Posts Tagged ‘radio’

Music & Memory

January 7, 2011

Reeds – photograph by Liz Mathews

Ever since the last waltz of the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna faded away – actually the Radetzky March, as always – I’ve been enjoying the Mozartfest on Radio 3.  It’s a good time of year to play ‘every note he wrote’, and it’s evidently very popular, perhaps especially with the audiences who listen to classical music in the background for much of the time.  But the programmers must feel a certain sense of can’t win, when their own Radio Times – which usually complains vociferously at any ‘challenging’ or overtly contemporary music – now condescendingly describes this Mozart-feast as ‘saccharine’.  (Obviously not listened to Don Giovanni recently…)

What I’ve found most moving, among all the pleasures of the season so far, is the huge personal importance of this music to so many people.  It means so much, not only in itself, but in the memories it carries.  Far more than any Proustian madeleine, certain pieces of Mozart conjure up the past, by evoking experience, feeling, character, emotion, with such subtlety and irresistable truth.

We’ve heard of people roused from coma by a favourite concerto, or comforted in their pain by the sublime music, of its effects of enlightenment or transfiguration, and in particular of its power to communicate.  This is so profound that the usual boundaries between so-different people become fluid, or even vanish entirely, until there seems to be an invisible community of listeners united in their feeling for Mozart’s work.

In an unexpectedly touching way the Play Mozart for me request programme in the evenings has shown how – in that altered state of listening – so many people remember the music-lovers who they have loved, and feel close to them even if they’re far away or long dead, with a certainty that somehow they must hear such heavenly music too.

Freedom to sing

November 12, 2010

Autumn light – photograph by Liz Mathews

From Radio 3’s bold attempt to promote ‘free thinking’ in its eponymous festival, I heard Fiona Shaw’s talk on Nightwaves (by chance, as it followed on from a concert), and I’m glad that I did.    The theme of the discussions this year has been ‘happiness’, but this programme was called ‘What acting can teach you about life’. Perhaps inevitably, Shaw concentrated more on what the great plays themselves – literature rather than acting – had taught her about life, and how life had illuminated her work. Despite the not very encouraging title, I’d recommend it as well worth listening to again.

Much of this talk was about the way in which words act on the imagination, and the art of the actor in communicating that inner vision. Shaw’s demonstrations of the way different meanings can be drawn out of words, depending on how they are spoken, were funny but also revealing.  Her story of the great RSC voice coach Cicely Berry telling her to ‘walk on the commas’ when speaking Shakespeare’s verse was demonstrated brilliantly.

(Although she’s not an actor I’ve seen often onstage, I did see her brain scan in the Identity exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, with the fascinating display of the areas of the brain which light up when she’s reading poetry – the arms that move in the imagination also seem to the brain to be moving, even when they are physically still…)

Also refreshing was Shaw’s vehement denunciation of the lies of politicians, and their devaluing of our language by misuse and disrespect.    (The audience’s reaction made clear how unusual such plain-speaking seemed to them in such a context.)  This contrasted strongly with the actor’s description of the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare particularly, as writers who were trying to speak the truth.

Best of all was her concluding affirmation of the importance of ‘the nightingale of art’ and the hope that it will go on singing.

Ancestral Voices

February 8, 2010

Rather like the Public Lending Right, the BBC is an anachronism, a great British institution which – despite all attempts at reconstruction, modernisation and fumigation – still retains a distinct whiff of Reithian atmosphere. (This refers to BBC radio, of course. What may go on in the alien universe of television is another matter.) Even now, on Radio 3 and 4, the virtues of cultural inclusiveness, palatable education and campaigning journalism, so distrusted by Mrs Thatcher, survive against the odds.

Within this vaguely socialist ethos, literature is still supported, both through official book programmes, and more sporadically. It turns up in unexpected places; poetry creeps onto Woman’s Hour, writers are interviewed on music programmes. Turned on at random, the radio is suddenly loud with Chekhovian women longing for Moscow, or the rhythmic wood-pigeon cooing which turns out to be Yeats reading Innisfree.

Last week, Radio 3’s Composer of the Week was William Walton, so Edith Sitwell intoned Façade, as she quite frequently does. The maniac delights of this must have sent many people, like me, to look again at her work, and marvel.

This week on Radio 4, there will be Vita Sackville-West talking about herself as Orlando; a treasure not so rare as Virginia Woolf on words, but nevertheless a glittering moment. It’s on the repeated From the Ban to the Booker, a two part series on books from Radclyffe Hall’s banned The Well of Loneliness to the multiple Booker nominations of Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. (As well as Ali, Sarah, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Souhami et al, it includes a contribution from me about Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner.)

Contemporary writers have a perhaps surprisingly strong presence on the radio. In the remote future, if the BBC excavates these literary dialogues from the archives, presumably they’ll seem as other-worldly as the period pieces from the mid-twentieth century do now – ancestral voices echoing across the airwaves.

From the Ban to the Booker, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th February 23.30. (Or listen again on