Choose your own Desert Island Discs

It’s such a simple idea, but so effective. If you were stranded on a desert island, and had, miraculously, some machine on which to play music, which eight pieces of music would you choose? And which of those eight would you keep if you could keep only one? The answers are so very revealing. Some choose music for reasons of nostalgia; some for the quality of the music; and some, one suspects, to make a certain impression, or to project a certain image. But whatever the reason (and one can usually tell from listening to the programme) it is a fascinating idea, and extraordinarily revealing of the guest’s personality and cultural preferences. So successful has this simple formula been, that the programme will shortly celebrate its 60th anniversary. 

In addition to the eight pieces of music, they are allowed to pick one luxury, and one book apart from the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare – which, we are told, are already on the island, it being assumed by the programme creator Roy Plomley that these two choices were so obvious that just about everyone would go for one or the other. Of course, things have changed since Roy Plomley’s days: on being told they’d be given the Bible, some guests nowadays react as if they’d been told they’d be given a dog turd. A few seem quite shocked that they’d have to pick a book at all, and try desperately to think of some book they’ve heard of. On the other hand, there are those delighted to be getting the Bible and Shakespeare: I remember Robbie Coltrane on this programme commenting that if some alien life form wanted to know what humanity was like, the best thing one could do would be to hand them a copy of Shakespeare. (His own choice apart from the Bible and Shakespeare was a Raymond Chandler novel – obviously a man of good taste and discernment!) But however they react, it’s revealing. 

In preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations, the BBC has put up on its website all the choices ever made by various guests since the programme started. It makes, I find, for addictive browsing. I like seeing the surprising choices – such as Oliver Reed showing his sensitive side by choosing Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes (I wouldn’t look too closely at his luxury choice, mind you!); or the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert choosing Abba singing “Super Trooper”. 

The BBC will soon be broadcasting a special programme to celebrate Desert Island Discs, and as part of the celebrations, we, Joe Public, can send in our own choices. The rules are a bit odd: we can choose a song, but not collections of songs or albums; and if we choose classical music, we may choose either one complete work if it is a non-vocal work (i.e. if it isn’t opera or oratorio or something similar); or, if it is opera or oratorio, we may choose an excerpt from it – an aria or ensemble or chorus or whatever. Well, it’s their game, so I suppose they can make the rules. For the record, these were my choices: 

Mozart: “Dove Sono” from “Le Nozze di Figaro”

This would be my one choice if I were restricted to one.

I have written on this blog before about my love of Mozart’s music, so I won’t go through all that again. But, quite apart from that, this is a work my wife and I particularly love, and it has many personal associations for us.

Tagore: “Bhara thak” from “Shapmochan”

This is music I grew up with at home. Tagore’s songs (Rabindrasangeet) are, effectively, the national music of Bengal. Growing up in Britain, I was picking up and absorbing all sorts of Western influences, but this was the culture I had at home. It’s hard to say whether I enjoy listening to this music because it brings back childhood years so vividly, or because the music itself is very good: a bit of both, I think. After all, glam rock of the early 70s was also part of my growing up, but I can’t say I make any special effort now to seek it out. This, however, is different.

Shapmochan (literally “The Breaking of the Spell”) is either a traditional folk story, or a story made up by Tagore in the folk style: I’m not sure. The story is narrated by a speaker, and is interspersed with some of Rabindranath’s loveliest and most moving songs. Since I can’t pick all the songs, I’ll pick the first – a tender, haunting melody of farewell.

(If anyone wants to hear this for themselves, do a search on Spotify on the word “Shapmochan”, and pick the track called “Shapmochan” that lasts about 45 minutes; this is the very famous recording made some 50 or so years ago, and featuring Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee. The first song – my choice above – is sung by Suchitra about a minute or so into this track.)

Brahms: Piano Concerto 2 in B flat major

I’ve always felt personally close to Brahms’ music, and this, effectively a symphony with a piano, is one of the old boy’s best.

Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and  All Rakha: Raga Sindhi Bhairavi

This was recorded live from a concert given in 1972 inNew York, and it is the most exhilarating piece of music making I think I have ever heard. All three of these very great musicians – Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) – were on red-hot form that night. This piece is about half an hour long, and is, effectively, one continuous accelerando. Just when you think it can’t get any faster, it does – and the precision with which these three toss around musical phrases of great rhythmic complexity at ever-increasing tempi is mind-boggling, and takes one’s breath away.

Schubert: “Am Meer” from “Schwanengesang”

Schwanengesang was Schubert’s last collection of songs, and they are songs of pain and longing and desire. It’s virtually impossible to pick out just one song, but since them’s the rules, them’s the rules. This particular song is a setting of a poem by Heine, and, as with the Tagore song I picked earlier, it’s a song about a parting. But the mood here is deeply ambiguous. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so haunting.

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

We all know the story of how Beethoven took a simple and trivial little theme composed by Anton Diabelli – a music publisher – and wrote 33 variations on it, transforming something utterly trivial into a massive work that communicates all moods and all states of mind imaginable, and, by the end, seems to transcend everything as it moves into new regions of sound. It seems to me sometimes a metaphor for creation itself: it’s the emergence of an entire universe out of nothing.

Nirmalendu Choudhury: “Naiya Re Sujan Naiya”

This is something else I grew up with at home. Nirmalendu was a singer of Bengali folk songs, and had the most phenomenal voice and singing technique. This song is a traditional boatman’s song (“bhatiali”), and contemplates the immensity of the river. (And you can put on that whatever metaphoric interpretation you want.) It starts quietly, but develops towards a climax of tremendous passion. The adjective “soulful” may almost have been invented just for this song.

(And if you want to sample this, I’d suggest going into Spotify again, and searching on “Nirmalendu”.)

Bartók: String Quartet 5

I would like some modernist music as well on my desert island, and I have long loved the wild passions and the passages of weird nocturnal stillness in Bartók’s string quartets. I have picked the 5th – but really, I could just as easily have picked any of the other five.

So, those are my eight. The BBC doesn’t ask us to choose a book or a luxury, which is just as well, because I really wouldn’t know what to choose. I’ll have the Bible and Shakespeare, which are both welcome, but then what? War and Peace? A Dickens novel? The poems of Tagore, perhaps, or of Wordsworth? The plays of Ibsen? I think I may just choose the complete Sherlock Holmes stories instead, but … who knows? 

Well, those are my choices. And I’d be interested in any other personal Desert Island Discs choices from anyone else out in the blogosphere.

44 responses to this post.

  1. Lovely post. ‘Am Meer’ is one of my favourite Schubert songs too, and I have just listened to ‘Naiya Re Sujan Naiya’ again – thank you for reminding me of it. You can count on me doing something similar fairly soon. But the BBC’s submission rules are silly. You should be able to count anything as a single choice if it’s a coherent work, whether it’s an album or an opera (or the complete Ring? There’s a thought). Easy enough to pick a highlight from a number opera, but what do you do with something that’s through-composed? Anyway…

    Ah, Oliver Reed. A man after my own heart.


    • I’d be very interested in seeing your choice.

      The rules are indeed a bit strange. I think it’s because when the programme first started, music was only available in 78s: even LPs were a thing of the future. And now, sixty years on, they haven’t quite caught up yet with CDs, let alone MP3s.

      Well, our teenage boy made his choice as well, and chose the longest piece he could think of that the rules allowed: Mahler’s 3rd symphony!


  2. Hello Himadri

    Thank you so much for blogging this. I heard it trailed on R4 the other day and thought “that’s for me”. I’m so pleased the Beeb is prepared to allow us to share our own choices, even if the rules are silly! Some of the guests on the programme have made very unusual and unexpected choices. I remember the crime writer, James Ellroy, chose mainly Beethoven and declared that “Beethoven speaks to me, and because he’s deaf, he can’t hear me reply”. He displayed an unexpected and profound understanding of Beethoven’s music and mind…. It’s always refreshing too when some fluffy celebrity reveals some hidden depths. I think Kirsty Young is a worth successor to Roy Plomley: she’s good at teasing out nuggets….

    Thus inspired, I am off to write my own list!


  3. Posted by Caro on June 1, 2011 at 5:08 am

    I thought you’d like the tone lowered, Himadri! So here is my list of desert island discs. I can’t comment on yours, since I don’t know classical music, except those very well-known pieces, and even then I don’t usually know their names or composers, just their sound.

    I think you would consider mine nostalgic choices really. Certainly not there to impress.

    1: Lilli Marlene, by Marlene Dietrich. Lovely touching song, the only one I know which stretched across both the Allied and Axis forces. My father was in WWII and he used to sing a butchered Italian version of this, which I only know from listening and putting the sounds into an English context. “Had yay perceiva dolce l’amour’.

    2: She’s Not You by Elvis. When people ask what famous person you’d like to meet, I’m afraid my first thought is ‘I don’t specially want to meet him, but I’d like to be an 18-year-old me seeing Elvis sing She’s Not You into my eyes’.

    3: The Dear John Letter by don’t really care who. More memories of my father. When my mother went into the nursing home to have my (stillborn) sister, my uncle taught me, aged 4 to sing Dear John so I could sing it to my parents when she came home. My mother died there and never came home. Then on the day of my father’s funeral 11 years later they played it on the radio. My father’s name was John.

    4: I Fall to Pieces by Patsy Cline. I like country music and this is perhaps a bit classier than some of the ones I am happy to listen to.

    5. A couple of years ago the radio played a lot some songs from an album of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I don’t quite know the names of them, but they were very lovely and I like duets.

    6. Blue Smoke by Pixie Williams. This was the first song fully recorded in New Zealand and I have always liked it. Nice waltz with New Zealand connotations.

    7: E aue by any Maori choir. Would feel lonesome for some Maoritanga while on a desert island. Any number of their popular songs would be fine, Pokare kare ane by Kiri Te Kanawa might be nice, or Hoki Mai. But E aue has a swaying rhythm which is very attractive.

    8: I love Roy Orbison but perhaps I need something a bit more after all these lulling sort of songs that I seem to have here, so I will choose what I once talked to my radio about as the best song ever written and that was the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun. But it could have been Procul Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah or the Beatles Hey Jude.

    Have remembered! No, No 8 will be Bob Dylan’s Positively Forth Street. Or It’s All Over Baby Blue.

    But since my songs are so short I should be allowed full albums – Songs of World War II, best of Vera Lynn, best of Roy Orbison, one of the Elvis songs I like, a compilation of country music, a Maori choir album, Beatles for Sale and a couple of others.

    Book: Very difficult. With the Bible and Shakespeare I don’t think I will need anything deep as my choice, but you want something that will keep you going for a while and warrant a re-read. I would be happy with all 53 of Georgette Heyer’s novels, but seem to have choose just one book. I think it would need to be a not-too-heavy saga. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet series? I do like crime – perhaps GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Maybe the Forsyth Saga, or Trollope’s Barchester series. Would I be allowed that? Or perhaps just Emma to read and reread.

    Luxury: I suppose to expect a computer with internet access that never breaks, goes off-line or gets stuck would be cheating. Maybe just an everlasting pen, paper and book of word puzzles. Something for entertainment anyway.

    Cheers, Caro.


    • Thanks for that fascinating list, Caro. Of the eight, I know Lili Marlene, and I know the Bob Dylan tracks you mention. On everything else, I must plead ignorance – even the Elvis song, I’m afraid. but that’s what so great about this game – whether you know the music or not, the reason for someone choosing it is interesting. Even when I did not know the music you were choosing, the stories you give for them are precisely what this game is about!


  4. Posted by Neil Shepherd on June 2, 2011 at 12:05 am

    I have always thought this is an impossible task. It makes for an entertaining programme of course, but if faced with having to do it for real, I think I’d prefer to go down with the ship to Davy Jones’s locker!

    If I really had to do it, and agonise over which pieces of Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven, Puccini etc I’d never be able to hear again, I would probably include one piece by Eminem or Lady Gaga or some such, just to remind me how much I appreciate the other seven!


    • Posted by Caro on June 2, 2011 at 10:14 am

      When I was making that list above I did wonder if I should include something by Eminem for variety and modernity, and because my son tells me how good he is. And the other day I heard a Lady Gaga song for the first time, and I really like it. My national radio doesn’t normally play pop music but it has an album of the day (week?) and this time it was her. I hadn’t known who it was when I was listening and I thought I liked it a lot, so it was a surprise to hear it was Lady Gaga. I didn’t know she could actually sing. (Of course my taste in music is not high but even so it wasn’t a light little girl’s voice.)


    • Yes, I know how you feel – making choices such as this is good fun, but, having made it, I’m still glad I have my entire CD collection available, and more books to read than the King James Bible, Shakespeare and the Sherlock Holmes stories – which are, admittedly, the three most indispensable volumes of English literature! 🙂


  5. Posted by BrenShack on June 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

    1.”Que sera, sera” by Doris Day. Played very badly by my Dad on the piano when I was little. Happy times.
    2.”I know that my Redeemer Liveth” by Kathleen Ferrier.My Mum’s favourite and the Faith that we all lived by.
    3.”La Mer” by Charles Trenet. Love languages and especially love the sea – in my blood.
    4.”Summer Place” by Percy Faith Orchestra. Happy , happy times with the family and so many friends at a Caravan site in Wales.
    5. “River Deep, mountain high” by Ike and Tina Turner. Fantastic rock and beat. Makes me want to jump about.
    6.”Jupiter” from the Planets by Gustav Holst. 4 reasons:_1) It’s about the night sky and on the Desert Island I’ll have plenty of opportunity to look at the sky and marvel at the Universe. 2) It’s the Rugby World Cup song and my family and,especially my wonderful husband are involved in Rugby. 3) I taught a class of Junior children to play it (after a fashion !) 4. It is set to the words of “I vow to thee my country” Beautiful England.


    • Hello BrenShack, and welcome to this blog.

      As you can see, your post seems to have cut off after Choice No 6, due to some technical glitch. Please feel free to add the other two – as I was enjoying rading your list, and, more importantly perhaps, the reasons for your choices.

      I was glad to see Kathleen Ferrier amongst your choices. A wonderful singer, with a very distinctive and, to my mind at least, a very beautiful voice. She recorded a lovely album of arias from Bach and Handel, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting: on another day, this could well have been one of my choices.


    • Posted by Caro on June 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm

      Ah yes, the wonderful River Deep, Mountain High. I love it.

      Have remembered I once heard a particularly lovely version of Beautiful Dreamer but though I asked the radio who it was by and they told me, I seem to have lost the email.


  6. Posted by Larry on June 2, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    If I were a carpenter by Tim Hardin
    Spanish Eyes by Al de Meola
    Harvest Moon by Neil Young
    Us and Them by Pink Floyd
    Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez
    Samba Pa Ti by Santana
    After the Gold Rush by Neil Young
    Mahler Symphony No. 9


  7. Posted by Marion on June 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    This is a brilliant idea!
    1. Heart of Gold – Neil Young
    2. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
    3. March of the Hebrew Slaves (Nabucco) – Verdi
    4. Don’t be Cruel – Elvis Presley
    5. This Land is your Land – Woody Guthrie
    6. In my Life – The Beatles
    7. Do what you gotta do – Nina Simone
    8. Imagine – Joan Baez


    • I recognise the names of some of these tracks, but most of them I haven’t yet heard. (I’ve heard the Verdi, the Elvis track, In My Life, and I think I know the Nina Simone number.) Tomorrow aftrnoon I’ll be trawling through Youtube & Spotify to educate myself a bit…


  8. Well I note that between Marion, Caro and me, we now have all 3 seminal recordings of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”!

    Nice to see Trenet’s “La Mer” in BrenShack’s list. I love it – and “Boum!”, for that matter.


  9. Posted by davidheppell on June 3, 2011 at 6:55 am

    between clark and hilldale LOVE 2 ‘up from the skies Jimi Hendrix” Positively 4th st.Dylan Sweet Thing Van ‘Saint o Me’ Stones Northern Skies’ Nick Drake ‘Alone again or’ Love lucifer sam ‘Pink Floyd thanx


  10. Posted by Rachel Meinke on June 3, 2011 at 8:39 am

    1. Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis by R. Vaughn Williams – Nostalgia for a long-past green England
    2. Danse Macabre – Debussy. Fun and mischief, also wonderful harmonies
    3. Take Five – Brubeck. Sheer joy
    4. Valse Triste, opus 44, – Sibelius. Can bring back all kinds of memories, nostalgia again.
    5. The Lark Ascending – Vaughn Williams. Memories of hot summer day in countryside when we still had skylarks – ultimate Peacetime
    6. Jesu Meine Freude – J.S.Bach. Very spiritually uplifting.
    7. Petites Litanies de Jesus – played by Peter Katin – by Gabriel Grovlez. I saw Peter Katin when he came to Guernsey and he played this. Love it.
    8. Jupiter (jollity) Planets, Gustav Holst. This can dispel all black thoughts abd depression.


    • It’s hard to think of anything by Bach that isn’t spiritually uplifting! And as for Dave Brubeck’s take Five – yes, pure joy.

      Peter Katin gave a concert at our local music club a couple of years ago. In his 80s now, I believe, but he still plays Chopin like no-one else!


  11. Posted by Anita Stanton on June 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    1. Julia – John Lennon
    2. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
    3. Wish you were Here – Pink Floyd
    4. Anchorage – Michelle Shocked
    5. Back to Black – Amy Winehouse
    6. You can’t always get what you want – Rolling Stones
    7. A case of you – Joni Mitchell
    8. Sanctus – Missa Luba

    All of the above take me back to a certain time and place in my life – unadulterated nostalgia.


    • Nostalgia is as good a reason as any in these matters! 🙂 I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that the Sanctus from the Missa Luba is chosen because of its assications with a certain Lindsay Anderson film called “If…”


  12. Posted by Janet Abranson on June 3, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    1. Listen to the Ocean-Nina and Frederick.
    2.Piano Concerto No.1 allegro Tchaikovosky.
    3.Lara”s Theme-Andre Rieu.
    4. Genevieve-Scott Walker.
    5.Iris-GooGoo Dolls.
    6.She- Blake.
    7.The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.- Bryn Terfel.
    8.Those Were The Days Of Our Lives, Freddy Mercury.


    • I’m afraid I have to admit that I don’tknow too many of these – but I’ll try & hear a few. As for Nina and Fredrick – I remember when Nina (singing solo) used to be a regular guest on the Morecambe & Wise Show. But that’s going back a bit…


  13. Posted by Margaret Westwood on June 3, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    At age 78 a lot of music has gone through my head! However I do have eight peices that I would take to the Desert Island. These are: A 78 record that belonged to my Dad “Ain’t it Grand to be Bloomin’Well Dead” sung by Leslie Sarony on Imperial record 2688.
    Jelly Roll Morton & Red Hot Peppers playing Black Bottom Stomp – which will always say “USA,1st trip 1954” to me; Beethoven’s overture Leonore No.3 (first heard live at age 11-12 – and bowled over); Mahler’s 3rd Symphony; Oh what a Lovely War – 1969 film with Dirk Bogarde, the Redgraves, Ralph Richardson,Maggie Smith. (ALL OF IT – ABCL 5072 by Anchor Records Ltd); Faures Elegie for cello played by Jacqueline Du Pres; Brahms Qintet in B. minor for clarinet&strings (Gervase de Peyer); Wagner Wotan’s farewell from Die Walkure with Rene Pape; The cat duet Rossini subg by Maria Callas and??as abonus if any other not available!


    • I’d guess Mahler’s 3rd symphony is the longest piece you can pick given BBC’s rules! It’s a great favourite of our teenege boy – but then again, he plays the trombone, and those big trombone solos are particular favourites of his. And I very nearly picked Brahms’ clarinet quintet myself!


  14. Thank you all of you for posting your choices and comments. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all of them. When I put up this post last weekend, I never imagined it would get such a response!

    I find it fascinating to know about others’ tastes – I suppose I am just a bit nosey! I find it endlssly fascinating how our tastes develop and change over he years – to what extent our tastes are the products of the environment in which we grow up or the envronmeny in which we live, and to what extent it is a consequence of our innate personalities.

    Much of the music mentioned so far I do not know, but I will try to listen to at least some of it.

    Thanks very much to every one once again, and please do feel free to drop in as & when you feel like it,
    Himadri (aka The Argumentative Old Git)

    PS Don’t forget to give your choices to the BBC Desert Island Discs poll!


  15. Posted by Graham Saxby on June 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Here are my choices, not necessarily in order of preference:
    1 Bach: B minor Mass. Arguably the greatest pioece of music ever written. If I had to choose just one section, it would be the Credo.
    2 Mendelssohn: String Octet. No matter how gloomy I felt, this would cheer me up within the first few bars.
    3 Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra. The first piece to convince me that twelve tone compositions could be real music.
    4 Vaughnn Williams: Tallis Fantasia. An exposition of the essence of English music.
    5 Strauss: Four Last Songs. By Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, of course.
    6 Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. A whole world of orchestral music and song encapsulated in a single choral symphony.
    7 Haydn: Symphony No 103 (‘Drum Roll’). Lighthearted, humorous and incredibly ingenious, this was his greatest symphony.
    8 Woody Herman: Four Brothers. Herman’s Secon Herd was probably the finest, and certainly the most swinging, of all the great bands of the Forties.


    • Bach’s B minor mass may “arguably” be the greatest piece of music – but I’m certanly not going to argue against it! Perhaps my favourite part of it is the baritone aria “Et in spiritus sanctus” in which Bach takes a jaw-crunchingly polysyllabic Latin text, and sets itto the most flowing legato melody! I heard the Schoenberg piece many years ago when i used to live in Liverpool: Libor Pesek was conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and it made quite an impression on me, as I remember. There are a great many wonderful recordings of Strauss’ Four last Songs (including, of course, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s) but I’m one of those whose knees turn to jelly at the sound of soprano Gundula Janowitz’ voice:what a shame he nevermade a commercial recording of Der Rosenkavalier! And my current favourite amongst Haydn’s symphonies is No 88 – but only because I heard the LPO perform it last Saturday night, and it’s ringing in my ears still. (I lovethe Drum Roll symphony as well, of course.)

      Das Lied von der Erde is perhaps my favourite Mahler work, and a few weeks ago I bought a live recording of it conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Waldemar Kmentt and Janet Baker. This CD has been virtually glued to my CD player since: Janet Baker is art her peak, both vocally and in terms of artistry, and the quality of the recording is excellent. On another day, I could well have picked this.


  16. Posted by alan on June 4, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I don’t have a musical taste – this list mostly comes from listening to what other people have told me is good – sadly there wasn’t room for the Marriage of Figaro or Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet…)

    The Rite of Spring – Stravinsky
    When I See You Smile – Singing Sweet
    Frisco Leaving Birmingham, Take Two – George Bullet Williams
    Brandenburg Concertos – J.S. Bach
    Makorokoto – The Four Brothers
    Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – Vaughn Williams
    Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique – Alan Stivell
    Miserere Mei, Deus – Gregorio Allegri (and others)

    (By the way, an Abba fan like you should know that song is called ‘Super Trouper’)


  17. My Desert Island Disks selection is The Lark Ascending, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Palladio, Karl Jenkins: Hymn to THe Moon, Rusalka: Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong: Requiem, Sir Johb Teverner; Casta Diva, Norma,Bellini: Finlandia, Sibelius; Requiem, Rutter.

    Whist choosing these I recognised that each disk was linked to a special or sometimes, traumatic period of my life which only reinforces musics power to heal and sustain memories


    • Hello Norma, and thank you for that. I agree – music can have a very strong link to the more traumatic experiences of life. It can also, I think, have a strong link to happy times. When I find that a piece of music has acquired meaning for me, I cannot help wondering whether this is because of the work’s intrinsic merits, or because of the personal associations it has. I think that the music that means most to me has elements of both.

      I notice you have chosen the aria “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s opera Norma. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s the Maria Callas recording you’d want: in this aria in particular, just about any other singer seems a bit insipid in comparison!


      • Posted by Middle_Aged_Fogey on June 29, 2011 at 10:47 am

        Sorry for the belated comment – only just came across this. I’d second that comment about the Maria Callas recording of Casta Diva and everyone else seeming a “bit insipid” in comparison- harsh but fair! I was listening to a 1958 recording on Youtube of this only the other evening. Perhaps the recording by Lesley Garrett is among the front-runners for second place.
        This would be my numero uno FWIW.

  18. Hello Middle-Aged-Fogey,

    Pleased to meet with another blogger who has chosen a self-deprecating pseudonym. (It’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you, I reckon!) There’s something very intense both about the quality of Callas’ voice, and about the way she uses it. There are many other very fine operatic sopranos, of course, but Callas at her best really was something a bit special. And I can’t believe I couldn’t find room for one of her recordings in my choice!


  19. I love the whole idea of the desert island disc. A luxury item ,being practical would have to be a pair of nail scissors as I hate not being able to cut my nails when they need it. A book would be Alice in Wonderland, bacause I have read the book several times over years. as they say, the meaning of the book alters as you yourself grow. I began reading it in the 1960’s . I loved the earlier film of Alice in Wonderland and the latest in 3d. just magical.

    I have had Ava maria linked with my life , sung by different artist all my life. From happy times to sad times and difficult periods. An uplifting song that moves me.


    • Hello, and welcome. It’s just such a lovely, simple idea, isn’t it? It makes one think about what is most important to one.

      I take it that the Ave Maria you are choosing is the Schubert version rather than the Gounod. Schubert was possibly the greatest tunesmith of them all, and Ave Maria is one of those tunes that just don’t want to end – it keeps spinning itself out in endless loveliness.

      Alice in Wonderland is a great choice for a desert island book. I think mine would be the Sherlock Holmes stories: with Shakespeare and the King James Bible also at hand, I won’t be short of poetry and fine literature, and I really cannot imagine life without the Sherlock Holmes stories: they have been constant companions of mine for over 40 years now!

      Cheers for now,


  20. Posted by Jasper on January 20, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Well, I know this is really digging back in the archives, but as I’ve lately discovered this blog & am completely snowed in at home while the kids are watching a TV show of no interest to me – and considering how attractive the notion of a desert-ANYTHING is right now, I thought I’d throw in my few cents here…

    (in no particular order – well, OK, if these really were on a disc I would be pretty particular as to their order, because the musical flow must not be misguided – but this following list would not be the exact order; also, I decided that – like the movie list – I would pick just one work per artist, in the interest of fairness… and I apologize in advance for the length of the entry)

    1. Brahms: 3rd string quartet, Op. 67 (very hard to select from among all his works, but his chamber pieces have always had the most lasting savor for me, and this is one of his most unfortunately-overlooked masterpieces – the revised B major piano trio op. 8 & the F major cello sonata op. 99 come very close to superseding this one)

    2. Stravinsky: Concerto for 2 Pianos (again, very hard to put this above something like Le Sacre, but Stravinsky has always held my interest chiefly due to his continuous unpredictability of phrasing – and though it may sound crazy, the Rite is, umm, too predictable for me. Perhaps the intentional unpredictability of rhythm in his early years wasn’t quite fully developed, as I feel it was by the mid-1930’s. And perhaps I’m a charlatan. Oh, well.)

    3. Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony #1 Op. 9 (I do love me some pre-dodecaphonic atonalism – plus, as much as I appreciate his 12-tone works, I sort of wish he had continued in the vein of this music for a longer time, because nothing written before or since sounds quite like it. And I think that’s a shame.)

    4. Webern: 5 pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (if you haven’t guessed, I’m a hardcore old-school modernist. And this is yet another example of pre-12-tone atonalism, and I consider it the apex of Webern’s achievement in this style. Plus, it gives me chills, it’s so good.)

    5. Chopin: Nocturne in B major, Op. 32 #1 (I’ve always been unusually partial to the nocturnes of Chopin – and besides the mazurkas, ballades, and maybe a couple of other pieces, I can pretty much do without the rest of Chopin’s output – but this is one of those works of his that I just can’t ignore, it’s so goddamned bee-yooty-full. The op. 37/2 nocturne in G holds a very special place, partly due to the boldness of its harmonic vocabulary – certain sections might even be called atonal, and this was pre-1850! But the B major edges it out by just a hair.)

    6. Bach: Prelude & Fugue in b minor, from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier (several works from the two books of the WTC might qualify, but this has that certain je-ne-sais-what. And, of course, it also has that 12-tone fugue subject. Johann, you old dog.)

    7. Beethoven: Piano Sonata #31 in A-flat, Op. 110 (Slightly placed this one above the Op. 90 sonata, for unknown reasons – perhaps it’s just the incredible sense of the composer having reached this plateau of advanced music-making that no person had yet achieved – the 9th symphony, the Op. 111 sonata & the late quartets have it also, of course, but this one is for me an unmitigated joy to hear, particularly when Sviatoslav Richter is the one doing it.)

    8. Thelonious Monk: “Ruby, My Dear” from “Solo Monk” (I figured some jazz would have to make this list at some point; and the particular thump-swonk – to borrow a nice phrase from the liner notes – that is evident throughout this particular album has long held me in thrall. I consider Monk to be one of the 5 or 6 greatest composers of the 20th century, regardless of genre, and this piece is one his best.)

    9. Danny Schmidt: “Stained Glass” from “Home Recordings” (Huh? I hear you say… well, I had to make space for at least something in the singer-songwriter field, and this has always held a very important place for me, partly because I’m a sometime singer-songwriter myself, but mostly because this album was one of those revelatory experiences that convinced me I was listening to one of those great unsung legends of song, and that my own writing and playing was going to be irrevocably altered from the encounter. I don’t know if that turned out to be the case, but this is my favorite song from that album, and possibly the best song ever written. 🙂 Oh, and soon after discovering his music, I went to see him live and heard him deliver a version that was even better than the album version, and then I got to meet him and ended up helping to arrange a house concert during his next visit to town, where I got to be one of the opening acts(!), and later that night we all jammed together and showed off our own material to each other. Having my musical hero play along on one of my own songs was a truly unforgettable experience, even if my performance left something to be desired. So, in summary, this song’s on the list for strictly sentimental reasons.)

    10. Scott Joplin: “Scott Joplin’s New Rag” (probably the recording by Joshua Rifkin, though in all likelikood there exists a version which I’d like even better – and yet another sentimental addition that happens to be my favorite track on another favorite record. I fondly remember this piece as being among the ones that sparked my interest in the ‘classical’ field when I was but a lad, the other one being Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The work of Joplin, Joseph Lamb and a few others in the ragtime era was – at the time it was written – in the vanguard of American popular music, before the heyday of Tin Pan Alley and when ragtime artists liked to placed themselves in the same category as the ‘mainstream’ classical pianists. The combination of classic formal elegance with the trademark syncopated melodic drive is an irresistible mix for me, particularly in uptempo pieces like this one, and also in some of the slower ballads, such as Joplin’s “Gladiolus Rag.”)

    Well, there’s plenty others I could include here who I hate to leave off, like Tom Waits or Charles Ives or some such… but it’s a good thing 10’s the limit. Well, sorry for the length again, but hey, I was bored. Plus, this allowed me to expunge a good deal of musical thought after a 2011 that was very music-oriented…. now that 2012 is intended to be a heavy reading year, I look forward to being able to weigh in on the more literary topics around here… when I have the time. Possibly whenever the next snowstorm hits. Cheers from Seattle –


    • Hello Jasper, I do enjoy Schoenberg’s earlier atonal period (I once heard an exquisite performance of the 5 Orchestral Pieces from the Chicago Symphony Prchestra when they were in London a few yeqars ago) but his later stuff loses me. I have tried many times with, for instance, his string trio, widely acclaimed as a great masterpiece, but each time it went over my head. As for Stravinsky, he seems the most protean of them all: whatever style he composed in, he composed masterpieces. I particularly love Symphony of Psalms, and Oedipus Rex – his homage to Verdi. The composer of that era to whose music I listen most frequently remains, however, Bartok.

      These lists are great fun, of course, but the problem is not what one includes, but what one has to leave out. I can’t believe I left out Bach from my list, or, say, Handel’s glorious “Giulio Cesare”, or Verdi’s “Falstaff”, or… I am currently listening a lot to Schubert’s G major string quartet – which, in the recording made by the Hungarian Quartet at least – seems already to be anticipating Bartok. I am also listening to a lot of Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, etc), a composer I had not listened to much previously. I think I am possibly becoming increasingly sybaritic with age – a lush orchestral sound, a beautiful soprano voice floating heavenwards … and what more can a man want? 🙂

      As for Beethoven’s late sonatas, there seem as many ways of playing them as there are pianists capable of playing them. Stravinsky said f teh Grosse Fugue that it was “avant garde music that will always remain avant-garde”. That can apply to the late sonatas as well.

      Well, thank goodness we aren’t really on a desert island and restricted to only a handful of our favourites!


      • Posted by Jasper on January 21, 2012 at 4:58 pm

        …and if we were restricted to a desert island that happened to have an endless energy source for battery charging, there is the IPod, upon which on can fit a week’s worth of music into one’s pocket…. I often imagine what music devotees of the past would have given for such technology.
        And I was just over at one of my favorite music blogs ( and was reminded of the quartets of Martinu, which on a different day might have made my list…. also Bartok’s 5th quartet, or the Concerto for Orchestra… and your mention of Strauss immediately brought to mind the Metamorphoses. Funny you mention the string trio of Schoenberg, because that’s probably my favorite of his 12-tone pieces, but I don’t know exactly why. I have to say I am not familiar with the Schubert G major – but then Schubert is one of those great composers with whom I have not been sufficiently familiarised. I am starting to explore his piano sonatas, but it’s slow going – perhaps he’s just not my cup of tea. And I concur on Stravinsky – I dislike very few of his pieces, and I think I know them all by now… Threni, Les Noces or Orpheus are in my upper echelon as well. Ach, I could go on…

  21. Posted by mangofantasy on January 21, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    What fantastic choices. I never thought I would come across anyone other than myself who would put Bartok’s fifth string quartet on their Desert Island Discs!


    • Hello, and thanks for that.

      About 3 or so years ago, I attended a mad day at the Wigmore Hall in London in which, over three concerts spread through the day, the Belcea Quartet played all 6 Bartok quartets. It was one o fthe most memorable days I have spent.

      And at home, there are times when the Juilliard Quartet’s recordings of these works (their recordings from the early 60s – great favourites of mine) seem permanently glued to my CD player!

      All the best,


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