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For the 80th birthday of their greatest living musician, the Dutch have come up with an original gift. In the week starting March 9, the fourth channel of Dutch radio will offer daily downloads of Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw orchestra. One click at http://tinyurl.com/cr79d8 will take you there.
This is a thoughtful gesture, timely and wholly in keeping with Haitink’s history as a purveyor of high-quality performance to an international audience. During quarter of a century at the head of the Concertgebouw, he had a second life in Britain, as music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and ultimately Covent Garden where, on several occasions during its crisis-ridden 1990s, he was the Dutchman with his finger in the dyke, saving an embattled opera house from watery political annihilation.
In his late 70s he has held the Chicago Symphony Orchestra together in a tricky three-year interregnum between Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti. When last seen this month, he was leading Chicago on an inaugural visit to China, conducting what is reported to be the first Mahler Sixth ever heard in Beijing. ‘Wonderful experience!’ exclaimed one young audience member in an email to my website. Both Haitink and the orchestra halved their fees, but not the effort they put in to the performance.
It is for such generous and far-reaching gestures that, despite occasional grouchiness, the octogenarian conductor is universally admired and that is why it is so appropriate for broadcasters in Holland to display his work to best effect in his coming birthday week. It would be apt for a matching gift to come from Britain, where he has spent half his life, received a knighthood and met the last of his wives in the opera house orchestra. It is an ideal moment for the BBC to webcast the finest hours of a remarkable man and extend his legacy by the best means possible.
‘No can do,’ was the BBC’s response when I suggested it, ‘the Trust won’t let us.’
To understand why, you need to go back four years to an internet venture that opened large parts of the world to Beethoven. Inside the corridors of BBC Radio 3, a plan was dreamed up to go online with the nine symphonies played by the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester and see if anyone picked up. Optimists predicted 5,000 downloads, ten at most. Pessimists said ‘what’s a download?’
When the numbers were counted, they came to 1.4 million takers, the biggest audience for Beethoven since records began, many of them in such lands of orchestral deprivation as Vietnam and Korea, not to mention countless shy teenagers in tiny bedrooms across the UK. It was exactly the kind of educational initiative that politicians keep promising but never deliver and the network was cock-a-hoop.
But before it could move on to Bach downloads at Christmas, the music industry intervened. Record labels put up an outcry that the BBC was competing unfairly with their classical assets. Ignoring the fact that most major labels had switched from Beethoven to reality TV contestants, they badgered MPs and members of the BBC Trust to slap the wrist of naughty Radio 3 and make sure that the BBC never again gave away classical music. Never mind that Beethoven was out of copyright and the performers were BBC employees whose work belongs to the British public that pays their wages. Giving away symphonies had to be stopped or the music industry would collapse, so the argument went.
A second assault undermined the venture from within. Ever since the BBC was founded, certain executives served as liaison points with the music biz, aiming to share talent and avoid friction. Sometimes the contacts got so close that BBC people felt more affinity with the song pluggers than with the public interest. During the downloads war, there was evidence of split loyalties within Broadcasting House.
In the end, the BBC Trust issued a definitive ruling in February 2007 that classical music should be ‘entirely excluded’ from downloads for the foreseeable future. The ruling, as I argued then, was based on a misreading of an Ofcom guideline and amounted to the biggest capitulation to empty threats by a major power since Neville Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.
Members of the Trust, in private conversations, have since told me since that the ban need not stand forever. Now is the time to hold them to their word.
Set aside the Haitink birthday as a sentimental indulgence. There are more important matters to hand. This year brings the anniversaries of two of the greatest composers that ever lived in London – Henry Purcell, who was born in 1659 and Georg Frideric Handel who moved here in 1715 and died in 1759. Both are core British heritage and both are known to the general public by a tiny fraction of what they wrote – Dido’s Lament for one, the Hallelujah Chorus for the other. Purcell is by some margin the less explored and the more rewarding of discovery. In his own short life, he was so celebrated that the best composers in Italy came to London to see how it was done.
During the week beginning March 16, Radio 3 will provide an intensive survey of Purcell’s life and work and BBC2 will air a bio-documentary. A second radio dose of Purcell therapy is due in September and a third in November. These transmissions will reach, at most, two million UK listeners, all of whom demonstrate a prior interest in music by tuning their sets in the first place to Radio 3 (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3).
If the BBC wants to extend arts to a wider audience, as pledged recently by its director general Mark Thompson, the way to do so is by putting the music online where there are no fixed slots and Purcell can be freed from genre fears. It is both an educational imperative and a matter of national pride that his music should be heard by as many new listeners as possible, domestically and worldwide. But it cannot go online unless the Trust revokes the ban.
Members of the Trust are, barring the odd New Labour lackey, reasonable men and women with a fine sense of public duty. They are susceptible to polite argument and responsive to opinion. You can write to them at email@example.com. I have an intimation they are ready for a change of policy. They just need a little push.
In the past two years the music industry has lost most of its lobbying muscle. If Dutch radio can offer free classical downloads, other public broadcasters will follow. It is both absurd and self-destructive to inhibit the BBC from competing for the listeners and viewers it needs to justify its public funding. Let Purcell’s birthday be a turning point for The Fairest Isle. It’s time for the BBC to resume classical downloads.
Some paid-for classical music downloads
1 www.passionato.com High-grade (320bps) selection of 200,000 tracks, the most comprehensive around but not cheap. A new Handel opera costs £23 ($30).
2 www.classical.com Similar and UK-based, offering 450,000 tracks and £4 per month subscription.
3 www.classicfm.co.uk Heavily branded partnership with all-purpose I-tunes. Not very friendly.
4 www.classicsonline.com Anodyne Naxos and allied labels, cheap but few stars.
5 http://musicdownloads.alexanderstreet.com/promo/ Offers free download of the week – currently George Enescu’s 2nd string quartet.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]