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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 41.

    Happy 70th COTW!
    For the future, two names come to mind in particular:
    - Toru Takemitsu
    - Federico Mompou

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Howard Goodall and Barrington Pheloung (not sure of spelling) or any other underrated TV or film composers with a huge body of work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    For the anniversary programme how about a composer with a 70th Birthday, born 1943 such as

    Udo Zimmermann
    Edward Cowie
    Paul Lewis
    Michael Edwards

    I am sure there are others too.

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    Comment number 44.

    Happy Birthday COTW! No Xenakis or Stockhausen yet? Never mind. My vote would go to Frank Zappa: no shortage of musical material there, even excluding the post-watershed stuff. And plenty of biographical interest too.

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    Comment number 45.

    Thank you BBC for the marvelous COTW programmes, which I've enjoyed now for over 30 years. I would like to suggest the German Baroque composers: Sylvius Leopold Weiss, who could be included with some his contemporaries at the Dresden Court, or Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The vast majority of Erlebach's compositions perished in a fire but his surviving vocal, orchestral and chamber works are delightful. Perhaps he could be grouped along with the German court composers such as Fasch, Krieger, Stolzel and Graupner?

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    Comment number 46.

    I suggest Chichester composer John Marsh (1752-1828) as a subject. He wrote lovely elegant music here in Georgian Chichester. He organised subscription concerts in the city, and occasionally stepped in for the cathedral organist. His works include symphonies and chamber music.

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    Comment number 47.

    As an avid American listener, I feel obliged to do a little special pleading on behalf of the following:

    Conlon Nancarrow (who I suppose should also be counted as Mexican)
    Frank Loesser
    Meredith Monk
    Ruth Crawford Seeger

    To counter any possible charge of Yankee provincialism, though. let me throw in a cosmopolitan roster of:

    Dmitri Kabalevsky
    Toru Takemitsu
    Karlheinz Stockhausen
    Yannis Xenakis
    Germaine Tailleferre

    But my heart votes for the Americans, especially the endlessly inventive Loesser and the eminently weird Nancarrow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I suggest:

    Hamish MacCunn
    Leon Boellmann
    Henry Litolff

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    Comment number 49.

    CotW is a jewel and Donald a fine guide.
    As you ask for major composers you may have missed, I would echo the calls for


    to whom I would add


    who the Russian specialist David Fanning called the third 20th century Russian after Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

    Those seem to me the two largest omissions.

    Three others I think should be done some time are


    As I think you've done Francaix, then I agree about Kabalevsky, too.

    Lastly I'd say there are a great many composers who may or may not be worthy of being done. It's hard to tell when their music is more or less never performed, he finished gnomically.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Krzysztof Penderecki?

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    Comment number 51.

    Perhaps, Chris, you ought to try a rather different approach to 'Composer of the Week' (CotW) over the next seventy odd years. What we have, I suppose, is a classical canon of great composers, and if you make it on to CotW, many times, you stand a good chance of being accepted as part of the canon of classical music. Yet as we all know, classical music evolves all the time, and where it is most interesting is at its interface with other genres of music, for example, at last night's Prom! http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2013/august-12/14714 What you ought to consider, therefore, is whether the canon you have established over the past seventy years is still valid, and how it could change over the next seventy years. What jazz, world and even more popular composers will make it into the classical canon at the end of the twenty-first century. Will classical music, as a genre, still exist anyway, Donald? c;4)

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    Comment number 52.

    What about the Spanish composer Mompou? Quirky Satie like! I know nothing of his life, so would find it all very interesting/



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    Comment number 53.

    Happy Birthday COTW and Thank You Donald & Chris for so many hundreds of pleasurable and fascinating hours of listening over so many years !!! I for one especially appreciate what you have done for Sir Hubert Parry, Alan Rawsthorne, Arthur Honegger and Samuel Sebastian Wesley : to name but four !!!

    There must be others like me ( including many orchestral players ) who would be grateful never ever to hear ( or play ) a Beethoven Symphony again as long as they live : I like the late Quartets but after four decades I was Beethovened out for life : Now I am 62 so before I expire why not devote the next decade ( or two ) to the fascinating and barely explored waysides and bye-ways.

    I have recently got to know the works of John Joubert : still going strong and brilliant, fascinating stuff .... So I vote for him.

    I agree with the suggestion of Walter Piston, and what about a host of more obscure American composers ?

    There are many obscure English works too : Sir Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth I believe premiered a large number of works in Edwardian days which are entirely forgotten now. And the so-called "Cheltenham Symphonies" - Peter Crossley-Holland, John Gardner to name but two.
    Some derivative perhaps in places : but Vaughan Williams famously said " There is no such thing as originality in Art !!!"

    Well there you are !!! Happy Hunting !!! Here's to the next 70 years !!!



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    Comment number 54.

    How about Uuno Klami, a much neglected post-Sibelian?

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    Comment number 55.

    Great work ! COTW has been a constant companion over the past decade !

    How about Brian Eno as a composer ? He has been such an influential figure on the British musical scene for more than 30 years.

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    Comment number 56.

    Many congratulations and long may COTW and Donald flourish. May I suggest the glorious Jean Gilles, and perhaps his fellow Aix composers Poitevin and Campra?]

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I nominate Władisław Szpilman, eponymous hero of Roman Polanski's Oscar winning film The Pianist. In addition to being a viruoso soloist, he was also, during his astonishing life, a prolific composer not only for the piano, but for orchestra, films and children's songs. Among his pieces, Mazurka of 1942, the year his parents and siblings were sent from the Warsaw ghetto to be murdered in Treblinka, a fate he himself so narrowly escaped, spending the rest of the war being hunted like an animal, but surviving to end up as head of music at Polish Radio.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I would like to propose Ian Venables.

    I do like the idea of Mompou, as well.


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