depth, bounce, and lift created by resonant plucked notes. After a gentle take-off at the beginning of the movement, it is as if we’re gliding high above an idyllic pastoral scene.

BBC Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins, Friday 13 August 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms

It is the detail in the playing that matters to me most.

The way a high bassoon playing a short solo with the upper strings creates the most exquisite textural combination. Or elsewhere, the way chords ’emerge’ when flutes join clarinets. Or the sweet warm oboe intertwined with a melodic line in the flutes. Or the utterly divine clarinet solo slap bang in the middle of the movement, packed full of heart that the rest of the orchestra supports instinctively as one.

It’s the detail that is so easy to overlook in the familiarity of the music. I don’t especially love Beethoven 6. I would never pick it out to listen to it. Not really. Not like I would with pop music. But when I listen attentively to something that has detail I’ll hear it, see it or even think I can touch that detail. That’s when it comes alive.

Just like any Beach Boys album, when you ‘lean in’ and pay closer attention to the constituent parts somehow there’s even more joy to discover. It is the listening equivalent of stopping to take your time consuming a plate full of carefully selected cheeses.

It is perfection, especially in the final few chords that end the movement – gentle insistent musical ‘staples’ exquisitely placed by multiple players simultaneously playing as one. Miraculously uplifting stuff.

This is the magic at the heart of classical music I often feel goes overlooked, misunderstood as ‘knowledge’ about the genre when it is only evidence of attentive listening in the moment. This is where joy emanates from. This is our starting point.

This is the listening experience that grounds me. Listening attentively, with awareness and curiosity is all that is required in order to surface the power of this art form. Listening experiences like these are what ground, restore, and sustain me. It is these kinds of experiences I care most about that I want to others to see, feel and touch.

This is where the joy that comes from discovery is to be found. Anything else is a bolt-on. A distraction.

All this is in stark contrast to how was I feeling (and what I was thinking) before I began listening to Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven 6. That feeling of wretchedness and the negative thinking that spirals as a result of fatigue, worry and stress (the details of which don’t need to be outlined here) seem like a distant land. I am reminded that energy levels bring about negative thinking. It’s not the other way around.

I’m reminded too of one other pertinent insight. It isn’t the music itself that transforms mood or thinking or indeed energy levels. It is the practice of listening that engages the brain. It is the detail that brings the joy. Listening releases the much-sought-after serotonin.

Listening is what matters most.

Yet one question lingers. Who wants this? What organisation values this? Who is prepared to sit with exactly what all of us knows about this uplifting art form and put their money where their mouth is to sell the music in the way it moves us individually and personally?

There are so many who assume such detail is anathema to the art form and its appreciation. People associate listening with expertise. Expertise is expected of those on stage, but seen as a problem amongst those who appreciate the art form.

Listening is what matters most. And we all need to get a little more comfortable about celebrating that, I think.

A Rookie Error

It appears that I have been rather foolish.

Not only have I fallen into the trap of being an incensed middle-aged white male barking online about a performer’s concert attire, but I’ve managed to pitch myself deftly and efficiently as a classical music fan who is part of the very problem classical music is trying to rid itself of.

And I’ve achieved this in a short series of Tweets posted shortly after I left the Albert Hall last night, before I reached South Kensington tube station (which was closed, by the way).

Last night’s Aurora Orchestra was something I was looking forward to following rave reviews of the band’s Saffron Hall ‘sister concert’.

What took me a little by surprise and subsequently drew my eye throughout the first work was Pavel Kolesnikov’s bright orange Nike trainers. Rarely has concert attire drawn my eye quite so much, triggered so much thought and reflection, and in so doing distracted me from the sole purpose of the event I was attending in the first place.

Pavel’s footwear was, I understand from incoming correspondence, a clear sign to reach out to younger audiences to make classical music appear more approachable. From my seat in the stalls it feld oddly contrived and a bit arch. It was a distraction.

Even writing that now … in.an.actual.blog.post … gives me the fear a bit. I can hear the shouts across the internet heading my way. I can see whatever reputation it is I have disappearing down a plug hole.

Maybe one of those correspondents was right when she asked whether I might consider deleting my Tweets.

But then again. Maybe she wasn’t. My comment wasn’t rude. It wasn’t offensive. I was hardly spreading misinformation about COVID or vaccines. I was just expressing an opinion in the moment. I think that’s still OK. We should all of us be able to do that.

There is for me a good reason why everyone on stage by and large wears all one colour (a uniform if you like) or a pallet of colours. It’s to reduce distraction. I’m not advocating penguin suits or dinner jackets, nor evening dresses (these always strike me as distinctly uncomfortable to wear at a point in time when performers need to be ‘freed-up’). But against a neutral backdrop of players on stage at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall say, it’s hardly surprising that the introduction of a bright pair of trainers is going to draw the eye – to the feet rather than the keyboard.

I can now see producers rubbing their hands together with glee, others rolling their eyes with derision. Those with a proven track record in passive aggression will also be looking at this and no doubt thinking, “Well we had to wait a long time but it paid off – he’s finally made an idiot of himself saying this. He really is part of the problem.”

What Aurora’s concert has highlighted to me is that I’m surprisingly and comfortably conventional and orthodox. I’m attuned to contrivance. And I’m reminded that I’m less inclined to think that appealing to a younger audience is best done through fashion choices.

I still hold that the music should speak for itself. It’s just music. Listening is all that’s required. That and a properly funded music education system that introduces music at primary school level. That would help a great deal.

Beethoven 4 from the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms 2021

A high point of the BBC Philharmonic’s first outing at the BBC Proms this year was the orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. Packed full of detailed, precise and clear articulation, the dry whispering strings, warm wind and brass, and punchy timpani-line really exploited the cavernous interior of the Royal Albert Hall. This felt like a theatrical performance, with an occasional spotlight on highly complex musical lines like the terrifying bassoon solos in the last movement. The performance had a youthful and uplifting feel too, in a way I hadn’t really noticed in Beethoven’s fourth symphony before. An odd thing to admit to I know: I’ve heard this work many times before – it’s not like the musical material itself had changed, so what instead was different about this performance?

Proximity to the stage no doubt played a big part. With the stage extended to accommodate a distanced orchestra, The ‘H’ section in the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall is, bar a handful of seats to my left, basically like being on stage with the musicians, making the listening experience feel more immersive than any Promming experience in the past ten years.

There’s also the empty space in the Royal Albert Hall which adds to the atmosphere. The auditorium seating wraps around a large central space extending from floor to mushroomed-ceiling. Sound reverberates off the hard surfaces and rests in that space, giving the music a sense of depth I often forget about after an extended period away from the hall. Usually that period away amounts to say 9 months. This time it was a 18-month hiatus. Little wonder the senses were enlivened on this visit.

But perhaps more potent was things that were ever so slightly different from normal.

The top-level circle near to the arena – usually full for something like a Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn programme – was entirely empty all around the hall. Some heads popped up in the boxes; up in the gallery above, I counted three or four people. In the Arena (no TV so the equipment was gone and the Prommers were able to extend to their full-ish space) there was maybe a maximum of 100 people, with considerable gaps in between each line.

I explained to my partner how these seemingly insignificant observations actually made me feel unsettled. Put very simply, “It’s like when you see someone who’s dyed their hair just that wrong shade of brown for the colour of their skin and your brain can’t quite work out what’s wrong and also can’t stop staring whilst it tries to work it out.”

There was a sense that things weren’t quite right yet. We’ve got access. We’ve got our live musicians and the musicians have got some of their audience. But without the tourists, and the people dropping in for a concert after work, or the students, or the retirees, and the fundraisers shouting out their running total for Help Musicians UK, we’re missing a few pieces in the jigsaw. There was a party on but not all of the invitees felt able to attend. And I missed them. Everyone in the auditorium is as important to me as those on the stage.

Physical space, ambience, and the absence of others created a theatrical backdrop for the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. There was poignancy in the background and youthful exuberance in the foreground. And whilst it was utterly fantastic to be back wandering the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall, without more people present some of the buzz is lacking at the moment. It’s like Tim Woodall – former Marketing Director at the Philharmonia – tweeted on the First Night, “Got to be patient.”

What I’m liking about the BBC Proms 2021

Radio still thrives, and television coverage has been afforded the opportunity to get some gratifying wide shots. But is the televisual refresh at the expense of available space for Prommers?

It is without doubt a joyous thing to have the Proms back. I’ve been attending for thirty years in one way or another. On that basis it’s assumed the status of an old friend. Always there, even if at times I didn’t always understand why it was doing what it was doing or saying. The fact is it’s here and it’s on snd that’s a relief. Seeing the interior of the Royal Albert Hall brings back memories which are in themselves part of my ongoing Proms experience. And that is much-appreciated. 

Seeing and hearing familiar faces and voices – Derham, Klein, Trelawny et al. – reinforces that feeling too. After a year of uncertainty, the restoration of something that has provided continuity real and perceived also gets a big tick from me. I suspect a global pandemic abs something being ‘taken away’ has the inevitable consequence of resetting priorities. 

There have been mildly painful observations that have at first brought about some unease. A Proms pal of old (who would normally be in attendance at the First Night drew attention to the barren arena. Usually packed with people, this year the space was bare. A closer look revealed a slightly different layout to what has over the years become a very middle-class kind of mosh-pit. The distance between the prommers and the stage has widened (so too the stage to accommodate the distanced orchestra). There seems to be a physical divider between the back row of the prommers and the rest of the arena. Behind which appears at a distance to be an empty space. In fairness its a little difficult to say with any certainty about the amount the floor has been reduced by, but I’m an edgy kind of chap. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this after all.

Does this appear that the insistence of proof of immunity or vaccination wasn’t enough to pull in the crowds for the First Night. Is that a sign of the times? Is it also a hint of future times too? When I thought about it, I was surprised how much I apparently needed to see the Prommers there. The jigsaw isn’t complete until they’re all there. 

The flip side is, I realised after an emergency meeting with myself, television’s advantage. A much deeper stage (and taking over part of the arena – hence the seemingly empty space) means that a boom can face the stage full-on, getting shots of the orchestra usually only possible from the side. This makes for TV’s equivalent of immersive shots, bringing the music alive and giving proceedings a refresh.

There’s an argument that says that had the global pandemic not happened, the management’s fear of those Prommers who cling on to convention like a barnacle stuck Peter Grimes fishing boat would have made a radical shifting of TV equipment a difficult change to implement.

What the change underlines is where the priorities should lie (something highlighted in numerous digital streams across the year), with the performance. What I sought to watch on Friday and Sunday wasn’t chit-chat (sorry Katie and Tom) but the music.

And broadcasters are only too aware that what they’re competing with is on-demand music streaming. In the run-up to its centenary year, it makes perfect sense for the BBC to be prioritising the capturing of performance. That’s where it can create the most value from its core content now and in the future. Those interstitial moments are (I’m sorry again Katie and Tom) the stuff that will end up edited out.

Radio still thrives. I heard Petroc Trelawny’s interval feature with a Hollywood musical expert either recorded as live with audience ambiance underneath or done actually live. If the latter then it was invigorating live broadcasting. A reminder that radio triggers the imagination in a way that TV relays (deferred or otherwise) often crush.

The overriding question for me is whether this signals the gradual decline of the Prommers arena space. At some point, the stage will return to its normal size, won’t it? I can’t see TV producers nodding to management in the future and saying ‘Yeah OK, we’ll go back to what we were doing’. TV isn’t generally like that. So, given that the Prom tickets aren’t exactly a massive revenue driver (say a maximum of 500 people at £6 each), is the Promming area even worth the hassle? Has COVID given an opportunity to usher in a big change, or at least begin the transition?

The answer to that is to know whether whether the BBC would be happy to ditch one of the defining characteristics of a Proms performance in a a flagship global product during its centenary year next year. I hope not. 

All you need to know about Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

Technically speaking here at Thoroughly Good there’s no such thing as needing to know anything about classical music. It’s just music after all. But it’s important to make blog posts findable on Google, so please forgive the title.

Born in 1756 and dead by 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart packed in a lot to his short life. Taken on a tour of Europe (taking in London en-route) by his father. By the time he died Mozart had written 24 piano concertos, 5 violin concertos, 22 operas and 41 (some scholars say 40) symphonies amongst a slew of other religious, secular and instrumental works.

Mozart wrote symphonies 38,49 and 41 – the last he wrote – in 1788. So, musically speaking, these works go some way to illustrate the extent to which Mozart had developed as a composer.

They are remarkable for the amount of invention and development – the way in which he takes a simple melodic idea heard at the beginning of each movement and develops that idea through various key changes and textures is stunning. It’s also something which is so familiar a sound and so entertaining to listen to that its constituent parts could easily go overlooked.

What is a symphony?

A big question that demands a long answer. But there’s no time for that now. Put at its simplest, it’s a series of separate pieces of music (usually four) which are contrasting in style, but unified around a musical key or repeating musical idea. At the same time as Mozart, the ‘Father of the Symphony’ Joseph Haydn was also writing symphonies though these were often much shorter in length. Symphonies written after Mozart’s death by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler for example took on a much more epic scale.

Symphony No. 39

Listen out in particular for the final rip-roaring movement for an illustration of melodic invention built around one recurring musical and rhythmic idea. You’d think you’d tire of hearing it repeated over and over again. You won’t because Mozart is brilliant at varying it in ever more entertaining ways.

Symphony No. 40

The opening movement of Symphony No. 40 contains one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, underpinned by simmering string accompaniment.

The second movement has a stately dance feel to it throughout and takes the listener through a variety of musical keys of different colours that has the effect of subverting expectations and maintaining attention. It is a remarkable creation full of grace and poise.

The third movement breaks down into two contrasting sections, first a dramatic fast-paced swirling dance, the second a variation on the original musical idea but with an altogether smoother feel to proceedings. The first section returns to conclude the movement.

The concluding movement is tightly controlled and well-executed mayhem – a rollercoaster musical ride full of thrills and spills at every turn. Exactly the kind of music to have when something urgent needs doing. Exhilerating stuff.

Symphony No. 41

Full transparency: Symphony No. 41 is Thoroughly Good Favourite because of the richness of its sound built with contrasting wind and string textures. It also packs a punch in terms of contrasting musical ideas and complexities. Listen out for the variety of melodic ideas in the first movement alone. There’s even an operatic feel to some of the melodies in places.

The second movement has a similar stately thing going on as in the second movement No. 40. The third movement – a dance – has a portly swinging quality (when the timpani kick in).

Hold on tight for the rollicking joyous celebration in the fourth movement that starts with a seemingly low-key idea in the strings before opening out two bars later to include the entire orchestra in a blaze of exuberance.

Also, about five minutes keep an ear out for a series of jaw-dropping ‘chromatic’ notes where the melody seems to slide up and up. These are surprises and scrunchy and utterly gorgeous (if you like that kind of thing).

Towards the end, there’s what’s known as a ‘fugue’. Fugues are, no word of a lie, gripping musical wonders created when one musical idea is played by successive instruments to build a bigger whole. Put like that it sounds a bit shit, but go with it. It’s a treat.

Why is Symphony No. 41 nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’?

The nickname ‘Jupiter’ was applied to Symphony No. 41 allegedly by German violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salamon when he put on a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in London in 1821. The nickname is a reference to Jupiter, the chief god of the Roman pantheon.

Recommended recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

There are A LOT of recordings of Mozart’s music. So whilst this is a Thoroughly Good Recommendation its not necessarily or the best. It’s just a Thoroughly Good one. It a live performance of the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing all three symphonies. They especially give it some welly in the final movement of Symphony No. 41. Very pleasing.

Hear Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti in conversation in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast