Ah… Those Were the Days!

What happened to those good old tunes people listened to on the radio? Jeremy Nicholas says they’re back for good and there’s more to them than you think…

Ten years ago I made a series of radio programmes reviving the music that was played on Children’s Favourites and its successor Junior Choice. These were the first record request programmes for children, enormously popular and which ran through most of the 1950s and 1960s every Saturday on the BBC Light Programme, presented by ‘Uncle Mac’ (Derek McCulloch) and latterly ‘Stewpot’ (Ed Stewart). My first celebratory excursion into the archives included The Laughing Policeman, The Three Billy Goats Gruff and You’re a Pink Toothbrush, I’m a Blue Toothbrush, included with regularity on both programmes for years.

Hallo Children… Everywhere (which is what I called my programme) prompted a huge response from listeners, but one letter I shall always remember. A chap wrote in to say that he had been listening while driving along in his car and, in the middle of a particular number (Me and My Teddy Bear), started crying. He cried so much that he couldn’t see where he was going and had to pull over into a lay-by where he sat weeping for the rest of the programme, listening to these musical snippets he had not heard since he was a child. That’s nostalgia.

The power of music to evoke memories is unparalleled by any other medium. ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’, to quote Noël Coward’s over-quoted (and frequently mis-quoted) quip from Private Lives. Like most of Wilde’s epithets, one mustn’t examine Coward’s too closely, but it begs two questions: ‘What exactly is cheap music?’ and, having answered that, ‘Is it only cheap music that is potent?’.

If Someday I’ll Find You is ‘cheap’ then I’ll buy it any day, as movingly evocative 70 years on as it ever was. ‘Knowingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative music’ – does that serve as a definition? Where does it leave the extraordinary potency of great classical music? The ‘Shepherd’s Thanksgiving’ from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the finale of Franck’s Symphonic Variations and the opening of the Overture to Iolanthe, none of which could ever be described as cheap music, produce the same emotional response in me as Someday I’ll Find You did in Elyot in Private Lives, attached to the same particular private memory recall.

I say ‘pieces’ but really I mean ‘tunes’. There are tunes that have burned themselves into our collective consciousness: the sound (and film) of Jacqueline Du Pré playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto; I Was Glad – Parry’s great coronation anthem which now precedes every state occasion; Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – indelibly associated with the visual images and clipped, tear-stained dialogue of Brief Encounter (back to Coward again!). I happily fall for them every time. Call me sentimental – I’m proud to admit it. And as for that scene in the woods towards the end of Elvira Madigan where the leitmotif of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 creeps in for its penultimate appearance, well… choke… sob… pass the Kleenex.

Incidentally, I have never met anyone, musician, critic or music-lover, who has been moved in the same way by a piece of serial music. Dodecaphonic composition, to give it its posh name – ‘organised cacophony’ or ‘aural experiment’ to give it mine – fails to hit the heart. It is music which does not inspire affection. No 12-tone work has ever appeared in the top 1,000 favourites of any poll. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz admitted to occasionally playing works by contemporary composers for two reasons. ‘First, to discourage the composer from writing any more, and secondly, to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven.’

We want to weep and sigh and laugh and be profoundly moved by music. For this we need tunes, tunes dressed up in a harmonic language with which we can identify. We have always wanted tunes. Music without tunes and an accessible harmonic language has always come very much as an optional extra to requirements. To write a tune the milkman can whistle has been, is, and always will be, one of the great divine gifts and no amount of serialism, academia or music-to-impress-fellow-composers will make up for its absence in the art of musical composition.

Today’s ‘serious’ composers seem incapable of writing a tune. Perhaps they can, but are afraid to – afraid of sentiment or being thought old-fashioned. I remember once asking a leading British composer if his new commission for the Proms would have some tunes. ‘Oh yes’, he replied, ‘there’s a string of them’. I listened to the broadcast, but no: 20 minutes of the usual anonymous squawk and squeal destined for one UK performance and a few more at obscure German festivals before slipping into deserved oblivion. What was puzzling was this distinguished composer clearly thought he had included tunes. So it is a real pleasure to have witnessed over the past few years a rearguard action on behalf of melody.

Collections of music by composers who really knew how to write a good tune: the likes of Eric Coates (The Dambusters), Leroy Anderson, Haydn Wood, Robert Farnon, Ron Goodwin and Albert Ketelbey (In a Monastery Garden), the sort of composers labelled by the intelligentsia of the musical establishment as ‘superficial’ and ‘second-rate talents’, linked by the damning tag of ‘light music composer’ have never been served so well by the record industry. There has been a rush of new releases devoted to radio and television signature tunes; look at the current popularity of film soundtracks – film composers like Michael Nyman, John Williams and George Fenton may soon be as highly regarded as the concert hall composer if we carry on like this (why, even the long-derided opera, concerto and song composer Erich Korngold has had his pre-Hollywood scores re-evaluated); there’s the burgeoning crossover market (whatever we may think of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Dawn Upshaw singing standards or Michael Bolton or the Spice Girls tackling opera).

All points to one thing: tunes sell records. Melodies, especially when linked to a particular artist or performance, press that button marked ‘Emotional Memory’. Or, in one word, ‘nostalgia’. It is one of the most compelling reasons for listening to music at all.

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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