If you want to know how music really works listen to Classic FM not Radio 3

Tom Service’s new Sunday afternoon programme The Listening Service isn’t as satisfying as Catherine Bott’s long-established series on Classic FM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

He’s been billed as the new Pied Piper but it’s going to take a while for Tom Service to quite match the engaging brilliance of David Munrow, who back in the 1960s persuaded us that medieval pipes-only music was cool listening. Munrow’s series on what was then the Third Programme was aimed at six-to-12-year-olds but succeeded in drawing everyone in because of his gift for communication and his willingness to explore the wilder shores of repertoire, creating sound connections we had never heard before. Service’s new magazine programme for Radio 3, The Listening Service, may be inspired by Munrow but it’s not yet sure what it’s meant to be. How experimental? How difficult the content?

It’s timetabled at 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, presumably in the hope that, like Munrow’s series, it might catch the interest of ‘young adults’ before they have to buckle down to the last-minute homework rush. This perhaps explains why, in the first episode at least, it was difficult to pin down its tone, starting off with Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music and ending with Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro (note the lack of translation). That first programme looked at musical beginnings: how do composers (whether standard classical, contemporary upstart or platinum-selling pop star) start a piece of music? How do they begin?

Anna Meredith, who has written music for the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms as well as for ‘a flashmob body-percussion performance’ in a service station on the M6, says that even before she has written a note she will have the title. This gives her an idea of the journey she wants to go on, and also the trip she wants us as listeners to enjoy. Service himself took us back to Bayreuth in 1876: a theatre plunged into darkness, then the faint glimmer of a long, slow chord from the double basses, gradually building, instrument by instrument, into the tumult that announces the beginning of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

But the musical clips were all too short, the pace of delivery too fast for us to take in what we were being told. I wanted, or rather needed, to hear more of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ symphony to appreciate fully what he was up to, and how he was working on his audience, surprising and thereby engaging. More coherent was Neil Brand’s segment of the programme, devoted to pop music, and how stars such as Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney hook us in with those first crucial seconds. We heard fragments from the usual suspects but it was the upbeat Pharrell Williams and his 2003 hit ‘Happy’ who caught my ear and led me to check it out online. Not what I expected.

Next week, Service turns his attention to repetition in a programme that sounded much less frenetic and desperate to impress, as if he is beginning to find the measure of what he’s trying to do. We discover how scientists have been exploring what happens in our minds when we listen and in particular when a short phrase within a longer sentence is repeated many times. The words in the phrase and their meaning get totally lost and all we can hear is a musical cadence. You can test this out for yourself on the programme in a clever move that suggests the series has the potential to become as much a classic as Munrow’s original (although Service could have come up with a more meaningful, catchier title).

Over on Classic FM, Catherine Bott (ex Radio 3) has been treating listeners to her guided tour of the musical world in her now long-established series Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Classical Music (Sunday evenings). This week she talked to Meryl Streep about her latest film in which she plays Florence Foster Jenkins, who in the 1920s and 1930s entertained audiences in New York with her excruciatingly awful performances of arias from some of the best-loved operas. Nothing daunted her, whether it be Mozart’s Queen of the Night or Delibes’ Lakmé.

Why, asked Bott, do you think people kept coming back to hear her? (We heard selections from her recordings and so now know what they endured.) ‘Her passion and her zeal,’ said Streep. ‘And her love of music, her deep desire to deliver this expression of what she loved.’ It’s a lesson in how we should not be too precious about music, or critical. Foster Jenkins had money enough to indulge her desire to perform but she did also bring joy simply by how ‘really felt’ was her joy in the music.

One critic wrote of her that ‘she was exceedingly happy in her work’. It’s also what comes across in Bott’s delivery of her weekly programme. It’s not necessarily going to challenge us by taking us into parts of the repertoire we don’t usually hear but what we are given is a masterclass in how music can really change us, and why. And because it’s an hour long (as opposed to Service’s 30 minutes) we were also given satisfying chunks of music to enjoy.

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  • CRSM

    A few years ago, Late Junction on R3 was a wonderful place to discover quirky, yet serious music. Now that it is on later, it doesn’t know what it is for. I’m not even sure if the programme still exists.

    Classic FM however is the “Sun readers” take on serious music. Frankly I find it pedestrian and even dire.

    • Comment from London

      Late Junction is still very much alive and worth listening to at any time of the day on the BBC iPlayer. Radio 3 also has some very good talk and drama programmes which I highly recommend although I would prefer the BBC having a dedicated highbrow station to put them on. Something similar to France Culture would be perfect.

    • hedgemagnet

      LJ is still excellent radio in general, but for some reason I don’t find Max Reinhardt’s taste in eclecticism floats my boat quite as much as Verity’s or Fiona’s did. (Or does. Are they still on? It always seems to be Max running the shop when I tune in)

      • CRSM

        That was certainly my view when I did give it a few listens with the new presenter(s). Verity Sharpe had a taste in unusual music that resonated well with me.

        I’ll have a look at the R3 scheduling to see if it gives LJ programme details for the coming week.

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      Classic FM listeners use the music to ‘relax’ with–as though it’s a Valium substitute, the swine!

  • Bristol_Boy

    Classical FM started out as a credible classical music program, but it has morphed into a (moronic) advert driven ‘ top of the pops’ facsimile. The music played seems to be violin and piano concerto obsessed with the underlying theme of particular composers and musicians seemingly those favoured by the presenters, namely Suchet and Jones, one obsequious the other boring.
    Having conveniently created a ‘top 300’ it can repeatedly play the same music not only daily but often programmably.
    Please no more Bruch violin concerto, Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto and the incredibly boring and meaningless lark ascending by Vaughn Williams, there is a vast amount of music out there, let’s have more variety.

    • Herman_U_Tick

      Yes. No more Vivaldi, ‘classical’ guitar pieces, Eine Kleine or Fur Elise.
      There is lots of good music we don’t hear; music by recent composers that is not in the
      (artificial) ‘top 300’, and music by ancient composers which off the desperately
      formulaic beaten track.

      What I would like would be a station which had the independence of R3 in avoiding a complete lowest common denominator approach whilst taking into account the fact that further listenings to Schoenberg and Elliott Carter and Boulez are unlikely to reveal musical value which has failed to surface in the last 60 years of exposure.

    • logdon

      ‘incredibly boring and meaningless lark ascending by Vaughn Williams’

      What horrible elitist snobbery. And you don’t even know enough to capitalise properly.

      Has it ever occured to you that sublime music such as this, could have inspired a love of classical music to a relative tyro?

      I first heard it in the early Seventies whilst driving across a Peak District plateaux down to Ashbourne.

      My imagination went into overdrive as the music melded into the scenery. It was perfect.

      And from then on the car radio was on Three as default.

      So much for your poncy prejudice.

      • Bristol_Boy

        Elitist snobbery, poncy prejudice? have you considered that these descriptions might apply to you more than me? and have you also considered that a lack of capitals is a purposeful statement. Get down off of your high horse and be less abusive, my attack was on the program and it’s presentation, musical choice and it’s single track presenters.
        I have a substantial classical music collection that enables me to listen to hours and hours of endless music, without ever needing to endure the three pieces I mentioned, music is a personal choice and I have expressed my dislike of these pieces, so you continue to enjoy your ‘sublime’ boring music and I will enjoy mine.

        • logdon

          What a prejudiced person you are in your sad elitist bubble.

          I also have a substantial collection of over 3000 cd’s including jazz and blues but don’t need to brag about it.

          Pathetic little man. Best source of amusement today.

          • Bristol_Boy

            Pathetic little man, best source of amusement today? ah, obviously looking in the mirror as you spew your bile, obnoxious idiot.

          • logdon

            Oooh, that’s told me hasn’t it?

            Get back to your worzals Mr Gummage.

          • Bristol_Boy

            Good grief are you still here, tell you what just to prove you are a moron I will let you have the last word.

          • Miss Floribunda Rose

            I myself have 7000 cds. Not only would I never brag about my collection (as to do so would be utterly pointless and beneath contempt), but I actually feel slightly embarrassed to own so many! “Ooh, what a lot of compact discs and books you have!” is something I intensely dislike hearing from my very infrequent visitors….

          • logdon

            Amazon eh?

            I moved home two years ago and the cull began. Space demanded it and as quite a lot were stored in the cellar it seemed a good idea.

            Living not too far from Hay-on Wye was wonderful and they’re now (or were) at Richard Booths and the Cinema Bookshop.

            Similarly about a thousand CD’s were disposed of in the same town.

            No regrets. Actually quite a relief.

          • CRSM

            Wow! 7000 is about 6 times as many as I have, I am impressed. I bet that like me, there’s some of them that haven’t been listened to for a long time!

            But like you, I have an extensive book collection. Books have a life of their own, in the way that no amount of Kindle files on a hard drive can have.

      • CRSM

        I have to admit that I like “Lark Ascending” and many other works by Vaughn Williams. But then I have a great interest in English folk music, as well as the folk music of much of Europe, so I can understand his emotional attachment to the English rural scene.

        I’m sure that I’ll be considered well outside the pale however as I never could understand the appeal of Mahler, as an example.

        • logdon

          It is quite lovely and isn’t that the point?

          I can also listen to Phillip Glass or Shostakovitch and obtain the same amount of pleasure.

          It’s not a contest.

  • itdoesntaddup

    Both are a pale imitation of Antony Hopkins “Talking about Music”.

    • salieri


      I thought of that programme wistfully last Sunday, and again about an hour ago when Tom Service said nothing very much on the subject of repetition – and said it repetitiously and with random but oh-so-diverse-and-inclusive examples. His faux-enthusiast tone masks shallow pretension and a truly astounding lack of substance. That he is regularly wheeled out as the BBC’s all-purpose cultural guru is extremely depressing.

  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    One of my favourite pieces of music is ‘Sus une fontayne’ by Johannes Ciconia, and anything by Solage. Listen to it on You Tube.

  • NSBarnett

    If you want to know how music really works listen to Classic FM not Radio 3
    Possibly, but once you do know, listen to 3

  • Duke Amir Often

    If you want to listen to adverts, listen to Classic FM.