Sound and vision blog

18 May 2020

Recording of the week: Don't try this at home!

This week’s selection comes from Nick Morgan, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Joseph Sussman (1920-2013) was surrounded by music – literally: his house and garage were crammed full of 78s, LPs, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and videos. They vied for space with stacks of printed music and books, on composers, performers, schools and teaching, as well as on Jewish history, thought, art and music. The sheer numbers, breadth and depth spoke eloquently of Mr. Sussman’s long, busy life as a music teacher, organist and choirmaster, listener, scholar and collector, husband and father. After his death, his daughters generously offered his collection to the British Library. Curator Jonathan Summers spent several days appraising it, and I went along as a volunteer helper in selecting recordings in all formats.

In 2019 I was lucky to join the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project as a cataloguer. By chance, my first assignment was a collection of 50 reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Mr. Sussman in the late 1950s and 1960s and retrieved by us six years earlier. Most of the tapes contain BBC Radio broadcasts which haven’t survived elsewhere: talks on music and its history, composition and performance (not only classical), live and studio concerts and recitals. They reflect his wide interests and expertise, especially in Jewish music – notably, the works of the Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch.

On a few tapes, Mr. Sussman himself plays the piano or accompanies his wife and very young daughters in touching songs and recorder pieces. Music-making was part of the Sussman family’s everyday life, and at its heart was the piano, as it had been in countless households from the mid-nineteenth century on. So deeply rooted was this hundred year-old ‘piano culture’ that, as one of Mr. Sussman’s tapes reveals, in the early 1960s BBC Radio producers still took it as a basis for broadcasts to a wide audience.

In 1961 the BBC’s popular Light Programme broadcast ‘Valerie Tryon at the piano’, a fifteen-minute recital by the British-born pianist, then in her twenties but already a seasoned radio artist – she had been on air since 1954. The music she played whisks us back to a middle-class parlour around 1900: a Mendelssohn Song without Words, a Beethoven Bagatelle, a Chopin Waltz… with only a Poulenc Mouvement perpétuel, written at the end of World War I, to remind us that the ‘long nineteenth century’ had ended in the trenches.

portrait of Valerie Tryon

Another reminder of past tastes and attitudes is the programme’s presenter (he’s not identified – do you recognize his voice?), sounding as if perched avuncularly over Valerie Tryon’s piano. He starts engagingly, welcoming us into the fellowship of active pianists: ‘Miss Tryon is going to play pieces that many of us have tried, probably, at some time or another, to learn to play ourselves.’ The Chopin Waltz, though, brings out a critical streak: ‘Many an aspiring pianist has probably been guilty of somewhat cavalier treatment of the music of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schumann, but poor Chopin has probably suffered more than most.’ And if the cavalier pianist isn’t sufficiently chastened, a parting shot puts amateurs firmly in their place:

BBC Light Programme, 24 July 1961 (BL REF C1644/11 S2 C7)

Many of the BBC presenters on Mr. Sussman tapes sport a similarly supercilious air, though one suspects they felt freer to talk down to some audiences than others. Still, this broadcast, and many others preserved by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, remind us how much classical music the Corporation offered audiences fifty years ago across all channels and all manner of formats, moods and ‘brows’. The BBC’s offerings ranged from Valerie Tryon’s salon favourites on the Light Programme, through repertoire familiar and not so familiar, such as Bloch’s works – which were aired surprisingly often on the Home Service – to the didactic earnestness of ‘Study Session’ on the unsung Third Network and, finally, the rarefied reaches of the Third Programme. Thanks to Mr. Sussman and other home-taping enthusiasts, by visiting the British Library’s reading rooms you can relive this almost vanished era, when classical music enjoyed a place at the heart of Britain’s homes and public life.

Follow @BL_Classical@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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