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Composer of the Week at 70

Friday 2 August 2013, 07:46

Chris Taylor Chris Taylor Executive Producer, R3

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Composer of the Week wordcloud Update, 30 September 2013. We've received thousands of ideas from listeners for composers we should feature in the celebration series at Christmas but our call for suggestions is now closed and we've edited this post to remove it. Please don't send in your suggestions. It's too late for us to use them now.

Chris Taylor is Executive Producer for Composer of the Week at Radio 3 in Cardiff. He's been doing some research into one of the longest-running radio programmes in the world. First, some words from presenter Donald Macleod:

Donald Macleod in the Composer of the Week studio It’s been my enormous pleasure to present Composer of the Week for the last fourteen years, and a great honour to be entrusted with one of the longest running programmes in radio history.

This year, Composer of the Week marks its seventieth birthday. To mark that special anniversary, we will feature a composer who has never appeared on the programme before in a special series for transmission at Christimas.

Download this list of every composer who has featured over the last seven decades (PDF).

Donald Macleod

This year, Composer of the Week reaches a significant milestone. On Friday 2nd August 2013 we celebrate the programme’s seventieth birthday.

That makes it not only one of the longest running programmes on Radio 3, but also one of the oldest programmes in broadcasting history.

To mark this special anniversary, we want to feature a composer who has never appeared on Composer of the Week before. I hope you can help us by sending us your suggestions for any composers we should consider, and there are details of how to contact us below. However, before we could reach out to our Radio 3 audience, our production team needed to do some research into the programme’s history.

Composer of the Week has been produced in Cardiff and presented by Donald Macleod since 1999. So, our own records of the programme go back just fourteen years. Even in that time, we’ve covered an enormous range of subjects. There are our regular stalwarts of the classical canon, like Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Schumann, who appear most years, but also lesser known figures like Fibich, Holmboe and Jommelli. Then there are our occasional diversions into the worlds of jazz, film music and Broadway.

So what of the rest of Composer of the Week’s history? A little digging by our friendly researcher at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham revealed that the very first programme, which was then known as This Week’s Composer, featured Mozart. It was launched on 2nd August 1943, on the BBC's Home Service at 7.30am, and was just 25 minutes long. We discovered that this first broadcast included recordings of Yehudi Menuhin playing Mozart's violin sonatas in B flat, K.378 and in A, K.526.

In the early days of This Week’s Composer, and until quite recently, the programme was presented live by the day’s duty continuity announcer. Because of this, there are no recordings of the programme in the BBC Archives from before the 1980s. Listen to this episode of This Week's Composer from the 1980s, also featuring Mozart.

If you own any early recordings of This Week’s Composer please do let us know.

The BBC’s annual report of that year said “In 1943 records were the basis, notably, of a new series called This Week’s Composer – an innovation which proved that lovers of serious music are awake in large numbers as early in the morning as 7.30am.”. Not all of our audience agreed. A letter to the Radio Times that year requested “lighter music in the early hours to provide a most necessary contrast to This Week’s Composer.” To be fair, listeners didn’t have a great deal of choice. In those years of wartime austerity the BBC was broadcasting on just two radio channels: the 'Home Service' and 'For the Forces'.

No details have been preserved about who presented the records that first week. We were also unable to discover any surviving audio recordings from those early years. A single page of a draft script from 1944, which seems to have survived in the archives purely by accident, makes it clear that these early programmes were very simple. A couple of lines of information is all that was provided between each record. These comments would have been read, no doubt, by whichever announcer happened to be on duty that morning. The script from 1944 was signed by Stephen Williams, best remembered as a DJ on Radio Luxembourg!

We were delighted to discover this wealth of information about our very first programme. However, it was going to be a much more difficult job to compile a list of all the composers who had ever appeared on the programme. It would be essential, though, if we were to ask our listeners to suggest a brand new composer for us to feature in 2013.

The written records at Caversham are extensive, but often laboriously catalogued on microfiche and card indexes. The BBC’s own sound archives proved to be unhelpful also. The programme was, for many years, cast as a simple sequence of gramophone records, presented live by the duty continuity announcer. Because of this, no recordings seem to have been made or kept. The earliest 'built' programmes we were able to find in the archive date from 1988! This recording from 1988 features current presenter, Donald Macleod, long before he took over the programme on a regular basis in 1999. It’s fascinating to hear how the sound of Radio 3 has changed even in 25 years.

So, we made the decision to go through, by hand, our archive of Radio Times. It was a mammoth task, and one that we had to do in shifts. We found that it wasn’t possible to spend more than a couple of hours at a time poring over the ancient copies, week by week, year by year, before needing to take a break and do something else. Gradually, however, we built up a complete picture of the programme over the last seven decades. Occasionally, particularly during the 1950s, we found short gaps in the sequence, when the programme seemed to be taken off the air for a period, only to return again a few weeks later. But by the 1960s, the programme was appearing every single weekday, just like clockwork.

In 1964, This Week’s Composer moved to a new home, on the ‘Third Programme’, (which would eventually become the BBC Radio 3 we know today). On 18th January 1988, the programme was quietly re-branded Composer of the Week.

Over the last seven decades we have gone on to feature nearly four-hundred individual composers, and over a hundred more groups, or schools of composers .

Donald Macleod became the new regular presenter for the programme in 1999, with a brief to put the life-story of each composer at the heart of the programme, alongside the music. Donald remains at the helm today. In 14 years, he has written over 3000 scripts, including sixty about J.S Bach alone (and another sixty about Handel).

This December, in honour of our 70th year, we'll include a composer who has never featured on the programme before, suggested by our listeners.

Download this list of all the composers who have appeared (PDF).

Chris Taylor, Executive Producer, Composer of the Week

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am sure that you will get plenty of suggestions for a special composer of the week, Chris. I have always preferred a composer for the strong!

    My own suggestion, to recognise all the contemporary composers of the last seventy years, who have never made the cut, is the unknown composer.

    Donald should pay a tribute to the unknown composer, much like the unknown warrior! Make it a three hour Christmas special! (By the way, I am not an unknown, nor a known, composer, although, to be honest, I am sometimes an unknown quantity!)

    Cheers from Frankfurt-am-Main (Friday lunch)!

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    Comment number 2.

    Happy birthday, and as a composer i appreciate your support of our efforts. Looking at the long list of composers you've featured over the years, there seem to be very few women represented. in this day, when there are many women composers with significant international careers (such as Kaia Saariaho or Pauline Oliveros or Meredith Monk) this omission seems less tolerable. So allow me to suggest names, many of them American, all with active careers well represented on recordings: Ruth Crawford Seeger, Rebecca Clarke, Janice Giteck, Annie Gosfield, Jennifer Higdon, Lois Vierk, and Julia Wolfe. And surely the astonishing and prolific Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A.) deserves more than half a program! Cheers and best wishes for a long life!

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    Comment number 3.

    Karlheinz Stockhausen seems to have evaded your spotlight, so far....

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    Comment number 4.

    My suggestion would be Alfonso X 'El Sabio' (1221-1284). Called The Wise because of his tolerance of Jews and Muslims as King of Castille he made a remarkable contribution to religious tolerance at a time when such a thing was unheard of. I first heard his Cantigas de Santa Maria on Radio 3 and almost immediately bought a copy performed by the Abdelkrim Rais Andalusian Orchestra of Fes (on Erato) which brought a magical quality to the music. A more traditional (and cheaper) rendering may be found on Naxos.

    The music is of a time at once very different from our own and at the same time his life has a message for today.

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    Comment number 5.

    Congratulations to COTW! I have learnt so much from its broadcasts.

    How about Bo Holten as a subject? A very individual voice who is, IMHO, under-rated.


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    Comment number 6.

    While you're at it, how about some special recognition for Donald Macleod. I always enjoy listening to his vignettes.

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    Comment number 7.

    I would highly recommend the great Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim, a leading contemporary composer, given a state funeral in Oslo Cathedral.

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    Comment number 8.

    May I draw attention to the Wikipedia article entitled The opera corpus, which I helped to set up some years ago. There are plenty of composers listed there who don't appear in 70 years of COTW. The first two who sprang into my mind were Heinrich Marschner and Franz von Suppé, but I've also had a look through opera composers A-C and came up with the following:

    Thomas Adès
    Eugen d'Albert
    Franco Alfano
    Louis Andriessen
    Michael Balfe
    Ralph Benatzky
    Georg Benda
    Mark Blitzstein
    François-Adrien Boieldieu
    Arrigo Boito
    William Bolcom
    Alfredo Catalani
    Gustave Charpentier
    Francesco Cilea

    I might add some more (D - Z) when I have time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Surprised to see no Stockhausen and no Xenakis (though not heartbroken).

    Would like to suggest Peteris Vasks, the Latvian composer whose meaty music I rather like.

    Also Giya Kancheli, the Georgian post-minimalist who would hate being called a Georgian post-minimalist. Some lovely, accessible, deeply emotional and affecting music, even if some of it can sound a bit the same!

    Always enjoy CotW. Ta.

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    Comment number 10.

    More composers:

    Alexander Dargomyzhsky
    Charles ("Tom Bowling") Dibdin
    John Eccles
    Gottfried von Einem
    Ferenc Erkel
    Leo Fall
    Friedrich ("Martha") von Flotow
    Carlisle Floyd
    Josef Bohuslav Foerster
    Alberto Franchetti
    Harold ("Maid of the Mountains") Fraser-Simson
    Rudolf Friml

    More to come on Sunday

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    Comment number 11.

    What about Henryk Gorecki?

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    Comment number 12.

    Yet more composers:

    Giuseppe Gazzaniga
    Umberto Giordano
    Antonio Carlos Gomes
    André Grétry
    Fromental Halévy
    Victor Herbert
    Johann Adam Hiller
    Emmerich Kálmán
    Wilhelm Kienzl
    Ernst Krenek
    Charles Lecoq
    Jean-Francois Le Sueur
    Hamish MacCunn
    Vincente Martin y Soler
    Simon Mayr
    Etienne Méhul
    Saverio Mercadante
    Carl Millöcker
    Stanislaw Moniuszko
    Italo Montemezzi
    Josef Myslivecek

    Hoping to finish my list this afternoon.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Dmitri Tiomkin.

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    Comment number 14.

    The list is very impressive, in terms of coverage, variety of styles, periods, genres, and mix of well-known and less well-known composers.

    I would be happy to see the 20th/21st century supplemented by Adès, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Xenakis.

    One way of expanding for the future might be to add more pre-classical themes. One way to do this might be by "cannibalizing" The Early Music Show and other such outlets, expanding on the material of individual broadcasts or combining related broadcasts into a five-day series. Some of the examples in the list below, for instance, have already been the subject of one or more EMS programmes.

    My list (accepting that quite a few of these topics will overlap with composite broadcasts of various kinds):

    -Troubadors and Trouvères (and Minnesinger)
    -Ars Nova to Ars Subtilior

    -Airs de Court and Cavalier songs (Lambert, Boesset, etc, Lanier, H. Lawes etc.)
    -Early Italian string band: Marini, Fontana, Merulo, Merula, Bertali, Ucellini, ...

    -French harpsichord tradition: various Couperins, Dandrieu, Chambonnières, D'Anglebert, Clérambault, Rameau, ...

    -Women composers of 17th century Italy (F Caccini, Strozzi, Leonarda, ...)
    -Women baroque composers generally (Jacquet de la Guerre, Bembo, Sophie Elizabeth zu Braunschweig, ...)
    -Salamon Rossi and Jewish composers of the preclassical period
    -Jewish woman composers of the preclassical period (OK - only kidding)

    -French flute school: de la Barre, Blavet, various Philidors, Hotteterre, Caix d'Hervelois, ...
    -German violin school: Baltzar, Biber, Schmelzer, various Walthers, Westhoff, Pisendel, ...

    -The Jacobean Masque
    -Scheidt, Schein, Schütz

    The following individual composers probably produced enough varied output to sustain a week's worth of programming:

    du Mont

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The rest of my list:

    Otto Nicolai
    Luigi Nono
    Ivor Novello
    Giovanni Pacini
    Ferdinando Paer
    Carlo Pedrotti
    Jacopo Peri
    François-André Danican Philidor
    Nicola Piccinni
    Amilcare Ponchielli
    Aribert Reimann
    Ernest Reyer
    Sigmund Romberg
    Nino Rota
    Anton Rubenstein
    Kaija Saariaho
    Antonio Sacchini
    Aulis Sallinen
    Giuseppe Sarti
    Franz Schreker
    Salvatore Sciarrino
    Stephen Storace
    Oscar Straus
    Tan Dun
    Tommaso Traetta
    Mark-Anthony Turnage
    William Vincent Wallace
    Hugo Weisgall
    Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
    Riccardo Zandonai
    Carl Zeller
    Bernd Alois Zimmermann

    Finished my selections which could last for at least another 70 years.... and there are lots of other opera composers, plus lots of non-opera composers who haven't appeared on COTW.

    May I also put in a word for:

    Flanders and Swann
    Tom Lehrer
    P. D. Q Bach (Peter Schickele)

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    Comment number 16.

    This is a wonderful chance to experience some composers new to me from lists and suggestions already given. In return I would like to make one suggestion for a well known and loved composer whose talents are very broad indeed. Please consider Howard Blake for his wonderful gifts to our world of music.

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    Comment number 17.

    I had to read the list three times before I believed it.
    No Ernst Bloch ?

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    Comment number 18.

    I would like to propose Johann David Heinichen. Kindly reminded by Rob Cowan this morning (5 Aug). Heinichen's music is a delight, and we ought to hear more from him.

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    Comment number 19.


    Composer of the Week has stood the test of time, but it's about time, Stockhausen was the featured composer.

    Best wishes.

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    Comment number 20.

    The trouble with unknown or forgotten composers is that there may not be enough (or indeed any)recordings available of their work. Two composers not hitherto featured in "Composer of the Week" as far as I can tell from your list are the Victorian opera composers Edward Loder (1809-1865) and Arthur Goring Thomas (1850-1892). The former's best "remembered" operas are The Night Dancers (based on the same story as Adam's ballet Giselle and Puccini's first opera Le Villi) and Raymond and Agnes, and the latter's are Esmeralda and Nadeshda (I have a bound volume of Punch for 1885 with enthusiastic reviews of Nadeshda). If one or the other of these composers can't fill a whole week then perhaps the two could. Many thanks, Peter Waters.


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