Posted by Richard on  UTC 2015-10-16 11:07 Updated on UTC 2016-04-14

The 'Proms' is an annual series of concerts of classical music that was first held in 1895. So far, so good. Or not. In the case of the 2015 series, which ran from July 17 to 12 September, some surprising items were introduced to the programme that provoked some discussion. There was, for example, a concert offering 'a musical homage to Ibiza' and a series of concerts with assorted rappers and street music.[1]

Now, I have never been to a Proms concert, I have never been in the right place at the right time. Repelled by concert performances in general – the distractions, the noise, the discomfort, the sobriety and the gurning and play-acting of the performers – I probably wouldn't have gone in any case. So I really have no desire to howl at the moon about the 'degradation' of a series of classical music concerts that I don't in the least bit care about.

Although the Ibiza anthems and the rappers were the items that caused the fuss, when I looked at the rest of the programme there seemed to be a lot of concerts that I personally would not call 'classical' music: a 'Sherlock Prom' (apparently Conan Doyle's favourite pieces plus the theme from the BBC series), Fiddler on the Roof and a Sound of Music singalong as part of the 'Last Night' of the Proms. The response of the organizers to the grumblers was to call them snobs[2] – essentially the argument can be summed up: 'It's all music, innit. Get over it'.

As I said: I don't really care what the cultural Marxists at the BBC want to do to a concert series about which I also care nothing. I was, however, interested in trying to come to a definition of classical music that got a bit farther than the 'It's all music, innit, you snobbish bastard' response.

It should definitely not be a definition based on what people like. Alfred Brendel, the famed Austrian pianist, when asked whether he listened to pop music said simply: 'When should I listen to pop and rock music'.[3] Well, that's a tad fierce for most people, who would probably prefer to say they like a bit of this, and a bit of that and under certain circumstances a bit of something else.

It is difficult to make statements about the musical differences between classical music in all its multiplicity of types and popular music in all its multiplicity of types that that cannot be immediately refuted. OK, I've never knowingly come across the sonata form in a piece of popular music, but there are plenty of other standard forms that are close to it. Popular music has its own conventions. And so on. You can sing to both, you can dance to both, you can be uplifted and calmed by both. There is, however, one gigantic difference: you cannot store classical music in any satisfactory way on an mp3-player or even the music playing software on computers. That, I claim, is the way to differentiate between classical and popular music.

Has anyone reading this found an mp3-player with an interface that is suitable for classical music? If you have, please tell me which it is.

Mp3-players are designed for popular music and so assume your music collection consists of performers, albums and songs. The user typically chooses a performer/album combination and the songs from it. Songs from different performers and albums can be grouped in a playlist. Well, everyone with an mp3-player knows that.

When I load classical music onto any of my mp3-players or computers, they make selecting and listening to it almost unusable. They are expecting album—performer—song and I give them composer—piece—language—performance—date—performer—movements. God help me when its an opera. On my system I have three Magic Flutes, four Marriage of Figaros (three with an Italian title and one with a German title), two Rigolettos. All with different performers and often sung in different languages. I have quite a few overlapping collections of Schubert Lieder, the same songs from different performers in different groupings. Even in instrumental music, without the troublesome factor of language, I have a number of different performances of many pieces. And why do I need a playlist?

Classical music is focused on the composer, then the work with all its components such as movements, then the performer or perhaps even the year of the recording. The same work can be recorded many times with a mutating cast of performers, orchestras and conductors. Do you know – be honest – who the composers were for most of the popular music pieces you listen to?

I have tried to help my mp3-players by restructuring the files on the flash card into folders and subfolders. The player defeats me: it is only interested in the medatdata of the files and will mercilessly rearrange them into its album-performer-song organization.

Worse still, the display limitations of mp3-players make selecting a piece tricky. Whereas in my pop music collection I can choose, say, 'Rolling Stones' and then Honky Tonk Woman from the display, in my classical music collection the poor mp3-player does its best to show me 'ARNOLD SCHOENBERG CHOR Schubert : Complete Secular Choral Works Cantata - 'zu Ehren von Joseph Spendou' D472 : II "Gottes Bild ist Fürst und Staat"'. The selection display shows me firstly the 16 characters in the display ('Cantata - 'zu Eh') then sets off slowly scrolling horizontally through the 147 characters of performer—album—song. Once playing it scrolls through 95 characters ('…Cantata - 'zu Eh'), which, since there are four pieces that begin like this is not helpful. In some works in my collection the titles of the work are the same or similar, only the opus number or the catalogue number is significant. Too much detail, but you get the point.

It is however true that the classical music business is now responding to the message of the medium and producing more and more compilation albums with a star performer singing or playing single pieces and single movements plucked out of the classical repertory. You know the kind of thing: 'Plácido Domingo, Verdi Baritone Arias'. If you are only interested in the performer then these are the things for you. They load onto your mp3-player perfectly. In which case, therefore, we can unhesitatingly call these products popular music. Snob? who, me?

Nevertheless, I still maintain that the music playing interfaces of mp3-players and computers are the best guide to what is classical and what is popular music. In which case the London Proms should only play music that cannot be easily loaded onto an mp3-player. Problem solved.


  1. ^ BBC-Proms: Its all gone Pete Tong at the Albert Hall. (23.04.2015)
  2. ^ Only snobs object to a Pete Tong Prom says BBC-presenter (07.07.2015)
  3. ^ BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs: Alfred Brendel (15.11.2013) 26:30-27:40.
    [AB] … I have a daughter, Doris, from my first marriage, who is a pop and rock singer and composer. and the other two girls are not directly affiliated with music and I I never expected it anyway. I rather wanted to prevent my children unless they are extremely good. And when my son Adrian played a movement of a Beethoven sonata at his school, age ten, I told myself this is a musician and he should have the chance to develop what he's doing.
    [KY] And what about Doris with her pop and rock career?
    [AB] Er I'm happy if she's happy as long as I do not have to listen to it too often.
    [KY] And there are no pop and rock choices today. Would you ever listen to pop music for pleasure?
    [AB] No No No. You see. I'm interested in the whole of what is sometimes called classical music; I'm interested in the arts; I'm reading; I'm writing - I'm thinking sometimes, even. So when should I listen to pop and rock music?

Update 14.04.2016

The Proms 2016

Although clearly shaken by the broadside it received from this blog on the subject of the 2015 Proms, the BBC doggedly continues on its path to cultural doom:

A multi-storey car park in Peckham, South East London, is to be one of the venues for this year's Proms festival.

Musicians will battle the sound of trains while concertgoers may have to brave the elements on the top floor of the concrete building.

The unconventional venue forms part of the BBC's continuing bid to attract a younger and more diverse audience to the Proms.

So this year sees the inclusion of a Strictly Come Dancing-themed prom, which will see dance professionals from the BBC show take to the stage alongside host Katie Derham – a Strictly finalist last year.

There will also be a tribute to David Bowie, led by Berlin-based musicians' collective Stargaze performing instrumental interpretations of his hits and less well-known tracks.

The Peckham concert on September 3 will feature music by US minimalist composer Steve Reich, played by the Multi-Story Orchestra. The orchestra specialises in taking classical music to unexpected places. Explaining why he wanted to use a car park in Peckham, new Proms director David Pickard said: 'It's a very special place and extraordinary music happens there.'

Pickard, former general director at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, said the intention behind the Strictly Prom is to celebrate music written for dance. He said he even considered encouraging the audience to dress up, adding: 'There's quite a good chance it will be the campest Prom ever.'

Despite significant financial cuts at the BBC, organisers said that the £10million budget for the Proms had been protected. Half that sum comes from the sale of tickets, a third of which are available for £12.50 or less.

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