The huge machine

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

A reasonably brusque attack on the musical policies of the BBC. Plus ça change…

The status of the musician

I have on two or three occasions chatted with Dr Stanley Marchant7 on subjects varying from the education of choirboys to adjudication at competition festivals, mingled with talks on the playing of Bach fugues. So, starting with knowledge of his earnestness and clear vision, I was not surprised that various editors of daily newspapers were similarly impressed, and had given prominence to his presidential address to the Incorporated Association of Organists at Portsmouth. All the same I detect some ambiguity in Dr Marchant’s remark that musicians in general; and church musicians in particular, are proving increasingly that they can be considered as being on an equal standing with the members of any class of professional men, both in intellectual achievement and in the amenities of social life’.

Doubtless they can be so considered, but in fact they are not, with the possible exception of two or three conductors and a score of singers and instrumentalists. I take the BBC as in broad outline panoramic of English life: and in the picture I see the composer of music crouched in a corner, completely obscured by the jazz merchant, who has all the red carpet and most of the paragraphs, a few being reserved for the visiting foreign artist. If only half the publicity given to these people had been diverted to English music and its composers, neither would now be so forlorn. The opportunity came with broadcasting, but the BBC failed us, and now English creative music is at a lower level than it has been for wore than a century. Rather then risk the cessation of increase in licences, the BBC would see English music in flames and its composers starving.

I am more in agreement with Dr Marchant when he speaks of the improved position of the church organist in relation to the parson, though this I believe can be traced back to the cultivation of music in the public schools, where most parsons are trained. They have come in increasing numbers to realise that music is an art aptly associated with religion: but whether church music is best served by the superior person decked in hood and gown is another question.

We must remember that many people, quite tolerant in most things rigidly refuse to recognise any hood that is not associated with the universities. Then again, the question of salaries for organists makes very appealing reading; but a little robust questioning would reveal that some organists give in hours only proportionate service for the salary received, and are at liberty to teach or to compose music, both which activities may be less remunerative than training choir boys and accompanying a service. For a large-scale work he would receive just absolutely nothing, even though it were performed before the largest audience in London.

The huge machine

Doubtless, the political position is in England better ordered than in some other countries, but all the same we are beset with a number of incipient dictators, while in the arts we find that type of person in possession of great if camouflaged powers. As a rule, the press of the country allows and applauds the decrees of the Tzars of music, but by some strange mischance, as a number of press-cuttings show, the appended protest by Dr Frederick C Shinn8 was circulated widely throughout the country: ‘Music today is controlled by a huge machine which chooses what you shall hear and how you shall hear it’.

The machine here alluded to is, of course, the British Broadcasting Corporation, but in justice to the men working there, it should be pointed out that they are for the greater part only implementing a thraldom that is in operation in America as well as in England. German music is in the saddle and it rides down and derides native art wherever it is seen. In the States, the position is so pitiable that native composers are deeply grateful when one of their foreign-born music mentors permits the performance of an American work, we in England are not quite so abased as that: on the contrary, many of us curl the lip when we encounter such patronising phrases as ‘A Programme of English Music’ or ‘The English Composer’, mostly because if it is a case of the BBC, we know who the composers will be and where they were taught.

Why, in the hands of the Government, English potatoes are accorded better treatment than English music in the hands of the BBC, and what is more all sorts of potatoes and their growers share alike in the protection. The fact of the matter is that the BBC in its present form has been with us too long: occasional changes in its personnel make no difference in its policy, which, in music, is offensively patronising and un-English when concerned with the art in its higher form. And all this has been made worse now that the huge machine is dominating the concert hall. Why should not the BBC go out of office completely, like an unpopular Government?

  1. Later Sir Stanley Marchant (1883—1949), organist. educationist, and composer. He had been organist of St Paul’s cathedral from 1929, and in this year became Warden of the RAM; in 1936 he succeeded JB McEwen as Principal. His Te Deum for George V’s Jubilee is well spoken of. ↩︎

  2. Unknown to your annotator. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, October 1934, p. 15