National anthems

Classical byDermot Clinch

The funny bit in the BBC's new classical music TV series Masterworks is when Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a blunt Lancastrian modernist, encounters Pierre Boulez, a dour Parisian one. Boulez is rehearsing Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. "You've done it before," Birtwistle tells him. Boulez doesn't remember. "In New York," says Birtwistle. "It was awful." Boulez definitely can't remember. "Yeah. Terrible. You did it in Paris, too." The camera pans decorously away.

Masterworks is subtitled Six pieces of Britain. Its presenter, Michael Berkeley, has six programmes in which to explore "the quite extraordinary musical renaissance which has occurred in Britain this century". Berkeley is the son of an English composer and disinherited earl and is also an English composer himself, and he feels disposed to go no further than from Gloucestershire to Lancashire to illustrate his British musical renaissance.

Have the Scots got irreparably tangled in their bagpipes, the Welsh in their harps, and have the Irish produced nothing of note since "Phil the Fluter's Ball"? Berkeley should borrow some of Birtwistle's bluntness and let us know. The question is ignored as we are eased instead through moss-covered churchyards in deep Dorset countryside and taken on hikes among sunlit Malvern hills, places we have visited before. Not a Welsh, Scots or Irish name - and no woman of any nationality - is mentioned.

There are good things. Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis haunts the Vaughan Williams programme. Sir Andrew Davis remembers hearing it in King's College chapel, "where the walls seemed to breathe the music", and the programme uses brilliantly the convention of the series - of discussing a piece, then hearing it performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in full. The orchestra's leader discusses the "intestinal fortitude" needed to play the exposed violin part successfully. Information is released strategic-ally: V W was a vicar's son; he was agnostic; he included his Thomas Tallis theme in his edition of the English Hymnal. He used folk music as an antidote to Germanism. He was a big man, remembers an old lady, "with a large front and lots of cardigans".

The lovely viola extension of the main theme in the fantasia, Davis suggests, is a "piece of pure English countryside". There is a lot of this kind of thing. Intelligent people speak of English "melancholy", "spirituality" and "aura". Berkeley says that the key to Elgar is in the Malvern hills. Nobody suggests that national characteristics in music may be more perceived than real, more constructed than given. Davis - chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - states that "without question the major string orchestra works of this century have almost all been by British composers". Schoenberg, Bartok, Strauss, Stravinsky - Austrian, Hungarian, German, Russian - are lost in a burst of patriotic gunfire.

Are the right composers chosen? V W, Elgar and Britten were surely uncontested. Tippett ought to have got in instead of Walton, but there is a wonderful clip where Tippett explains why he refused Vaughan Williams as a teacher yet felt "set free" by the great man. Birtwistle is worth a place and is always good for a laugh. Only Mark Anthony Turnage - our representative to take us into the third millennium - has no obvious right to be in such company. The BBC needs a young one. Turnage? Boy who likes jazz? Let's have him. Makes us look young, too. Did they not remember Judith Weir (born Aberdeen, 1954 and, as it happens, a woman)?

The Turnage programme, the last, leaves a final question. What is a masterpiece? What makes Vaughan Williams's Fantasia, Elgar's Cello Concerto, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time masterpieces? They have intrinsic qualities; they have had economics, patronage, consensus on their side. Turnage's Your Rockaby, written five years ago, is not a masterpiece yet. But having a BBC programme made about it brings that status one step closer. "A book never is a masterpiece," wrote the elder Goncourt. "It becomes one."

"Masterworks: six pieces of Britain" begins on 10 July on BBC2 and continues each Saturday until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?