Hallelujah, more bloody Handel

Berlioz, in his memoirs, tells the story of how he once saw his teacher Luigi Cherubini going through another student's score for a double fluteconcerto. "What is worse than a flute?" asked Cherubini, rhetorically. "Two flutes," he continued, and made some savage marks on the score.

I have always been impressed by this anecdote and it automatically comes to mind whenever I hear a flute. However, as I write, Emmanuelle is upstairs practising her flute, which she brought down from Shropshire after New Year, and the sound is delightful: a kind of gentle abandon, like the prelude to the afternoon of a faun, so to speak. When she stops - and she has been going on, rather deliciously, for about an hour, so she's going to have to stop soon - I am going to stick my head out of the door and ask her to carry on.

It certainly is nice to be living with someone civilised. The Estranged Wife used to say "Great, let's all kill ourselves" when she chanced upon me listening to any piece of classical music less boisterous and good-humoured than the "Ode to Joy". This meant that I had to confine my Shostakovich habit to the hours either when she was out at work, or when she was asleep, for fear that I'd have her going, "What's this racket?" Her tastes are more Coldplay-inclined and were reason No 96 why the marriage had no future. I shall say no more. (I recently heard a similar story from a publisher whom I had better not name; at a time when most husbands are enjoying, in private, the more lurid fruits of the internet while their wives and children sleep, he can be found in his study, furtively listening to Bartók.)

Meanwhile, I've been enjoying the surfeit of Mozart on Radio 3. Apparently, according to a poll in the Guardian, the nation, or that part of it which takes part in Guardian polls, was evenly divided on whether 11 days of non-stop Mozart and nothing else was a good idea.

Well, it turned out fine. Radio 3 has been getting dreadful of late, playing masses of the kind of jaunty, populist oompapa crap that sets my teeth on edge - like Classic FM without the adverts, nothing to frighten the children.

I remember hearing that when Radio 3 was the Third Programme it broadcast masses of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, but such demanding tastes are now considered too highbrow and you'll be lucky if you even get any wimpy Britten these days on the station. The only Stravinsky you hear is the bloody Firebird, or maybe The Rite of Spring, a piece now so familiar to me, I could probably conduct it without a score if asked.

Now, as I write, Emmanuelle has had enough of her flute - without long prior practice it places great strain on the muscles of the mouth, apparently - and it is back to Radio 3. At least when their Mozart thing was going on you could tune in and know you weren't going to be getting anything that really stank. At the moment it is Composer of the Week and that composer is Handel.

It is always sodding Handel. Just as Stephen Fry is a stupid person's idea of what a clever person is like, so Han­del is the man in the street's idea of what a "classical" composer is. I am sure there are many valid musical reasons to think Handel is the bee's knees but please don't bother to tell me what they are.

As far as I am concerned, the significant part of his output may be a nice enough noise, but really is one long musical tongue up the mon­archy's bum. This is an opinion I have to keep to myself. Say it in mixed company, and people look at you as though you're mad. Roger Wright, head of Radio 3, once heard me go off on this pet rant of mine and offered me a slot in which I could put my thoughts in more coherent order, but Ichickened out.

Rash decision

Yet I suppose I should be grateful that there is such a thing as Radio 3 at all, and that it broadcasts throughout the night as well.

It has crimes to its name: it gave Ian McMillan - the most irritating broadcaster in the long and varied history of the medium - his first platform and now he's everywhere like a rash (this being all the sadder as he is a very nice person indeed in the flesh). But for those of us who find ourselves on our own, broke, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for something interesting to happen and hoping that civilisation hasn't collapsed, it is a lifeline. Only I do wish it wasn't getting so low- to middlebrow.

I know I am being elitist and fussy and this is why I shall die alone and unmourned, but it would be nice if, once in a while, they put something on that challenged the mind and ear.

Oh God, it's the fucking "Hallelujah" chorus. Great. Let's all kill ourselves.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency