Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Director-General (BBC)

Letter No.: 
VWL1609
Oct. 18 [1939]

From R. Vaughan Williams,
The White Gates,
Westcott Road,
Dorking.

Dear Sir1

I hope you will not think I am taking a liberty in writing to you on the subject of the BBC musical programmes.
It seems almost an impertinence to mention to you the obvious truth that the BBC have a great responsibility in the matter of the cultural well-being of the country, but as the whole of this letter hangs on this point I hope you will forgive my putting it down in black and white.
It appears to me that one of the things we are fighting for is a free as opposed to a regimented culture.  In that case we must prove that we have a culture worth fighting for.
I believe that in times of stress such as these when peoples’ purpose & determination need special encouragement that only the best & most vital art is of any use.  Anything else is enervating & discouraging and I believe that the “ordinary man” will respond to the stimulus in a way which in normal times he possibly would not do.
It has, I think, been a great pain to many people to find that in the early days of the war it was apparently the opinion of your programme makers that the English people when their hearts & minds were strung up to great endeavour only wanted to listen to the loathsome noises of the so-called cinema “organ”.  Later on I admit the programmes began to get better, but to judge from this weeks ‘Radio Times’ things have taken a turn for the worse again & the so-called “serious” programmes are filled with second rate material which nobody wants.
In times like these when so many people are looking for comfort & encouragement from music, among them those who have probably never attended to music before, surely we ought to give them something that will grip.  I believe that really great music, especially if it is familiar, will grip everybody (in a category of great music I include a Beethoven Symphony, a Schubert song and a fine marching tune) I admit that very bad music does grip certain minds but this halfway-house stuff grips nobody.  The result of this policy has I believe been that the discriminating listeners are tuning in to Germany for their spiritual sustenance while the undiscriminating are perforce falling back on the unspeakable Mr. Sandy Macpherson.2
Are we not missing a great opportunity which may never recur? 
I venture to add to this already overlong letter one more point.  It is not for me to doubt the necessity of the BBC policy in cancelling all engagements except for a few artists, but the result is that many musicians have been thrown out of work.  It may of course be argued that it is not the business of the BBC to provide incomes for musicians, but to provide entertainment & instruction for listeners - but, taking a long view, even on these grounds may we not argue that if incomes are not provided now for musicians & especially the younger musicians, those of them who can will turn to other professions & when in the future we again need them they will not be there & we shall indeed be ‘a land without music’.
I venture to think that we ought to provide for the needs of future listeners as well as for those of the present.
Would it be ultra vires for the BBC to use the money which would have been spent on these cancelled engagements for organizing non-broadcast concerts so as to keep up the supply of performers which in the future we shall so badly need?
Once more pardon me for putting my views at such length.
Yours faithfully

R Vaughan Williams


1.  The Director General of the BBC at this time was Frederick Ogilvie.
2.  The cinema organist who was a regular performer on the BBC right through the war and afterwards.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Program Correspondence Section, File R41/241 PCS (Misc. files: RVW 1939)
General notes: 

Date taken from context.
The following reply was received, dated 23rd October, from the Controller (Public Relations): 'I am asked by the Director-General to thank you for your letter of October 18th, and to assure you that the trouble you have taken in letting him have this full statement of your views is warmly appreciated.  The sense of our cultural responsibility which you describe is very present in our minds, and we are constantly endeavouring to effect in our arrangements a wise balance between programmes of a serious nature on the one hand and the need for light entertainment and relief on the other.
Considerations of national security have for the present robbed us of our principal means to such an end – the alternative programme.  We now have to attempt to satisfy all our listeners during the course of the day with only one programme at our disposal, but that we are anxious not to neglect the requirements of those primarily interested in serious music is I think shewn by our present programmes.  A glance at the “Radio Times” of this week will show that there are seven performances by the B.B.C. Orchestra playing under Sir Adrian Boult or his deputy in addition to a number of other concerts and recitals.
We can readily sympathise with your suggestion that the concerts by professional musicians should be organised by the B.B.C. not necessarily for broadcasting, but we are not I am afraid in a position to say whether this would be possible.  The B.B.C. is, however, alive to the difficulties which wartime conditions have imposed upon the musical profession, and is anxious to do what it can to compensate for them.'
VW promptly sent a copy of this reply to Boult (to whom he had already written on the subject (see VWL5000) in disgust – see VWL1618.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Cobbe 327
Original database number: 
391018