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.