Composer of the Week turns 70

Donald Macleod with the 70th anniversary cake Donald Macleod asks the audience who should feature on anniversary special

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It's fitting that Mozart's sugar paper likeness tops the anniversary cake marking 70 years of Composer of the Week.

The 18th century Austrian, hailed by many as the greatest ever classical composer, was the subject of the first programme back in August 1943.

But it's less clear-cut as to who will grace a special anniversary edition of the Radio 3 pillar - the second longest-running programme in radio history - this Christmas.

Presenter Donald Macleod wants the audience to suggest composers who have not been featured to get the Composer of the Week treatment.

That rules out all the household names, of course - many weeks have been devoted down the years to the likes of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Handel.

Rags and riches

Macleod suspects some obscure British talents will be mooted, which he welcomes, so long as their repertoires stand up to scrutiny.

"One of the challenges is finding good enough recordings," explains the presenter. "Many are simply not up to the standard for broadcast."

70th anniversary cake Mozart was first choice to top the cake

In other cases, the music is insufficiently varied to sustain a week's examination - although some have slipped through the net.

"Billy Mayerl was a nightmare," Macleod admits. "If you've heard one of his rags, you've heard them all."

Similarly Scott Joplin. "There are just piano rags; he wrote one opera, he probably wrote symphonies, but none have survived. The story of this black man, who reached such a level of fame in 1950s America, should be fascinating, but so little of his life has been recorded."

Even Palestrina, the influential Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music, wasn't up to the job.

"We know six facts about his life," Macleod complains. "The information is just not there, despite the fact that he was in charge of music at the Vatican. Plus it's just masses - his music doesn't change over time so there is no musical development for us to chart."

Uncomfortable interviewees

It's when both biography and repertoire are rich that the programme hits its highs, reckons Macleod.

"Its enduring appeal is the combination of some of the greatest music ever written, presented in the context of the composers' life stories, many of which read like film scripts."

He has revisited Bach, for instance, a dozen times in his 14 years as the programme's presenter. But it was a week devoted to Rued Langgaard - a little known Danish writer - that he picks out as one of his favourites.

"There wouldn't be many people in a hundred who have heard a note Langgaard, but he wrote amazing music and had the tragic life story of a complete misfit."

Osvaldo Golijov also stands out for Macleod, who knew only one of his pieces before he began his research.

Duke Ellington Jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington, have featured

"If you were trying to design a composer for the 21st century, he'd be it. He was born in Latin America, studied in Jerusalem and worked in America - there's a wonderful melting pot of strands and his music has made a sensational impact."

With Golijov, as with most of the living composers that are featured, Macleod prefers them to tell their own tales. He has interviewed everyone from John Williams to Michael Nyman for the programme, but admits that some composers are uncomfortable interviewees.

"Some, like Peter Maxwell Davies, are good at it. Others have chosen music because that's how they express themselves."

Bebop rush

The programme takes the odd venture beyond the classical world. Jazz - Miles Davis, say, or Duke Ellington - pops up from time to time, while Macleod remembers a week of bebop with particular fondness.

"You could be sniffy and argue that it doesn't constitute composition," he says, "but the musicianship was some of the most phenomenal I'd ever heard. It was a real revelation and sent me rushing out to buy the CDs."

The programme doesn't do pop, but Macleod wonders whether the audience might consider someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber as their Christmas choice. "His work reaches an enormous number of people and has dealt with difficult subjects," he reasons.

Whatever the selection, the presenter won't be passing judgement. He's been a Radio 3 presenter for 30 years, but describes himself as self-taught when it comes to classical music. "I learnt most of what I know about music from listening to Radio 3," he says.

"It's not for me to say that George Lloyd isn't as good as Benjamin Britten - others are better qualified than me to take a critical approach. We try to celebrate composers."

With that, he cuts the cake - Mozart's curls no impediment. It's time for the programme to celebrate itself.

Composer of the Week, 12pm weekdays, Radio 3

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