This is a question that has been asked many times over the years and probably the best answer is "where the tune is more important than what you do with it"- a definition which I believe is attributable to Dennis Norden. Sadly, due to its profound neglect over several decades - notably by the BBC, (once its main advocate), few people under fifty years of age have even heard of it, or indeed heard it – at least, not knowingly!

I recently saw the question 'What is Light Music?' posed in an internet discussion forum on a Classical Music site. Clearly, nobody had much idea, as one person suggested Beethoven's 5th Symphony! However ridiculous that may appear, Light Music did derive from classical music, as several of its most famous composers occasionally produced lighter fare - orchestral pieces such as Brahms' Hungarian Dances , Dvorak's Slavonic Dances for example. Sir Edward Elgar wrote a number of 'miniatures' such as Chanson de Matin , which would certainly have found their way into the repertoires of the early light orchestras, as would Strauss waltzes - always assured of an airing on New Year's Day ! There is much in the world of ballet, operetta and even opera – Bizet’s Carmen is packed with catchy tunes - that could qualify it as Light Music, although I prefer to use the term 'Light Classical' for such works.

I can't be certain as to precisely when the term 'Light Music' was first coined, but there were certainly BBC Regional Light Orchestras such as the '2LO Orchestra' as far back as the 1920s , broadcasting in programmes unashamedly described as 'Light Music' . The works of composers such as Percy Fletcher, Haydn Wood, Montague Phillips, Albert Ketelby and Eric Coates were regularly featured - indeed Eric Coates became known as the 'Uncrowned King of Light Music' - one of his biggest enthusiasts being Sir Edward Elgar! Several of Coates' compositions were destined to became radio signature tunes – one of which, By the Sleepy Lagoon, still introduces Desert Island Discs to this day!

The advent of the gramophone, and subsequently radio, had delivered the genre to people who previously had little opportunity to listen to it. The last years of the Music Hall and the early years of the Dance Band era had brought rhythmic music and syncopation to people's ears, and no reader of this magazine will be unaware of the rise in popularity of the dance band! Inevitably, composers of Light Music were influenced by its infectious rhythms, and novelty numbers such as The Wedding of the Painted Doll, The Doll Dance and Nola (1915) became popular, all of which suited the light orchestra as well as the dance band.

By the thirties, cinema and theatre orchestras were appearing on radio daily, often live from the locations in which they were based, and this continued throughout WW2 and into peacetime. Light Music suited musical combinations of all sizes and was played by trios, salon ensembles, concert orchestras, and an increasing number of speciality orchestras which existed primarily for broadcasting. These emsembles were encouraged by the BBC to create their own distinctive styles.

Older readers will remember Bernard Monshin and his Rio Tango band, Ralph Elman and his Bohemian players, Louis Voss and his Kursaal Orchestra, Reg Pursglove and the Albany Strings, Albert Marland and his Rococo Orchestra, Anton and his Orchestra, Isy Geiger and his Viennese Music and many others. The BBC, in addition to employing its own symphony orchestras, had its own in-house light orchestras located around the country.

In Birmingham was the much acclaimed BBC Midland Light orchestra; in Glasgow, the Scottish Variety Orchestra; in Bristol, the West of England Light orchestra (later, West of EnglandPlayers), not forgetting the BBC Northern Ireland Light orchestra in Belfast.

London had four orchestras; the Concert orchestra, the Revue Orchestra and the Variety Orchestra plus the London Studio Players. This orchestra, which comprised the finest session musicians, such as Max Jaffa and Reginald Leopold, broadcast in its own right, as well as providing the personnel for some 26 musical ensembles. It was also the 'nucleus' of the London Theatre Orchestra and the London Light Concert Orchestra. The Cardiff-based BBC Welsh Orchestra, although essentially a classical orchestra, did provide Light Music sessions until about 1960.

In case readers think that I have forgotten the celebrated BBC Northern Dance Orchestra – which was based in Manchester – I haven't ! However, it played Dance Music, not Light Music.

The BBC was very insistent that Light Music was a different art form from Dance Music. Indeed, there were separate departments handling the two genres. Whilst Dance Music was administered by the Variety Department, Light Music came under the auspices of the main BBC Music Department until 1954, at which time a separate Light Music Department was established.

There was clearly some rivalry between the two departments; instrumental versions of the popular song repertoire were not considered to be Light Music and orchestras which specialized in it, such as Frank Chacksfield, Ray Martin, Norrie Paramor, and even the BBC's own Variety and Revue Orchestras, were contracted to the Variety Department. If a musical director who had a dance band (Reg Pursglove, for example), wanted to also broadcast with a light orchestra (and doubling his broadcasting opportunities at the same time), he would soon find that his dance music dates ceased to be forthcoming ! It could be argued that being contracted to two departments gave a musician an unfair advantage over those musical directors who only specialized in one genre - and that would often be the excuse provided to the artist, but I think that there was more to it than that!

Even in earlier years, light orchestras were told that no more than ten minutes of popular song / dance music should be included in any half-hour broadcast. This was to allow theatre orchestras to include the odd ballad, or a selection from a musical comedy, (Annie Get Your Gun' for example), that contained tunes that were in the repertoires of dance bands.

I know of one very well-known conductor, contracted to the Light Music Department, who was banned from the early Morning Music programmes for about a year, because he had included too many popular song transcriptions in his broadcasts- and because he had repeated certain numbers after a couple of programmes, something the BBC were very touchy about. Well, many conductors either did their own arrangements or asked the publisher's staff arranger to provide an arrangement in the style of their orchestras.

Musical Directors would be reimbursed (by the publishers) with the cost of such arrangements - but only if they were played an agreed number of times within a given period! So it was very much in the interest of MDs to repeat items. If they didn't, they would be out of pocket!. Clearly, the BBC regarded this as 'not our problem' - it was just one of a number of rather pedantic attitudes which tended to become more relaxed in later years.

The BBC was also concerned that, as many of the conductors were also composers, they might seek to plug their own pieces for financial gain. The answer to this was to impose a limit of one 'own composition' per programme. Of course, the musical directors would get around this by using pseudonyms. As these MDs were all acquainted, often playing in each others' orchestras, they developed a 'tit-for-tat' arrangement between them which basically said 'if you play one of mine, I'll play one of yours'!

The BBC scrupulously vetted programmes for such 'rackets', (the terminology for this) , but found the practice almost impossible to stamp out ! It didn't exactly help Light Music's cause that the BBC also took a hard line over the performance of works by members of its own staff. Of course, its apparent intransigence was in order to give equal opportunities to all composers of Light Music.

Several BBC sound engineers and producers were prolific composers - notably Leonard Trebilco who, when composing, had to call himself Trevor Duncan - and what a blessing it was for Light Music that he did!

Light Music tended to change its characteristics in post-war years (as did Dance Music). Music of any form tends to evolve, and Light Music became more 'glossy' in nature, and less classically orientated. The leading composers included Robert Farnon, Charles Williams, Frederic Curzon, Sidney Torch, Clive Richardson, George Melachrino, Ernest Tomlinson (long associated with the Light Music Society), Harry Dexter (the founder of that Society), Ray Martin, Ron Goodwin, Jack Coles, Ronald Binge (whose composition Sailing By still closes down Radio Four every night) .The list is endless, as many pianists, organists, accordionists and bandleaders were prolific composers.

George Scott-Wood, for example, turned out numerous compositions - his Shy Serenade is still very occasionally heard, but most of the others, such as his Carnival of Bacchus suite have disappeared into the mists of time. Likewise, Cecil Norman, a prolific broadcaster for many years, produced a stream of delightful compositions, but most were never commercially recorded and are now forgotten.

Sadly, the record companies began to turn their back on Light Music soon after the advent of the LP record. A considerable amount was composed and commercially recorded in the '78' era - indeed the three to four minutes available on each side of a 10 inch record probably dictated why so many pieces within the genre are of that duration.

After the early 1950's , record companies realised that the rise in enthusiasm for a very different kind of popular music – particularly amongst the young – was going to dictate the repertoire that would be most financially beneficial to them in the future.

Whilst the 'big guns' such as Mantovani, Frank Chacksfield and Norrie Paramor continued to record – their repertoires being largely of popular song transcriptions – there was a marked decrease in the recording of more traditional Light Music. Indeed it would be true to say that much of the music composed for light orchestras in the 1960's was never commercially recorded, despite having been regularly heard by radio listeners.

Many composers wrote compositions in the idiom that would suit daily programmes such as Morning Music and Music While You Work. The latter, in particular, required cheerful music that was either familiar, or in what the BBC described as 'familiar idiom'.

Fortunately for Light Music fans like myself, the BBC was slower to react to the impact of rock and pop, than the record companies, although they did introduce some disc-jockey presented programmes in the sixties. There were also live pop-style programmes such as Saturday Club provided for the younger generation, many of whom were otherwise turning to Radio Luxembourg for their entertainment

For many years, the BBC had an arrangement with the Musicians' Union, known as the 'Needle Time Agreement', which meant that only a few hours of music on record could be broadcast each day. This ensured the regular employment of studio musicians by the BBC. Indeed, during that time, the BBC was regarded as the biggest employer of musicians in the world!

The 1960s saw the rise (and fall) of offshore broadcasting, otherwise known as 'Pirate Radio'. It was instituted in order to provide for the musical requirements of a burgeoning number of people, mostly young, who wanted pop records all day – something that could not be provided by the BBC – but it was illegal for various reasons, including performing rights issues.

The Government took steps to eradicate it, at the same time instructing the BBC to find a way a way of providing similar fare, by way of compensation. Hence, the birth of Radios One and Two in 1967.

The BBC had created a 'Popular Music Department' in 1963, absorbing both the former Light Music Department and Variety Department. Gone were the strict rules regarding repertoire; indeed there was clearly encouragement for musical combinations to be more commercial and whilst programmes such as Grand Hotel continued to provide the traditional repertoire expected of a Palm Court Orchestra, others became noticeably more modern in style.

The death of the Light Programme in 1967 also meant the end for several long running programmes including Music While You Work. Many of the long-established light orchestras, ensembles and dance bands which serviced it never broadcast again. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the BBC to fulfill the contractual requirements of its own salaried-staff light orchestras because of the reduced airtime available for light music.

By the early eighties, almost all of these orchestras were also disbanded, despite strike action which disrupted the 'Proms'.

In 1982, things appeared to be looking up, when an enterprising Radio Two Controller brought back several vintage programmes such as Music While You Work, Grand Hotel and Marching and Waltzing. Sadly, this was not to last, as a subsequent change of Controller soon undid all the good work.

The ensuing decades have virtually seen the genre eradicated from the BBC airwaves. Even brass and military bands, (once thought of as major dispensers of light music), have been relegated to a late night slot. Listen to the Band no longer engages bands to perform in the studio and is now a mixture of interviews and records. Friday Night is Music Night still continues, but conductors are specifically told to avoid light music which the BBC deem to be dead !

Not while its many enthusiasts are still alive, it isn't !

Thanks to enterprising smaller record companies such 'Guild', 'Crystal Stream', 'Vocalion' and others, there is now more recorded Light Music available to the home listener than at any time in the past.

The Light Music Society still issues quarterly magazines to its members and has annual meetings and concerts.

Although the Robert Farnon Society now only exists as a website, its bi-annual meetings continue under the auspices of the London Light Music Meetings Group.

My own website, Masters of Melody - has well over 100 complete broadcasts from the distant past, to which you can listen.

I also have a YouTube channel with over 1000 pieces filmed at bandstands over many years. This has sections for Brass and Military Bands/ Dance Bands/ Orchestras etc. I highly recommend Romando and his Gypsy Band which, despite its title, played a wide range of quality light music (over 200 numbers to hear and view) .

So what of radio? Not much from the BBC, I'm afraid - although I believe there are to be a couple of programmes about the Light Programme in the Autumn, (it is 50 years since its demise). Classic FM has the occasional programme or series, but it tends to feature just the ‘top fifty' compositions.

It is to Internet Radio that you should turn. 'Serenade Radio' opens up every morning with an hour of light music, (reminiscent of the BBC's Morning Music), but the star attraction is at 10.00pm on Sunday nights when David Corbett presents his Light Programme. During the last three months he has played over 500 different pieces covering the wide variety of music which the genre provides.

Also recommended is 'Angel Radio', which is aimed at the older listener and specialises in music composed between 1900 and the late sixties. Using recordings from actual BBC broadcasts, it provides Music While You Work as well as Those Were The Days featuring the Harry Davidson orchestra. Although this is primarily an internet station, it is also available on FM if you live within transmission distance from Havant in Hampshire.

So, despite the virtual abandonment of Light Music by the BBC, you can still savour the delights of bygone days, with happy tuneful music which combines quality with accessibility. There are still orchestras and ensembles around the country that continue to perform it - Shelley Van Loen and the Palm Court Strings, The Aspidistra Drawing Room Orchestra, The Scarborough Palm Court Orchestra, for example.

Don't listen to those who tell you that light music is dated (well, so is yesterday!) Music that was good when it was written will always be good - time can never change that!

July 2017

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