Desert island discs

We’re allowed to choose our own desert island discs, says the BBC. Well, what else do you think I’ve been doing with all my time since I was 10, Auntie? But I suppose it’s nice to feel that my nerdile behaviour has been sanctioned.

If you want to submit your own choices to the BBC, you can do so here. I won’t be joining you, as I don’t subscribe to their silly rules. I’m sure Kirsty Young is not so stringent on the programme. But if I were to be invited on, my eight records, luxury item and book would look something like this.

1. Johann Sebastian Bach Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 (1729)

I can’t not choose something by Bach, and there are very few pieces I have happier memories of singing than this motet. It’s one thing to listen to music and another to make it, but I can always sing along to a recording, and if I try very hard I can almost convince myself I’m inside the music again. If you play the video and are able to read music you can follow Bach’s manuscript.

Spotify (Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner)

2. Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major, op. 109 (1820)

I might have chosen one of the late quartets, but I think that the final movement of this sonata probably moves me more than anything else Beethoven wrote. Utterly sublime.

YouTube (Claudio Arrau) | Spotify (Solomon)

3. Richard Wagner Parsifal (completed 1882)

All of it. I will need something big to get my teeth into while I’m stranded, and this will have to be it. Maybe the most celestial music Wagner wrote.

YouTube (Met / Levine, 1992) | Spotify (Bayreuth / Knappertsbusch, 1962)

4. Johannes Brahms Sonata for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano in F minor, op. 120 no. 1 (1894)

I think that of all composers Brahms may be the one of whom I would least readily dispose, and it was a difficult decision to choose this over one of the symphonies, but then I have orchestral music elsewhere in my selections. Gorgeous, and perhaps I may be permitted to take the clarinet and viola versions, each of which has quite a different character from the other.

Spotify (Paul Silverthorne, viola / Julian Jacobson, piano)

5. Fats Waller I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (1931)

Probably the first jazz record I heard. There are several different recordings Waller made of this song, but this I think is the best, or at any rate the funniest. It can be taken as read that he was one of the most ludicrously brilliant pianists who ever drew breath (though his virtuosity doesn’t get much of a workout here), but he also overflowed with personality. If only I could have seen him perform live.

YouTube | Spotify

6. Alban Berg Violin Concerto, ‘Dem Andenken eines Engels’ (1935)

I’ve decided to make one of my choices a piece that moves me deeply though I don’t know it particularly well. Probably a good idea to turn this exile to my advantage by spending some of those long and lonely hours becoming properly acquainted with it.

YouTube (Frederieke Saeijs, violin / Orchestre National de France / Jonathan Darlington) | Spotify (Itzhak Perlman, violin / Boston Symphony Orchestra / Seiji Ozawa)

7. Herbert Howells Gloucester Service (1946)

Something else I have sung. I can’t explain exactly why it is that Howells’ church music does such strange things to my brain. His harmonic imagination is enormously exciting. If I were a proper composer and not just a Sunday one, I would choose to be able to write like this. I don’t have a preferred recording, but the ones from Hereford Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge that came out last year are both excellent.

YouTube | Spotify (both Collegiate Singers / Andrew Millinger / Richard Moorhouse, organ)

8. Miami Sound Machine Bad Boy (1985)

I know, I know. Just as every politician has to choose some [insert safe classical composer here, preferably British and/or straight] to suggest they may have a brain, I have to have something that may come across as tacky in the hope that it will persuade readers I’m not the complete square I so patently am. But it’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is, and this would be perfect for running around and exercising and keeping my spirits up. It is a song of which I do not tire. Brilliant, I am tempted to say.


Rather Teutonic, all told. No French music, which is a shame. A bit of Rameau would have been nice. But it is done. If I had to pick one it would be the Howells. Not something I would want to listen to frequently, but to keep aside for special occasions.

I take it that if, as an enormous number of castaways before me, I were to name a piano as my luxury, I would not be restricted to playing the music I’ve chosen? It seems a cheat, but everyone else presumably does it. So there we are. I’ve never played a Bechstein to my knowledge, so let’s have one of those.

Book? Well, first I’d like to swap the Bible for the Book of Common Prayer, if I may, and since there’s an awful lot of stuff to read in Shakespeare, I would probably ask in addition not for a work of literature but for the A-Z of London. I could do the knowledge on my return to civilisation, after learning how to drive.

I would be fascinated to read the choices of others. The Argumentative Old Git has posted his. What about you? Ah, go on.



7 Responses to “Desert island discs”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Isn’t it wonderful and mysterious that the culture that one grows up in ends up meaning so much to us? – that, as you put it, it “does such strange things to [one’s] brain”? The music of Howells is merely on the periphery of my musical awareness, yet had English church choral music been a part of my background – as it clearly has been part of yours – then, no doubt, it would have been doing strange things to my brain also. It is endlessly fascinating how one’s tastes develop. Or, indeed, the fact that we have tastes and preferences to begin with.

    There has been a hypothesis going round for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence at all – to the effect that our cultural values nad preferences are biologically inherited. Utter nonsense. But it is true that we pick up and absorb our cultural values from what is around us, and what is around us tends to be the cultural values of our parents, and of the society into which we are born. And what you pick up in your formative years really do define you – to a far greater extent than I’d imagined.

    I must admit I am surprised not to see Ravel or Britten in your selection, but eight is far too few: I’m sure you must be equally surprised to see no Handel or Verdi in mine.

    And yes, Beethoven’s sonata Op 109 is a marvel. As are all his late piano pieces.

  2. Gareth Says:

    Yes, it’s fascinating the extent to which the environment that surrounds us in our early years shapes our tastes. Although I grew up going to church each week (except when I kicked up enough of a fuss to get out of it), and not generally enjoying it, I have found myself returning to it as an adult. The Howells in fact is something I discovered fairly late on, just before university. It’s the service of choral evensong where one tends to hear the best music in the Anglican Church. I didn’t go to evensong as a child, but did sing a few in my gap year, which I suppose was when I started to discover in myself a love of the music and the hymns and the liturgy.

    Eight choices is far too few. If I only had a few more, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb would be there (it was on my original list, but I forsook it in favour of the Howells), and also Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. And I have no string chamber music either. I’ve recently been revisiting Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is an astonishing piece in terms of its solemnity and the depths it seems to plumb, as much as Winterreise, I think (and possibly more? Are words an encumbrance in soul-searching? The merits of absolute versus programmatic music. A discussion for another day). If I had a ninth choice, I think it would be that, but one has to strike a balance. I need the silly music to balance the serious.

  3. Mike A Says:

    Harumph! They really ought to let us select our book as well!

    I’m going to find it really difficult getting down to 8. Will listen to everyone’s choices later, as this PC only offers the ‘late Beethoven’ experience. 😉

  4. Gareth Says:


  5. Mike A Says:

    My choices:-

  6. Mike A Says:

    Nice selection Gareth, though I confess I still struggle with Brahms and Wagner (my loss I’m sure!). I enjoy Wagner in small doses, but lack the stamina to tackle his work properly – which seems so at odds with what he was about as to be absurd!

    The Howells sent me off on a youtube quest around the church music I sang in my youth. I remember singing the Howells, the various Stanfords and the Dyson (with that infamous high note for the trebles) – but the settings I liked best were Thomas Attwood Walmisley’s in D minor:

  7. Gareth Says:

    I think the Dyson you mention may be the one in D, which I heard a couple of days ago at Gonville and Caius. I remember one stratospheric moment in the Magnificat, at least. I think I’ve sung the one in F. I love the slushy, romantic services by people like Stanford and Sumsion and Murrill. Some of my favourite church music.

    I can quite understand people not taking to Wagner (though if you’ve got Spotify do try the track I linked to – it’s the very end of Parsifal, and you would have to be hard-hearted indeed not to love it, like failing to laugh when Little Nell carks it), but I can’t see what’s not to love about Brahms, at least in the symphonies and concerti and chamber music. You’ll come round to him!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: