At a reception following a typically barn-storming performance by the Berlin Philharmonic led by Sir Simon Rattle at the BBC Proms, the festival’s director Roger Wright gave a curiously defensive speech. He reminded his audience that it was easy to think of the Proms as something entirely separate from the BBC, whereas it is of course a festival that owed its existence to the corporation. He talked of the six professional performing groups that the BBC funds, to the tune of £25m last year. That is, in international broadcasting terms, a staggering sum, and a welcome act of support for classical music, one of the most demanding and fragile art forms in the firmament of contemporary culture.
His message was timely. It has not been a good couple of years for the BBC and we need reminding that the ennobling of the human spirit is as central to its mission as the rewards granted to some of its staff and contributors are grotesque. The corporation has done little to resist the gradual coarsening of the British airwaves; indeed it has been among the most conspicuous offenders. In a cultural universe that made sense, the salaries of Rattle and Jonathan Ross would be reversed. But then we all wish for world peace, too.
Both conductor and orchestra were at their finely honed best in Beethoven’s 4th and Mahler’s 1st Symphonies. They presented an even more compelling programme the following evening: Viennese masterworks, opening with Wagner and Richard Strauss as historical bookends, followed after the break by the intervening radical soundscapes of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.
I watched on television this time, equally enthralled, but was dismayed at the interval to be subjected to a short piece on Viennese fin-de-siècle culture by Katie Derham, floating in the corridors of the Austrian capital’s Belvedere Palace in a pretty red dress. I have nothing against the presenter, who is personable and capable. But here was a notable example – and I think the BBC is probably looking for one or two – of wasted resources.
There is a received wisdom in broadcasting today that “high” culture is best made accessible by fresh-faced interlocutors making brief travelogues that usually involve odd camera angles and corny set-ups. Sure enough, in this evocation of Vienna’s cultural turmoil, we had anxious hands turning the pages of Freud and Schnitzler over coffee, frisson-laden tête-à-têtes between Katie and Klimt, and so on. But there are far more enthralling – and cheaper – ways of bringing your subject alive. The segment went on to feature one of the best: a single camera focused simply on the expressive and intelligent features of the evening’s conductor.
Such are Rattle’s skills as a communicator that there is simply no need for middlebrow embellishment. He is clear and articulate, and unafraid of the dramatic phrase: he described Schoenberg’s Five Pieces as sounding “like drops of blood falling on glass”. He uses his hands and eyes with precision and – what else? – impeccable timing. He has lived with this music, sweated over it: what could be better than to listen to him, properly, at length, rather than as part of a bland package?
This is where professional communicators such as BBC producers lose their nerve. The very idea of a middle-aged talking head holding the screen for more than a couple of minutes seems terrifyingly unfashionable to them. Yet they are behind the times. Culture is full of brilliant communicators, who have discovered the art of twinning erudition with vivacity, depth with breadth.
This is partly what makes ours such an exciting cultural time. Rattle may disagree. He paid tribute in his all-too-brief remarks to the stirring movements of early 20th-century Vienna: was it not the time and place in which anyone interested in the arts would choose to have lived? It certainly produced extraordinary work. But Vienna was not a place at one with itself. Leading cultural lights – among the most monstrous egos of their time – treated each other with contempt. “There are two things one can’t fight against, because they are too long, too fat and have neither head nor foot,” wrote the novelist Robert Musil waspishly: “Karl Kraus and psycho-analysis.” Freud’s insights were barely celebrated, while those of Ignaz Semmelweiss, on the spread of infections, were ignored completely because he lacked political allies.
This was a society rich in fractiousness and prejudice, as well as brilliance. But what we have, in the western world of the 21st century, is arguably something better: the ability to communicate, widely, clearly, loudly. It is not only the music featured in the BBC Proms that should move us; it is the fact that it is heard and relished by so many people. Has there ever been an era that so remarkably combines distinction with dissemination? Don’t let the forced jollity of this evening’s Last Night concert put you off. The Proms are a talisman of excellence to brandish before those would-be licence fee slashers like garlic before a vampire.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden