Light Pops and Lollipops

Over the coming May holiday weekend, the MPO are putting on a concert of British and American light music conducted by Anthony Inglis. He claims the distinction of having performed more often at London’s Royal Albert Hall than any other conductor. Not heard of him? Well, that’s because he has long been associated with the immensely popular concerts featuring so-called “crossover” artists and comprising chunks of operas and other works, short enough not to put the mass public’s brain under too much pressure, while still allowing them to think they are attending a “serious” concert. I don’t like that kind of patronizing approach at all, and when people tell me “but it’s hugely popular with the public”, I respond by saying that so is drug-taking amongst young people, but we still shouldn’t condone it. But the UK has gone into this kind of thing in a big way, and it’s difficult to escape the insidious clutches of Classic FM which churns out tiny and often glutinous fragments of great works along with inane chatter from mind-numbingly dreary presenters. At least it’s better than that ghastly apology for “radio” called “Opus” which Astro buys in from overseas as a sop to those who quite correctly charge them with being unutterably low-brow in their output.

But the May concert, starring Anthony Inglis is not like that at all. Light music is an altogether more wholesome and worthwhile thing, a highly-respectable musical genre in its own right and something which Malaysian audiences should be beating a path to hear. So what exactly is light music?

Well it has an interesting history inseparably associated with the BBC. They identified fairly early on in their existence that, alongside their serious talk and heavyweight musical programmes, they needed to offer their audience something light-hearted and entertaining, while maintaining the extremely high quality the BBC then demanded of all its output. This involved comedy programmes but more especially music which was good, short, cheerful and entertaining, requiring no great intellectual effort on behalf of the listeners to appreciate. Luckily, London-based music publishers had already identified that appetite in the British musical public, and most employed staff composers whose job it was to churn out light orchestral pieces (often for bandstands and summer resort orchestras). When, therefore, the BBC established its “Light” programme (which went on air for the first time in July 1945, just as British spirits were raising with the end of the Second World War) there was already a vast repertoire for its house orchestras to call on, and for the best part of 30 years it transmitted Light music to a wide and dedicated audience. It eventually fell victim to the growth of Pop music and today’s successor to the “Light” programme, Radio 2, gives only limited space to Light music, devoting most of its air time to middle-of-the-road Pop, which is not the same thing at all, but streets better than the feeble attempts at “culture” put out by commercial rivals.

And that brings me to some thoughts about the terminology. “Light” is simple; the word defines music which creates a light mood and requires no real concentration on the behalf of the listener. Sir Thomas Beecham, the charismatic English conductor, recognised the fondness for “Light” music and often one or two pieces as encores to send the audiences at his “serious” concerts home with a smile on their face and a whistle on their lips. He it was who coined the word “lollipops” for these pieces; a lollipop being something light and easily digested but, essentially, lasting only a few minutes. A lot of music lovers soon showed a greater interest in these “lollipops” than in the more heavyweight offerings and record companies were quick to capitalise by releasing them by the hundreds of thousands. With the playing side of a 78-rpm record lasting at most three minutes, this became the maximum length for a musical lollipop, and, especially in America, composers began to specialise in writing such pieces – one of the most notable and successful being Leroy Anderson. Thus, the record industry began to dictate musical tastes, rather than follow them, and deriving its name from lollipop, the “Pop” record was born. Orchestras also began to specialise in such “Pops” concerts. With the demise of the 78 rpm record and the development of more efficient recording techniques, Pop music played by large orchestras began to fall out of favour with record producers, who could, for a fraction of the cost and energy, hire smaller ensembles and yet make them sound just as good on the new recording surface of vinyl rather than shellac. The practice of a piece of Pop music just being 3 minutes long was continued as that remained the standard time of a single side of a 45 rpm (7 inch) record. Thus “Pop” music as we know it today came about.

The easy thing is to suggest that the term Pop derives from Popular, but I find no evidence to support this nor does it hold up to close scrutiny. It wasn’t popular when it was devised – although it did become so very quickly – but its defining feature was its “Lollipop” length and character. I stand to be corrected on this, but despite my most earnest researches, I can find no definitive point at which the word “Pop” was first used other than in Beecham’s “Lollipop” label. Even the most famous and long-standing “Pops” orchestra – the Boston Pops – can’t tell when its title changed from Boston Promenade to Boston Pops, and while their website rolls out the old chestnut about the word coming from popular, that seems based more on simplistic opinion than considered fact.

But I digress. The usual thing is to describe modern Pop music as ephemeral (in the manner of a lollipop, especially in the Malaysian climate) but is it? With Beatles, Rolling Stones and others – whose music has been around for half a century – still very much in vogue, I think we’ve passed the “ephemeral” threshold. Meanwhile Light music, also labelled ephemeral at the time, is staging a major comeback. The ever-enterprising Swiss-based Guild label has been running a dedicated series of “The Golden Age of Light Music”, which now numbers 65 CDs and continues to grow at an alarming rate. They are re-mastering the orchestras and bands of the day and, piloted by the dedicated light music specialist, David Ades, each disc represents a glorious glimpse into a musical treasure-trove which has already yielded countless great riches. Follow the link to Guild to purchase and sample their discs while, in the meantime, to entice you both to buy discs of light music, and more especially, to attend the MPO “From Britain to America” concert, I’ve uploaded several of the pieces to be performed at that concert. Enjoy them at home, but don’t forget that they are guaranteed to sound a million times better played by Asia’s finest orchestra and in one of the best concert halls the world knows.

Meanwhile I urge everyone who hasn’t yet bought a ticket, to get along to DFP on 30th April, 1st or 2nd May to experience this most delightful and effervescent of musical genres at first hand. (Follow the link on the right hand side of the page to get more details).For those who do attend; here is my list of suggested CDs of the specific pieces being played., those marked with an asterisk are tracks from the discs I’ve uploaded on to this blog. Happy listening!

Malcolm Arnold: Tam O’Shanter Overture
Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Arnold – EMI 764044-2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson – Chandos CHAN 8379
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue – Référence RR 82CD
Edward Elgar: Salut d’Amore
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra/Gil Shaham – DG 449 923-2
Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier – Chandos CHAN6608
London Festival Orchestra/Ross Pople – Hyperion CDH55001
Arthur Wood: My Native Heath
*Regent Concert Orchestra/William Hodgson – Guild GLCD5164
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66968
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley – Warner Classics 75605 57003-2
Vivian Ellis: Coronation Scot
*RTE Concert Orchestra/Ernest Tomlinson – Naxos 8.554710
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66868
Queens Hall Orchestra/Charles Williams – Guild GLCD5120
Ronald Binge: Sailing By
*Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ernest Tomlinson – Naxos 8.554711
New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA66968
BBC Concert Orchestra/Vernon Handley – Warner Classics 75605 57003-2
Eric Coates: Knightsbridge March
*BBC Dance Orchestra/ Henry Hall – Guild GLCD 5116
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eric Coates – Conifer CDHD211/2
East of England Orchestra/Malcolm Nabarro – ASV CDWHL2053
Malcolm Arnold: English Dances
*Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Penny – Naxos 8.553526
Philharmonia Orchestra/Bryden Thomson – Chandos CHAN 8867
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Malcolm Arnold – Lyrita SRCD 201
Don Gillis: Symphony No.5½
*New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp – Hyperion CDA67067
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson – Albany TROY888
Symphony Orchestra/Don Gillis – Dutton DUT4163
Ferde Grofé Grand Canyon Suite
*Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/William T Stromberg – Naxos 8.559007
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerhard Schwarz – Delos DE3104
Paul Whiteman Orchestra/Paul Whiteman – Pearl GEM0022


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