When market forces and music collided
The dramatic cancellation of last night's Philadelphia Orchestra BBC Prom due to a fire was the first Promenade Concert to be lost for twenty-six years. In 1980 the circumstances of the cancellations were far more serious and damaging, and the story is worth retelling to underline how precarious is the livelihood of our wonderful performing musicians.
A financial crisis that had simmered at the BBC for several years flared up in February 1980 when a large package of economies were proposed to save £130m ($235). The proposal involved disbanding five orchestras, including the BBC Scottish, in a move aimed at saving £500,000 ($900,000) a year, or eight per cent of the BBC's music expenditure. On May 16 1980 the Musician's Union voted to strike against the BBC, and two weeks later the musicians of the BBC Symphony, and all other BBC musicians, stopped work. The dispute was not just about job losses, the musicians suspected a hidden agenda of a move away from contract orchestras to freelance arrangements.
The 1980 Proms season was at the centre of the dispute, and the Managing Director of BBC Radio publicly said the concerts were of 'less consequence than the music policy of the orchestras for the future'. The dispute was extraordinarily bitter, and for the first time ever in the history of the series the First Night was cancelled. The BBC broadcast a recording of the scheduled work (Elgar's The Apostles) while the BBC Symphony Orchestra played a protest concert in an alternative venue under the baton of that musician's musician par excellence Sir Colin Davis. As plans for more protest concerts gathered momentum, including one conducted by another musician with experience of the barricades, Pierre Boulez, the BBC began to back down. On July 24 a compromise solution was reached, and the BBC caved in to the Musician's Union demands and withdrew all the notices of dismissal. The BBC Scottish Symphony was thankfully saved, although long term damage was inflicted on it by limiting the number of musicians, but two other orchestras were disbanded with many job losses.
Twenty concerts were lost from the 1980 Proms season which resumed on August 7 with a programme of Ravel, Messiaen and Mahler's Fourth Symphony conducted by Sir John Pritchard. The 1980 autumn season was in full swing for the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC Symphony on 22 October which was dutifully attended by many of the BBC Governors who just months before had tried to drive a dagger through the hearts of the same BBC musicians. The dispute was settled, but it gave an early warning of the market driven management that today leaves both Radio 3 and the BBC Proms a pale shadow of their former selves.
Sources: The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1920-1988 by Nicholas Kenyon (ironically), publisher BBC (out of print), and Is the Red Light on? The story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra by John Purser, publisher BBC Scotland (out of print).
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