Decision to remove composer’s work from BBC Proms prompts an angry response.

The BBC has come under fire from contemporary music enthusiasts in the UK after deciding to cut a three minute work by revered British composer Harrison Birtwistle from a television broadcast of the BBC Proms on Friday August 29 on its fine arts channel, BBC Four. The performance, featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain – one of the Proms seasons’ most popular annual engagements – was recorded on August 10 in front of a packed Royal Albert Hall. Conceived as a program of orchestral showpieces from the 20th century, in addition to Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000 the bill also included the ever popular Petrushka by Stravinsky, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 1 in D Flat and Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.  

The BBC have tried to reassure those upset by the cut that the performance will be televised as part of a special BBC Four documentary timed to celebrate the 80th birthdays of two giants of the British contemporary music scene, Birtwitsle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. However the implication that the decision to remove the piece from the television screening was to spare the British public from music deemed too challenging has riled some of the UK’s most respected contemporary music champions, who have been quick to point out that this is not the first occasion the BBC has chosen not to include a new work in a public broadcast. A number of other new works in the 2014 BBC Proms season have also been censored from their television outings including pieces by Helen Grime, Jonathan Dove, John McLeod and Roxanna Panufnik.

Leading the backlash against the BBC was Susanna Eastburn, former director of Music Strategy for the Arts Council England and Chief Executive of Sound and Music, the UK’s national agency for the promotion and advocacy of contemporary music and composers. In an article written for the Guardian’s music blog Eastburn pointed a spotlight on the BBC’s “creeping tendency” to remove contemporary repertoire, even of new works specifically commissioned by the Proms, from its televised broadcasts. Speaking to Limelight Magazine, Eastburn shared her concern about the BBC’s sterilisation of the Proms on British television. “Two things particularly concern me. Firstly it is a demonstrable lack of belief in the wide range of composers whose music has been programmed, rehearsed and, in some cases, commissioned by the BBC; it’s hard not to infer that in the eyes of some senior BBC execs, composers and new music are simply not as important.” Eastburn was also keen to emphasise the capacity for strong cultural impact the BBC has. “The apparent reluctance to broadcast more diverse content at the proms flies in the face of everything the BBC, as our biggest cultural institution and public broadcaster, is for, according to its charter. What is perhaps even more worrying is that it is hard to read this as anything other than a decision that assumes that TV audiences can’t take new music. What does this tell us about the BBC’s attitudes to its viewers?”

Susanna Eastburn

Many prominent composers and music commentators also took to Social Media to voice their displeasure at the decision to axe Birtwistle from the broadcast. Deputy Arts Editor and Classical Music Critic for The Times, Neil Fisher tweeted “Like WEIRD MUSIC? Then you’ll love the WEIRD MUSIC prom Sept. 11. P.s. “normals” [sic.] can watch other Proms safely without music by alive people”. In a tweet from Friday internationally renowned Scottish composer James Macmillan described the omission as “sobering and dispiriting”.  Outspoken cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, writing on his popular Slipped Disc website summed up his displeasure with “Bring me the head of BBC4”.

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