Classical music

"If you were to try and find something which linked most of the things that I like together, it's sort of in a way extremism. I like startling things, things which make you stop and think, 'Goodness me, what is that?'" (Private Passions)

'Classical music' is a term nowadays widely used to distinguish Western art music from other forms, and is somewhat of a sweeping generalisation, although it contains some features that it shares with no other musical form. In the last two decades, with the advent of commercial stations such as Classic FM in the UK, it has achieved a hitherto unknown level of popularity and commercialisation, with its own charts and numerous compilations of the more popular segments. Prior to this, it was almost entirely the cultural preserve of the BBC's Third Programme and subsequently BBC Radio 3, although the remit to appeal to a minority highbrow culture also led to the production of plays, talks and documentaries.

Due to its somewhat exclusive nature and the dissemination of, by the definition of some, "better" music than rock or pop (opinions of those who do not appreciate it usually make mention of length, slow speeds and a tendency to bore the listener), physical archives of performances have tended to survive with far more robustness than what was considered ephemeral art forms. However, classical music also had its "popular" side; recordings of "light" or "popular" classical pieces sold well in the pre-rock'n'roll era and were regularly heard, in programmes such as Your Hundred Best Tunes and These You Have Loved, on the BBC Light Programme and, later, Radio 2. Even in the early 1970s, compilation LPs of Your Hundred Best Tunes featured in the pop LP charts alongside those which appeared in Radio 1's Sounds of the Seventies playlists[2]. Classical artists like André Previn and Kiri Te Kanawa also made TV series for the BBC in an effort to reach a wider audience, although they generally didn't have much appeal to younger viewers.

In spite of the efforts of his family (notably his opera-loving mother), it could never be said that Peel was anything more than an admirer of classical music; it never featured to any degree on his shows, with the outstanding exception of Night Ride, which allowed him to indulge in his taste for works outside the mainstream. However, he told Wire magazine in 1995 that "I like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call "Lollipops", in other words the classical equivalent of All Time Golden Hits...."[3] In an interview on My Top Ten (Transcript), Peel mentioned that if he had time to listen to anything for pleasure it tended to be classical music composers like Dvorak.

Nevertheless, certain classical works were the background to some of the most important events in his life; in the 1995 Wire interview he said that he had first listened to classical music at his prep school, as "one of my best mates...was actually quite a good pianist" and "keen on Chopin" and JP would enjoy his playing. Later in his life he certainly showed an appreciation of its continuing influence on pop culture that belied a willingness to be open to its emotional and visceral power.

In the United States, the relationship between classical music and other musical forms was different. Some Americans revered great classical composers and performers, but felt at the same time that the tradition was not entirely theirs. This made them less inclined than Europeans to isolate the classics from popular forms, and willing to encourage musical fusions which were unthinkable in the Old World. From the earliest days of radio, live classical music concerts were broadcast and the commercial networks which became powerful in the 1930s employed their own symphony orchestras, under star conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski, a tradition which continued into the 1960s. [1]

Yet the ascendancy of jazz and popular dance forms in the twenties and thirties relegated what had become standard musical taste for the masses, with the Broadway musical taking over from European operetta. The long-haired "highbrow" musician, usually an exiled European with heavily-accented English, became a figure of fun in Hollywood films. Artists had to counter this by popularising classical pieces: Gershwin's 'Rhapsody In Blue' (chosen by JP on Private Passions) is an early example of someone who had previously written songs such as 'Swanee' attempting a symphonic approach. Rawicz & Landauer, whose recordings Peel considered briefly serialising to complement his series on Ronnie Ronalde, refashioned classical pieces into piano duets: in a similar way, Camille Howard recorded pieces by Schubert and Rimsky-Korsakov in a boogie-woogie style. This naturally did not appeal to the purists, and the concert hall and expensive, lavishly recorded 78 and LP sets remained the preferred way of accessing unadulterated performances.

Nonetheless, Walt Disney proved in his animated movie Fantasia (1940) that it was possible to enjoy symphonic material as long as the accompaniment was right: and many years later, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) set his mind-boggling galactic set-pieces to a Strauss waltz, the modern romanticism of Khatchaturian, and even to the music of avant-garde composers such as Ligeti. The latter movie was promoted as a kind of drug-free acid trip, and other composers found ways to appeal to that culture by seeing music as a 'happening'. Indeed, the earliest pop-classical fusions, like the Electric Prunes' LP of David Axelrod's Mass In F Minor (a short extract from which was played on Night Ride) and Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle also date from the late 1960s and display the influence of the hippy culture.

Some of Peel's favourites of the era were inspired by classical music in various ways, from the folk guitarists John Fahey and John Renbourn (influenced by twentieth-century composers and Elizabethan music respectively) to the conservatory-trained, jazz-inclined Jack Bruce of Cream and the avant-gardists John Cale (of the Velvet Underground) and Joseph Byrd of the United States of America. As Peel noted on the Perfumed Garden of 18 July 1967, The Beatles included Karlheinz Stockhausen among the gallery of people they admired, shown on the sleeve of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Soft Machine were the first "pop group" invited to perform at the Proms (in 1970). Mothers of Invention leader Frank Zappa thought of himself as a serious composer, adopting as his motto Edgard Varese's statement "The present-day composer refuses to die!"- although so far his concert pieces have found only limited acceptance from audiences outside his fan base.

Terry Riley's 'In C' (28 May 1969) was a minimalist piece that debuted at the end of a 'son of Night Ride' show, and highlighted one of the main reasons why classical pieces were infrequently played: the length referred to above precluded anything more than an extract, although the entire piece was a hippy favourite (for fairly obvious reasons)[2].
In C by Terry Riley - original recording - Part 1

In C by Terry Riley - original recording - Part 1

Minimalism was not recognised as an official classical form at first, but Peel saw its potential.

Nonetheless, the fact that JP chose this, with its repetition of a single tune and rhythm that changed little by little into a different pattern by the end would influence, among others, Tangerine Dream, as Peel acknowledged. He was a very occasional visitor to the Proms, and wrote extended appraisals of two he had attended (albeit 24 years apart).

The early 1970s heralded the appearance of bands who made attempts, which can be seen in retrospect as gauche and unfortunate, to ally the classics with rock. Deep Purple issued a recording of Malcolm Arnold's Concerto For Group And Orchestra[3], the Electric Light Orchestra made nods towards symphonic debts (for example, 'Roll Over Beeethoven' starts with a snatch of the latter's 5th Symphony) and Emerson, Lake & Palmer made their own version of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition. Naturally, none of these found a home on Top Gear: John was far more impressed by B. Bumble & The Stingers' version of Tchaikovsky, Nut Rocker, and he left the more pompous pretensions of other bands to Bob Harris, Alan Freeman (who was fond of incorporating classical snatches by Bizet and Grieg, amongst others, into his jingles) and Tommy Vance.

"There was a period, end of the 1960s, beginning of the 1970s, when a number of rock musicians were creating sort of rock concerti, and they were all unspeakable." (Private Passions)

However, less attention-grabbing and subtler musical blends were also a feature of Peel's programmes in the first half of the 1970s, as the coming together of avant-garde musicians from the classical, jazz and pop worlds continued. The German "Krautrock" groups showed the influence of Stockhausen and other electronic composers, while Brian Eno, an increasingly influential artist both solo and in collaboration with the likes of David Bowie and Robert Fripp, formed his own label Obscure Records, issuing LPs of works by composers such as John Cage, John Adams and Gavin Bryars. Eno found backing from Island Records, while Virgin recorded the group Henry Cow, who took their name from the American composer Henry Cowell and recorded sessions for Peel. These developments were overlooked in the post-1976 new wave/old wave rock controversies, but were evidence of a movement which continues to this day, even if it found little exposure on Peel's later shows.

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1990, he chose pieces by Handel and Rachmaninov, both of which had great personal meaning to him. The first, the anthem 'Zadok The Priest', is used at every British monarch's coronation but the recording particularly requested by John was the one that accompanied that of King George VI, since a boy in his study at school had a complete recording. The second, the Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, was played to the Pig at the time of Florence's birth, when the pregnancy had made her extremely ill. He later self-deprecatingly claimed that he selected these because"you have to show that you've got another side to you, not just a noisy oaf" (07 February 2000 (BFBS)).

This 'other side' became even more apparent during Peel's 1996 appearance on Private Passions. Since this was a Radio 3 production, John was obliged even more than in his DID selections to exhibit an appreciation for the higher cultural aesthetic, and obliged with 'soft-bellied' music which 'tended towards romantic sentiment.' One fruit of this show was that the host, Michael Berkeley, surprised John by playing him a player-piano study by the reclusive composer Conlon Nancarrow, which fired JP's imagination to the extent of him playing some of them on Radio 1 in 2000 (and contrasting the pieces with the equally dexterous Camille Howard).

One footnote to his somewhat patchy appreciation of classical music came on 14 November 2001, when he played Pascal Rogé's version of Erik Satie's Gymnopédie 3 due to the fact that Mercury Rev performed it in session the following night. This was also a throwback to the 1960s, when Satie's music had become known to non-classical audiences via film soundtracks and Peel had played short pieces by the composer on Night Ride.

Interestingly, WRR in Dallas, Texas, where Peel made his radio debut on the popular rhythm and blues programme Kat's Karavan, is today a 24-hour classical music station.



  1. While Peel was living in the US, the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein hosted a TV show aimed at young people and showed an openness to pop music by featuring guests the DJ would later play on the radio, such as Cream and Janis Ian. He also guested on episodes of the Monkees' TV series and the pop show Shindig1!
  2. Riley's Rainbow In Curved Air, a shorter piece than In C, also became a hippy favourite and was regularly played in full on "underground" radio stations such as the Monte Carlo-based Radio Geronimo, where there were no needletime restrictions. It inspired the band Sisyphus to change its name to Curved Air, under which they enjoyed commercial success and Peel airplay in the early 1970s.
  3. Arnold's piece was received negatively in the rock press at the time, but a recent recording of it caused a critic in the classical music magazine Gramophone, who recalled the original release from his youth, to challenge his contemporaries' dismissal of the work [1].
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