Classical music's televisual bleak midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter is the title of Tony Palmer's new film portrait of Gustav Holst which was premiered on BBC TV over Easter weekend. And In the Bleak Midwinter is also prettty good summary of where the film stands creatively.

The new film, which received much sycophantic pre-broadcast hype, is an anachronism. 1971 would be a more appropriate production date than 2011, except that forty years ago the film's many production flaws would not have been tolerated. These include clunky editing, an obtrusive low frequency rumble on many of the purpose recorded music sequences, poor colour matching between disparate footage, lack of establishing shots showing both conductor and musicians in performance sequences, and presenter Stephen Johnson repeatedly glancing off camera as if to seek reassurance that someone is still watching.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a televisual conflation of Karajan's 1970s Unitel films, Ken Russell's Malvern Hills period, and Palmer's own idiosyncratic mixture of music, talking heads, and library footage of concentration camps and fast moving clouds. Quite who the film is targeted at is a mystery. Yes, the Thaxted background is illuminating and the Imogen Holst archive footage priceless. But those who know Holst's music will find little else new and much to annoy. Those who do not know his music, and that includes many from a generation that speaks a new televisual language born from computer grapics, will find the two and a quarter hour long film as unappealing as a reheated dinner.

Classical music has perfected the art of blaming everyone but itself for failing to engage new audiences. If lack of funding cannot be blamed try changing demographics, poor music education, or the collapse of the record industry. But never ever blame classical music's self-interest and creative myopia. In the Bleak Midwinter makes the point that Gustav Holst's Planets Suite has probably reached more new listeners than any other classical music. But that it achieves this by taking its audience on a journey from the security of the familiar to the challenge of the new was missed both by Tony Palmer and those who commissioned his film.

In the Bleak Midwinter represents yet another missed opportunity for classical music. Whether we like it or not we now live in a culture where the visual takes priority over the aural. Classical music needs to leverage the new televisual language, as it does here, if it is to extend its reach. Where are the directors who can achieve this? How can we make new audiences see the music?

* Doth the blog protest too much? After writing the post above I checked today's traffic stats for On An Overgrown Path. They show a massive peak in readership for my 2008 article A Hero's Life Overshadowed. The subject of that article? - Imogen Holst. Now how about a biopic of Imo? That could be very interesting.

** Other Holst resources On An Overgrown Path include a feature on both Holst's Planet's and American composer Kyle Gann's contemporary take on the heavenly bodies. The linked podcast includes extensive extracts from the four hand piano version of the Planets featured in Tony Palmer's film. Elsewhere A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy covers Holsts' gnostic Hymn of Jesus, an important work that did not make it into Palmer's film. There is a rare photo of Holst with his pupil Edmund Rubbra in another post.

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Halldor said…
...and yet Twitter last night was alive with classical music aficionados commenting that they'd never realised Holst was such an interesting character - and non-classical listeners trying the music for the first time. Someone I follow listened to "The Planets" for the very first time last night, and described his amazed response online. Entirely down to the Palmer documentary.

With classical music, every time is someone's first time. It's vital not to become jaded - and not to forget that, just because WE know this stuff inside out, it's fresh and thrilling to far, far more people. Perhaps the blog really doth protest too much...
Pliable said…
Halldor. I am delighted that others found more in the film than I did.

But is classical music really now going to use the volume of tweets as the sole measure of quality? Is there no longer room for a view that differs from the twittering masses?

Perhaps Twitter is part of classical music's problem rather than part of the solution, or perhaps not. But whatever, I am not changing my view simply because it differs from those expressed on Twitter.

Can we now please debate what new televisual options are available to classical music?
I liked the film, although I admit that there were some editing deficiencies. The 4:3 aspect of the documentary scenes should have been preserved, instead of stretching them to 16:9 (which made everything quite pudgy...). Also rehashing that scene with Ukrainian people (which was already in the film about Rachmaninoff) was not such a brilliant idea... But overall I learned a lot about Holst's music through this film.
Pliable said…
Reinhold, thanks for that balanced contribution.

I wonder how many Twitter comments picked up on the televisual deficiencies identified in my post and in your comment? If the tweaters, as I suspect, did not does this make them any less valid?

Yes, there is room for more than one view. And there is also room for views that differ from those on Twitter, and views that come from outside the all powerful BBC magic circle.

Reinhold's own blog is worth a visit -
Tim said…
The "Ken Russell Malvern Hills" link is the same as the preceding Karajan link... any chance of a fix?

On the upside, it did lead me to a rather brilliant slideshow of Scarlet Johannson set to Beethoven 7! Now there's some leveraged televisual language for you!
Pliable said…
Tim, my televisual deficiency is now fixed.

Frank Little said…
May I throw in two more criticisms: the careless (or arty?) selection of aspect ratios, and the gratuitous shots of Nazi concentration camp victims?

Like you and other correspondents I was grateful for all the other revelations, but it could have been so much better.

Donald Macleod's R3 "Composer of the Week" features Holst this week by the way.
Hi Pliable,

thank you for pitching my blog, which I have neglected lately for quite some time...
If I may put a plug here: do have another blog with more music-related posts:

Reinhold you like Palmers work in general{I loved the Shostakovitch film and the Leonard Cohen]?You insight is often unerring when it comes to music,so I will take your word on this.Holst was an interesting character ,nonetheless.
Pliable said…
TWD, I admired Tony Palmer's earlier work. But, for me, his more recent films have sunk into a creative rut which in the case of the Holst film became a self-parody.

My reaction to the film were also influenced by the general reaction on Twitter and elsewhere of, oh, we did not know that about Holst and isn't it wonderful that television has revealed all - one journalist used the words "revelations about his nature and beliefs".

This is utter nonsense and someone needs to say so, even if it disagrees with both the twittering majority and the BBC groupies.

There was nothing in the film about his nature, beliefs, or anything else that could not have been found by a few minutes reading a biography or Googling.

Our society is losing its ability to think for itself. Instead it treats TV and Twitter as divine revelations.

And I did not think much of the film either...
Halldor said…
Pliable, you misunderstand my point. Twitter doesn't prove anything in itself - like any broadcast medium, it's as useful the content it carries. But it is quite good at indicating what people are thinking at a given time; and from what I saw, it seemed to suggest that the film - with all its defects - was sending people back to what really matters: the music. Which strikes me as a better use of 2.5hrs of BBC primetime than we usually see.

For what it's worth, I agree with you about the quality of the film. It was a throwback. I'm rarely convinced by classical music on TV in any form - but if there is a future for music documentaries, I don't think they'll be like this. A Ken Russell or a Tony Palmer for the 21st century - if one emerges - will be as radical as they were at the start; ie, quite differeent in every regard other than the film-maker's passionate engagement with the music.
Pliable said…
Halldor, thanks for that clarification/amplification.

I agree with you Twitter "is quite good at indicating what people are thinking at a given time". But what is dangerous, and increasingly common, is the view that because a lot of people are saying it on Twitter at a given time it is right.

Twitter needs to be treated with extreme caution, both because of the herd mentality and because of its need to reduce complex and paradoxical arguments to 140 characters.

This particular thread about Tony Palmer's film has expanded way beyond 140 characters. As it has done so a much more complex picture has emerged than expressed either by my essentially negative review or by your original post saying that Twitter has given it the thumbs up.

That complex picture did not, and almost certainly could not, emerge in Twitter discussions. Which is a good illustration of the dangers of classical music's, and society's, current obsession with social media.
Unknown said…
I was also left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction by this film, but couldn't explain why (or didn't dare express it) until I read your post. The failure to retain the 4:3 aspect for the archive footage was particularly annoying but seems to have become endemic on TV these days...
May I ask you and your readers to help me identify the music used during the end titles of the programme? It sounds like an African choir...

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