the Light music and
Light Classical music on Radio 2

So, first of all, what IS Light Music? Ian Warburton explains:


Do you remember the days when Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, Ronald Binge, Haydn Wood and many others composing in a similar vein provided much of the staple fare of the old Light Programme? If so, you may wonder what happened to change things. If not, it may occur to you to wonder what you were missing.

Definitions in this field aren’t set in stone but there’s both overlap and distinction between light and light classical music. The latter covers the world of overtures, intermezzi, ballet music and the like. Light music proper is a bit more difficult to pin down but usually consists of three to five minute pieces, sometimes grouped into suites etc but often stand-alone. In his sleeve-note for the double CD the Great British Experience, light music expert David Ades describes it as ‘accessible music which can be readily enjoyed for what it is’ and adds a definition coined by broadcaster Denis Norden, who describes light music as ‘not just tuneful round the outside, but tuneful right through’. This kind of music is to be found in the cultures of many nations but I want to look particularly at British light music.

This was still alive and well at the dawn of BBC Radio 2 in 1967, when such programmes as Melodies for You and Grand Hotel were prominently placed in the schedules. In addition, the more general appeal programmes, such as Breakfast Special or Sam Costa’s lunchtime show, included light music in reasonable quantities. Meanwhile, Radio 4 kept the flag flying with programmes such as Morning Melody and Invitation to Music, which could be put out at times when schools broadcasts weren’t needed. At the same time Radio 3 broadcast at least one concert per weekday which featured one of the BBC’s several light orchestras. As for the record companies, their level of issues wasn’t exactly generous but there were several worthwhile ones around this time, including two albums by Sir Vivian Dunn and the Light Music Society Orchestra.

Then in the early 70s, it all began a rapid decline. Light music never quite disappeared but it became harder and harder to find. What happened to make this so?

  • The general shows gradually dropped light music from their schedules.
  • Grand Hotel was axed (it was to make a temporary return in the 80s) and the orchestral content of Melodies for You moved towards featuring light classical rather than pure light music. Such light music as continued to be included tended to consist of the same handful of pieces repeated endlessly.
  • BBC Radio 4 became more speech-led and the necessity to provide alternative programming during school holidays disappeared when the schools programmes went on to VHF only.
  • Several BBC light orchestras were either axed or were reconstituted to play mostly pop and dance music. This of course led to a diminution of available orchestras to supply light music to BBC Radio 3.
  • The record companies concentrated almost entirely on one or two extremely prominent light music composers, such as Eric Coates, and more or less ignored the others.

I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive! In the last issue of the house magazine of the Light Music Society, its Chairman, Ernest Tomlinson, describes the frustrations of trying to get BBC Radio 2 and Radio 3 to take any interest at all in the genre, with a low water mark being reached in the late 80s.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the recording companies began to show a revival of interest. A seminal release was English Miniatures, issued in 1991 and featuring the Northern Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox in music by Edward German, Roger Quilter and others. Around the same time, the Marco Polo label announced its intention to issue a whole series of CDs in this vein. These were initially released on a one-composer-per-CD basis but compilations were to follow. The remarkable success of this series led other companies to make new recordings and also reissue the best of their back catalogue. The first revival of light music peaked in about 1997 but, after a slight pause, there seems to have been a second wind which continues to this day. Much of the material is rediscovered from an earlier era but a good deal of new repertoire is also appearing.

But has the BBC responded to this? BBC Radio 3 has risen admirably to the challenge by introducing Brian Kay’s Light Programme. Though a total of one hour per week isn’t really enough, the show itself is of very high quality and ranges remarkably widely. BBC Radio 2 has occasionally run series of Legends of Light Music and sometimes features light music pieces on Melodies for You, 100 Best Tunes and one or two other programmes. But shouldn’t there be a specialist hour or two on Radio 2 each week to devote to this once much-loved music, which new generations are now discovering for themselves?

If you want to sample some of this music, collections abound. A start might be to obtain the Great British Experience CD referred to above—UK CD GB 50, issued by EMI and, as far as I know, still available. This double-CD consists of 50 reissued vintage recordings. If you want to hear what the new recordings sound like and don’t mind a certain amount of duplication with GBE, try any of the 6 CDs by Ronald Corp and the New London Orchestra—4 British, 1 European and 1 American.

If you show signs of getting really hooked in this area, why not enquire about membership of the Light Music Society? Its Secretary is Hilary Ashton, 19a, Eshton Terrace, Clitheroe, Lancs BB7 1BQ, tel (01200) 427066, email

Happy listening and I do hope that you’ll gain as much pleasure from this genre as I have over many years.

(c) 2006 Ian Warburton

music by Robert Farnon

music by Eric Coates

music by Eric Coates

And so, what IS Light Classical Music?

Light classical music is the 'easy listening' and tuneful music from the orchestral and operatic world, and includes the very popular ballet suites, tuneful arias and movements from the popular concertos, symphonies and orchestral suites written during the last 400 years or so. In recent years BBC Radio 3 has broadcast a more serious playlist, in keeping with it's scholarly image, and rarely features the light classical genre, indeed Radio 3's weekday late evening schedule rarely features any classical musical and it has handed that function to Classic FM. Thankfully Radio 2 still finds room in it's schedule for light classical music and light music.

For British music, it is important that programmes of light music and light classical music remember the many British composers active since the mid-nineteenth century who composed orchestral suites, overtures and incidental music but who have been overshadowed by the popularity for Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams. Again, thanks to recent CD issues and to Radio 2 and to the Brian Kay programme on Radio 3, the music of many excellent British composers have found a new audience. Look out for the music of Roger Quilter, Granville Bantock, George Butterworth, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Hamish Macunn, Herman Finck, Albert Ketelbey, Gerard Finzi, Percy Grainger, Constant Lambert, David Lyon, Anthony Hedges.

100 Best Tunes

Alan KeithYour Hundred Best Tunes was created by its longtime presenter Alan Keith, and was first on the air 15th November 1959. Originally conceived to search out and present the "100 Best Tunes in the World" in the light/classical genre, with regular listeners' polls, the programme was presented by Alan Keith until his death in 2003. The last series of the programme was presented by Richard Baker until January 2007.

Radio presenter Alan Keith, was believed to be the oldest national DJ when he died in March 2003 at the age of 94. Keith had been due to announce his retirement to listeners, had already pre-recorded his final show for Sunday 30 March. Radio 2 decided to broadcast the show on that date. BBC Radio 2 controller Jim Moir, at the time, said of Alan Keith "For over 30 years his programme, Your Hundred Best Tunes, was an appointment to listen for millions and he will be sorely missed. His death marks the end of a 70-year association with the BBC, an achievement unlikely to be equalled. He will have an honoured place in broadcasting history."

Richard BakerAlan Keith's career in entertainment began at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he went on to appear in George Bernard Shaw's west end show Major Barbara. His radio career began in 1935 and saw him perform as a variety show compere and interviewer on the radio seriesIn Town Tonight. He himself came up with the idea of Your Hundred Best Tunes, which was originally contracted for a 13-week run, but it was going on more than 40 years later.

Alan Keith would play listeners' light classical favourites and there were certainly many favourite pieces of music played several times a year particularly by Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and there were regular votes for '100 Best Tunes', the last vote was in 2002/2003. When he took over the show Richard Baker played a more varied playlist and included many neglected British composers.

The final programme of Your Hundred Best Tunes was broadcast on Sunday 21 January 2007.

The last listeners' poll is listed at Y100BT final poll

John Wright, 26 August 2005; updated 16 February 2007

Friday Night Is Music Night

Barry WordsworthFriday night has been 'music night' for over fifty years, first of all on the Light Programme and then on BBC Radio 2, which makes it the world's longest-running 'live music' programme on radio. It features the BBC Concert Orchestra, and is frequently broadcast from theatres and concert halls throughout the UK. Part of the BBC SOPP for Radio 2 requires that Friday Night Is Music Night (FNIMN) produce regular music arrangements and promote British music by featuring new and promising singers and stars of musical theatre.

Currently, Barry Wordsworth is the Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra. He also conducts the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as appearing frequently as guest conductor with many of the major British orchestras. You can read about Barry at IMG Artistes and at

Janet ShellIn 2005 the FNIMN series has included several styles of music, several established music al stars and many up and coming artistes. Featured singers of light opera and musicals include Yvonne Patrick, Janet Shell, Jacqueline Barron, Michael Dore, Anne Sophie Duprels, Richard Coxon, Grainne Renihan, John Barrowman, Jacquelyn Fugelle, Simon Grant, Catherine Bott and Sean Ruane. The wide repertoire of the BBC Concert Orchestra can be realised by checking out the FNIMN Playlists, most Friday night there will be at least two of these composers featured: Puccini, Leoncavallo, Verdi, Mozart, Lehmann, Sondheim, Rodgers/Hammerstein, Berlin and Lloyd-Webber.

FNIMN has also recently catered for the pop fans with shows featuring Donny Osmond, Lucie Silvas and for swing fans Michael Bublé

John Wright, 20 September 2005

Melodies For You

Cole PorterAlan Titchmarsh presents a programme of popular vocal and instrumental melodies from a wide range of genres - classical, opera, musical theatre, parlour songs and music from the masters of popular song, such as Gershwin and Cole Porter. Alan's show continues the tradition of Melodies For You but seems to be just playing his favourite music and unable to convey the same deep knowledge and experience of previous presenters,

John Wright, 16 February 2007

Nigel Kennedy

Anne Sophie von Otter

Yehudi Menuhin

Anna Netrebko

Maria Callas

Bryn Terfel

David Oistrakh, violin

Kenneth McKellar sings

Emma Kirkby sings

music by Berlioz


R2OK is a listeners' group which has no official connection
with the Radio 2 station or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

this page first published 20 August 2005
last updated 16 February 2008

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