Friday 3 July 2020

The change from major to minor

Even my beloved BBC Radio 3 has become absolutely diversity-'of-a-certain-stamp'-obsessed. 

Listen, as I do daily while working from home, to Radio 3 Breakfast and Essential Classics, and you'll hear vastly more female composers than you would have done ten, five, even two years ago, and likewise vastly more black composers.

Every day, every programme, in go the ticks.

Very few programmes now pass without their large quota of black composers and female composers. 

I love exploring unsung composers though. It's what I do. There are so many of them. And huge numbers remain unsung.

The BBC has been particularly keen recently on promoting Florence Price - a black, female US composer. Radio 3 keeps on playing her. She was Composer of the Week earlier this year. And she's an appealing composer. If you like Dvorak in New World Symphony mode, you'll love Florence Price's colourful, charming knock-offs of his style with black, ethnic touches - spirituals, etc. She's a refined, top-of-the-Fourth-Division composer, and I like her music. It's nice.

But, of course, by being so heavily promoted, she's knocking out vast, vast numbers of other dead, white, male composers who have never had their due, and aren't getting it now on BBC Radio 3.

I could list hundreds of them for you that I think are better composers than Florence Price (black, female)...or Dame Ethyl Smith (female), or Amy Beach (female), or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (black) - other current BBC favourites for reasons of identity politics. 

They haven't a chance at the moment.

That said, I do like a bit of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - best known for his popular cantata Hiawatha (cultural appropriation?): a black man who forms part of the great flowering of British classical music around the beginning of the 20th Century. He's not quite up to the quality of Parry or Stanford or Bantock - the precursors of Elgar and Vaughan Williams (the great heroes of the early 20th Century English musical renaissance) - but he's worth hearing, and I occasionally get a pleasant glow from hearing his very nice, pleasant, minor pieces...which is no bad thing for me because BBC Radio 3 is now shoving parts of his collected works at me several times a week.

But why not listen to something more rewarding instead? Endless Florence P and Samuel C-T and William Grant Still (another pleasing black echoer of Dvorak and recent Composer of the Week) are certainly PC, tick-ticking choices, and the BBC is giving their music endless plugs, but where are my hundreds and hundreds of much better composers? 

They mostly aren't being broadcast, that's where. 

And I chuckle at the almost daily, sometimes twice-or-more-daily doses, of Clara Schumann and Cecile Chaminade and Fanny Mendelssohn - those feminine shadows of much greater composers. 

Cecile was, for almost a century, the epitome of ephemeral, minor salon music for the piano and the ultimate 'minor composer'. Was that 'history' being sexist? Now, thanks to identity politics and box-ticking, she's an unavoidable presence in the ears of Radio 3 listeners, yet her music remains, to my ears, what it always has been - charming, but, in terms of being interesting, not a patch on the piano works of hundreds upon hundreds of less boring composers. 

That said, some of the present-day female and BAME composers tick-boxed off daily on Radio 3 in the morning are proving highly rewarding to listen to - and, my goodness, BBC Radio 3 are making us sure we know their names. I've particularly picked up on Errollyn Wallen this week. She's both black and female, so double ticks all round for the BBC. 

It's a form of gerrymandering.

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