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42 posts categorized "BBC"

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

18 May 2020

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

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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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11 May 2020

Recording of the week: Birth then and now

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This week's recording of the week comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Photograph of friends Gill and Deb

Gill and Deb have been friends for many years so when Deb split up with her partner during her first pregnancy she asked Gill to be her birth partner. Gill had already given birth to five children herself and Deb felt that she would be an experienced and reassuring presence at the hospital. Gill was someone she could trust at a time when she was at her most vulnerable and also someone with whom she wanted to share the magical moment of birth. Gill was very happy to be asked and they managed to make it work even though they were living some distance apart. Here they describe how they prepared for the birth and why it was such a positive experience for both of them. They talk about what they think makes a good birth experience and what can have a negative effect. They also discuss how attitudes towards birth and women’s bodies have changed in the 57 years since Gill had her first baby.

Gill and Deb (BL REF C1500/721) mp3

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Gill and Deb can be found on British Library Sounds.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

06 April 2020

Recording of the week: 'I didn’t come into the jungle to look at trees and lianas!'

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This week’s selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World & Traditional Music.

Cover of CD release 'Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea'
Cover of 'Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea' (TSCD918)

Former senior producer for BBC Radio 3 John Thornley made this field recording in 1987, in Kei Village, near Mount Hagen, in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. The field recordings resulting from his three month stay in Papua New Guinea form part of the British Library Sound Archive collections. A selection from his collection was published on the Topic Records CD ‘Healing, Feasting and Magical Ritual. Songs & Dances from Papua New Guinea’ as part of the Topic World Series, done in collaboration with the World and Traditional Music section. The ‘Hunting Song of the Moge and Kopi clans’ features nine unnamed performers from Kei Village playing a song on bamboo flutes. Thornley’s liner notes about the song and players hide an interesting story inaccessible to the ear. I recommend listening first, to sink into the song’s hypnotic melody and then reading Thornley’s words about the song, which reveal a surprising layer of insight.

Hunting Song of the Moge & Kopi Clans

‘This was one of several songs that this group had arranged for bamboo flute, staggering their individual breathing so the song could be played seamlessly. This song is about a hunter who has no luck, and sings: ‘I didn’t come into the jungle to look at trees and lianas, I came to hunt for possum and birds!’ The four holes of the flute are played with the first two fingers of each hand. One player had a missing second finger on his right hand (in the area it is still a tradition to chop off one or more fingers as a sign of mourning for a close relative) so was playing with his first and third fingers.’

If you want to listen to a broader selection of recordings from the CDs published by Topic Records, you can listen to 'Topic World Series', our tenth programme for NTS Radio.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 March 2020

Recording of the week: 'I didn't catch any of that!'

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

In this audio clip, Iona McDonald describes a familiar experience – failure to understand someone from a different part of the country or English-speaking world. Extremely broad dialect speakers can occasionally seem unintelligible, even to speakers of closely related varieties, as this amusing anecdote illustrates:

Anecdote about Scots dialect

We used to have some friends from the Falkirk area who used to come up and stay with us every year in the summer time and they had a very very strong accent very strong Central Scots accent and Sandy had been playing outside and came running in very windy day came running in and he said to my mother yir streetcher’s fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we all looked at the poor boy blankly and he repeated himself again yir streetcher's fawin doun yir claes’re on the grund and we were still making absolutely nothing of it we had to say right slow it down Sandy and yir streetcher's fawin doun and yir claes are on the grund so oh right we've got it now it meant your clothes-pole has fallen down and your clothes are on the ground and he just stomped his foot and looked so put out and said yous are aw too polite.

Iona MacDonald
Iona MacDonald © BBC 2005

Dialects differ systematically from other varieties in terms of vocabulary, grammar and accent (i.e. pronunciation). Sandy’s animated description here contains words, such as streetcher [= ‘clothes-pole’] and claes [= ‘clothes’], a non-standard pronoun, yous, and numerous localised pronunciations that render his Central Scots dialect incomprehensible to family friends from Skye. Yous occurs in a number of Scottish dialects and indeed in places like Merseyside and Tyneside, but Standard English no longer distinguishes between singular and plural ‘you’. Sandy’s pronunciation of doun, grund, aw and fawin are also typical of many Scottish accents and, to a lesser degree, of varieties in North East England.

This passage comes from a BBC Voices Recording in Portree, Isle of Skye, and is one of 300 conversations about language, accent and dialect made by the BBC in 2004-5.

Follow @VoicesofEnglish and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 December 2019

British Library Sports Word Of The Year 2019

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

This year marks the sixth annual British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY) review. While I can’t claim it’s a major fixture on the annual awards circuit, six does, at least, have some sporting significance: six games in a tennis set; six pockets on a snooker table; and six cricket balls in an over (well until next year’s Hundred, that is). This annual review takes its inspiration from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) and various Word of the Year nominations. Firstly, then, congratulations to Ben Stokes for winning SPOTY 2019, and to the equally magnificent Dina Asher-Smith for running him close (actually if they’d had to race there might well have been a different outcome!); and to they and climate emergency for emerging as Word(s) of the Year according to Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries respectively.

And so to the ten candidates for SWOTY 2019, selected from a personal scrapbook of words and phrases that caught my attention on broadcast and social media platforms and in the mainstream press during the last twelve months:

January (Marina Hyde reflecting on the European PGA decision to stage a prestigious golf tournament in Saudi Arabia, Guardian Sport): Understanding the wider issue of sportswashing ought not be beyond your ken, either.

ScrapbookApril (Tanya Aldred previewing the 2019 county cricket season, Guardian Sport): If you thought the tension of Dom Bess’s heave at Ciderabad last September couldn’t be beaten, just watch and wait.

May (Richard Barnes reviewing Tottenham Hotspur’s 2018-19 season, Guardian Sport): Biggest surprise: our ability to find a way in the Champions League against the odds. Very unSpursy.

June (Vic Marks reporting on England versus Afghanistan at ICC Cricket World Cup, Guardian Sport): This made it the six-iest match in World Cup history.

July (Athar Ali Khan analysing bar chart of England’s runs per over versus Bangladesh at ICC Cricket World Cup, Sky Sports): Look at those big overs in the middle Manhattans.

August (Phil Tufnell reflecting on fading light during England versus Australia Lord’s Test, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): It’s getting a bit Noah’s out here.

September (Paul Farbrace describing outgoing England coach Trevor Bayliss, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): He absolutely loves the game ... he's a cricket nuffy.

September (Jamie Jackson describing James Maddison’s performance for Leicester City against Manchester United, Guardian Sport): Maddison could be spied in the classic trequartista position.

October (Sean Ingle quoting Daryll Neita’s assessment of World Athletics 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith, Guardian Sport): She’s a G. You are doing bits, darling.

November (Gerard Meagher quoting Siya Kolisi’s comments on the impact of South Africa’s triumph at IRB Rugby World Cup, Guardian Sport): We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas.

This year’s list namechecks five sports with one entry each for golf, athletics and rugby union; two for football; and five for cricket. The dominance of cricket can probably be attributed to England’s triumphant World Cup on home soil and to the fact it represents an extremely rich source of innovative and specialist terminology. As ever, the selection illustrates a range of linguistic phenomena and encompasses dialect, slang and jargon; it includes a loan word; and, for the first time, examples of the potential of morphological creativity. Of the ten nominations, seven straddle the blurred lines between sporting jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary), dialect (i.e. localised variants) and slang (i.e. informal forms): sportswashing, Ciderabad, unSpursy, six-iest, Manhattan, nuffy and trequartista. The other three occupy a similarly undefined position on the dialect-slang continuum but are not restricted to sporting contexts: Noah’s, do bits and shebeen; they qualify, however, as they demonstrate how sporting discourse in the press and on broadcast and social media – especially interviews with athletes, live commentaries etc. – gives vernacular English a mainstream platform.

In the light of increased corporate sponsorship of sport and the expansion to new territories of prestigious international sporting events it’s not surprising that sportswashing [= ‘a strategy whereby a nation or corporation leverages sport to enhance its reputation’] has made the headlines this year. Sport frequently serves as a legitimate tool for soft diplomacy, but sportswashing – recorded in the MacMillan Dictionary from 2018 – describes a deliberate policy of harnessing sport’s popular appeal and wholesome image to deflect criticism from a regime or company’s corrupt or unethical behaviour.

From a British point of view we might justifiably consider nuffy [= ‘person with particular passion/obsession’] Australian dialect, but the Macquarie Dictionary categorises it as ‘colloquial’ and even includes cricket nuffy as one of its examples of typical usage. Likewise, shebeen [= ‘illicit drinking den (esp. in South African townships)’] is classified as South African English in the OED. Both forms demonstrate the ‘World Englishes’ dimension of cricket and rugby as sports predominantly played in Commonwealth countries, as does the initially puzzling Ciderabad [= ‘Somerset County Cricket ground, Taunton’]. This is a wonderful example of wordplay containing multiple layers of cultural reference and requires considerable knowledge of cricket to deconstruct and interpret. Firstly, one needs to know that Taunton and Somerset, in the heart of England’s West Country, are synonymous with cider production and consumption and, secondly, that cricket pitches there have recently been unusually receptive to spin bowling. Finally, one needs to be familiar with cricket in the subcontinent, where pitches – such as the Test ground at Hyderabad in India – are traditionally associated with dry, dusty conditions ideally suited to spin bowling. To capture all that implicit knowledge in a single word is pure genius.

Two entries reveal a similar kind of linguistic playfulness, but rather than exploiting a phonological association, unSpursy and six-iest require imaginative grammatical manipulation. For many years, Tottenham Hotspur – nicknamed Spurs – have played attractive football but ultimately failed to win trophies, despite frequently coming agonisingly close. As a result many football fans, including Tottenham’s own supporters, have adopted the word Spursy [= ‘the tendency to falter when within reach of success’], such that it has attracted the attention of Collins Dictionary. As an adjective, Spursy adheres to normal English rules of derivation so additional forms can be generated. In this year’s Guardian I’ve spotted the noun Spursiness – note the adherence to English orthography in the substitution of a medial <i> for the adjectival suffix <y> – and, here, unSpursy, with its cheeky nod to the non-conformist conventions of e-publishing whereby a capital letter (denoting the underlying proper noun, Spurs) appears word-medially. On the other hand, six-iest [= ‘match with the highest total number of boundary sixes’] is a nonce-formation based on the number six with an unconventional superlative suffix added. The inspiration here is, I suspect, similar idiosyncratic sporting superlatives – to British English speakers anyway – such as US English winningest [= ‘individual athlete/team with the most victories’], but with the additional appeal of a phonological similarity with sexiest, capturing the notion that a game featuring such a high number of risky shots must be the most exciting and glamorous.

The term Manhattan appears to be widely used among cricket statisticians and commentators, and thus probably constitutes cricketing jargon. Modern sports analysis relishes a data visualisation tool and cricket has embraced this technological development enthusiastically. The wagon wheel [= ‘visual representation of direction of batsman’s run-scoring shots’] has been around for some time, but until this year’s ICC World Cup I was completely unaware of the Manhattan [= ‘bar chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’] and its counterpart, the worm [= ‘line chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’]. I’d be intrigued to know if either term is used by mathematicians more broadly.

Manhattan
Due to the prominent role played by the British in codifying football, English dominates much of its associated specialist terminology so it’s rare for non-English words to enter football jargon, hence the inclusion here of the Italian loan word trequartista [= ‘attacking midfielder, playmaker’]. The greater presence in recent years of European footballers and coaches in the UK has meant an increased appetite for European tactics and, hence, the vocabulary to describe these innovations. In addition to trequartista, Guardian articles have this year featured the words rondo [= ‘training drill in which players seek to keep possession of the ball in an enclosed space’], regista [= ‘deep-lying midfield playmaker’] and raumdeuter [= ‘player who reads (and exploits) tight spaces’], from Spanish, Italian and German respectively. All three appear in numerous online glossaries of football and – more importantly – in spontaneous conversations about the game among English fans.

Finally, we turn to two slang terms: Noah’s and do bits. The former confirms our enduring enthusiasm for rhyming slang – Noah’s is, underlyingly, Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’], but the conventions of rhyming slang dictate that the rhyming element (ark) is omitted. Green's Dictionary of Slang records Noah’s [= ‘lark, prank’] from 1891; [= ‘park’] from 1924; and (in Australian English) [= ‘shark’] from 1963, but has no record in this sense, while the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) records Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’] from 1934 – coincidentally including a citation from 1992 in a cricketing context. The endlessly productive and light-hearted nature of rhyming slang explains its continued appeal. The quote from Daryll Neita, by contrast, is a fantastic example of current British urban slang: do bits [= ‘to do well, to succeed’] is first recorded by Green in 2017 – Dary’lls use of G [= ‘term of praise’] in the same breath, by the way, is also cited from 1991.

All of this year’s entries are captured in The British Library’s Contemporary British collections, making the Library an incomparable resource for anyone interested in monitoring vernacular language. And so to the winner: well … my head tells me it should be sportswashing as I sense sports governing bodies should respond to calls for greater social responsibility, but hey – it’s Christmas – so I’m going with Ciderabad. Because it’s brilliant.

CIDERABADFollow Spoken English collections at https://twitter.com/VoicesofEnglish

 

06 June 2019

D-Day has come

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US troops disembark landing craftU.S. Soldiers disembark a landing craft at Normandy, France, June 6, 1944

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For those people in occupied countries, this was life changing news.  Seventy five years ago today, as the allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches to liberate France and countries beyond with Operation Overlord, these words were broadcast by the BBC.  By the end of the day, 6th June 1944, 150,000 Allied troops had landed on five Normandy beaches.

D-Day has come

In 1944 the radio – or wireless as it was known – was the main source of information.  The day before D-Day, known as D-Day minus one, the BBC broadcast instructions from Supreme Allied Command to those in occupied countries to make sure they would be listening to their radios on D-Day during the actual invasion of the Normandy beaches.

D-Day minus one

Meeting of the Supreme Command  Allied Expeditionary Force  London  1 February 1944 Meeting of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), 1 February 1944 

Reporter Richard North on board a ‘largish craft’ described the scene of the invasion during a live broadcast on the morning of 6th June 1944.

Eye witness on Normany coast

These recordings are from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

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Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh CollectionMagid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961 by Donald SouthernThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

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