Saturday, July 04, 2015


Last month a musical era drew quietly to a close.  The death on June the twelfth of the Lancastrian composer and conductor Ernest Tomlinson also represents the loss of the last great figure of British orchestral light music, that is, of the kind that so flourished before the musical revolution of the 1960s.  

Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015);
picture from the Lancashire Telegraph's website)
His long life of ninety years seems, in fact, a very short time for musical life in this country to have changed as profoundly as it has.  In his youth, all music-lovers, who generally had also to be music-makers, really did read from a common hymn-sheet.  I think it is fair to say that secular music existed on a scale between the classical or 'high' and the 'light' (for want of two better words!), and that it was all composed upon broadly similar musical principles; certainly for the same instruments.  Where 'high' art music charted the deep waters of the human spirit, the 'light' programme offered a simple tonic and some relief from daily care, as most people are grateful for from time to time.  The technical differences might be boiled down still further.  Light music, according to the definition suggested by Andrew Gold (head of the B.B.C.'s Light Music Unit music from 1965 to 1969) and generally agreed upon, is 'music where the tune is more important than what you do with it'.   Serious music took a theme and spun it out into a great sustained utterance; light music encouraged simple joy in one or two simple themes.

All this meant that it was sometimes unclear where the 'high' began and the 'light' ended: Ralph Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite might be said to be a light work by a 'serious' composer.  Likewise, Eric Coates, a classically-trained violist, could devote his career to light music of immediate appeal, and the towering figure of Edward Elgar could so enjoy this same music that he arranged to be supplied with new records by Coates as they came out, and in fact then wore out their grooves.

The onrush of modernity - which has left us two separate universes we call 'pop' and 'classical', each divided into barely-related groups, both with their backs turned on each other - has been so complete that a reader might now reasonably ask to be told what Light Music is.  I think the best answer  is that it is known when heard, and can hardly do better than to supply something of Ernest Tomlinson's as an example:

along with something more vigorous for good measure, from a piece of music named after a telephone-exchange in north-east London!:

The modern listener's first reaction might be that it is very much of its time, and that it is ludicrously gentle in comparison both to modern pop and modern 'serious' music.  But there is no intrinsic reason why this should be so.  Light music's tunefulness made it the natural modern successor to the folk-song:
'As a composer my inspiration always comes in the form of melody.  I write tunes! - singable tunes, I like to think, with normal harmonies, and if you write concert music which has got tunes, the only outlet is in light music.... Everything I wrote was based on the traditional values, normal harmonies, Everyman language, and so on.'  Interview with Ernest Tomlinson, Archive on 4, B.B.C. Radio 4, 2011.
In that sense it was generous music, meant to delight and uplift anybody who listened to it.  This was of course why light music was gulped down in seaside resorts where people sought even a day's refuge from mill or mine, and for this reason that the B.B.C. broadcast and commissioned it almost industrially during and after the last war.  It was the latter world that Ernest Tomlinson joined, and indeed he said frankly that 'no composer owes as much as I do to the B.B.C.'.  He formed his own orchestra and his works were broadcast regularly on the Light Programme during the 1950s.

The later years of the following decade, however, brought changes nothing short of revolutionary.  The rise of beat or pop music became deafening.  The B.B.C., modernising with speed that seems dizzying even from this distance, rapidly decided that it had no use for light music, which all of a sudden sounded old-hat.  Still less had it any use for light music composers.  Ernest Tomlinson saw all these threats and took up a courageous fight against them which he was never to leave off.  He saw that, although there were many worthy pop songs, especially in the early stages, the new music was generally in rupture with the old.  Post-1950s 'pop' music relies on beat rather than melody - and - a subtler distinction - upon beat rather than rhythm.  Rather than using the bars as a structure on which a melody can flow along and take wing, pop music simply hangs a melody on the bars that could be disposed of more readily than the beat.  
'...Worst of all for the health of music has been the increasingly drug-like dependency on sheer volume of sound hammered in by head-crunching drumbeats.  For all the enterprise of the best of pop/rock and the enormous followings such manifestations command, the only items which graduate to standard repertoire... are those which can be accepted into music's universal language.'  Ernest Tomlinson: Foreword to Scowcroft, Philip: British Light Music: a personal gallery of composers, 1992.
He saw that, without new commissions, there would be no encouragement for new light music composers and that the whole genre would very rapidly wither.  (In arguing his case here, he found an adversary in William Glock, just as Ruth Gipps did on the 'high' side).  Tomlinson was right: as a national movement, it seemed very nearly to die out in a breathtakingly short time.  For all that many listeners' tastes had not changed at all, the B.B.C. abandoned them wholesale.   Especially after 1967, when the B.B.C.'s radio stations were reassigned, light music had no place on the air and, as Tomlinson's obituary in the Telegraph says, the B.B.C. now felt entitled to consider his music 'too lowbrow for Radio 3 but too highbrow for Radio 2':
Anything like it had been in the fifties and sixties was gone.  The rock bottom was about 1979.  There was nothing on Radio 3, nothing on Radio 2, except more or less the pop side.  Interview with Ernest Tomlinson, Archive on 4.
Tomlinson also saw that the B.B.C. had begun simply to throw away light music scores en masse.  Here, again, he refused to accept defeat and established, in the barn at his own farm, the Library of Light Music, in order to provide them with a home.  There it stands, on Chipping Lane at Longridge in Lancashire, to this day, holding many pieces of music that would otherwise have been lost.

Ernest Tomlinson saw that the pop revolution was likely to end with the conquest of melody by beat, and defended light music untiringly, insisting that it was a viable music-form.  There was and remains no artistic reason why light music, and British melodic traditions, could not have carried on and even thrived after the emergence of new ideas in music, as proven by Tomlinson with his tropical, saxophonic 'Miranda'...

...and also by something irresistible from Eric Coates, and by an intriguing piece of music played during a Proms Plus programme in 2013.  

If he had not been so tenacious, his music might not have been available online for me to happen  onto while I was preparing for my final university exams.  His suites and interludes were just the thing in the circumstances.  After I graduated - for it worked! - I wrote to him to say so, and he immediately sent a very kind reply which I shall always treasure.

There has in any case been in recent years a revival of interest in light music, or at least music that surely fits the bill.  Classic FM may play relatively little light music proper, but its remit matches the original Light Programme's very closely.  Much music for film and television is also 'light' in character.  Surely it is the 'lightness' in much of John Rutter's music that appeals to so many?  The Light Music Society, of which Tomlinson was Chairman and latterly President, thrives still.  It is largely by Ernest Tomlinson's efforts that the flame of light music has been kept burning.  Now the torch is passed to us, the music-lovers of today and tomorrow.

I ought to have added some further reading and listening:

Scowcroft, Philip L. British Light Music - a personal gallery of 20th-C composers. London: Thames Publishing, 1997.
The Story of Light Music - programme on Radio 2 presented by Michael Parkinson.  A clip including a good brief history of the B.B.C.'s abolition of light music in the 1960s, along with an interview with Ernest Tomlinson, is audible here.
Archive on 4: The Light Music Festival.  Audible here.
A Little Light Music:  B.B.C. 4 television programme, watchable for the moment here.
(I should say that the B.B.C. goes a long way to redeem itself with these programmes!)

British Light Music: Ernest Tomlinson, vol. 1 (Marco Polo 8223413)
British Light Music: Ernest Tomlinson, vol. 2 (Marco Polo 8223513)
Some of Tomlinson's music can also be heard via a Youtube channel here.

A very detailed obituary has been published in issue 68 (Summer 2015) of the Light Music Society Magazine.