DESERT ISLAND DISCS
I got it wrong in my last blog. In Desert Island Discs you’re allowed eight pieces of music (not ten as I wrote). You can choose one book (they already give you the complete works of William Shakespeare and the Bible or the Koran) and one luxury item of no practical use.
OK. Imagine the sound of seagulls and the soft whispering of the sea against pure white sand. The sun is high and hot but there’s pleasant shade under tall and quietly creaking palm trees. You’re swaying gently in your hammock, a coconut shell full of chilled cocktail (mine’s a caipirinha, if you’re offering!) in one hand, your expensive sunglasses in the other. And, since you asked, here are my desert island discs.
My first piece of music would be the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, op 47, played by the Korean violinist Kyung Wha Chung, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. It was recorded in 1970. I bought it as a vinyl long-playing record while I was a student at Durham University (1970-73). It was the first classical record I ever bought. I have no idea how many times I have listened to it but I think I could conduct an orchestra, without the score.
My second choice would have to be something by The Beatles. I grew up with them. I saw them live. Their music was the soundtrack to my youth. How to choose just one song, though? If I were feeling melancholy, I’d probably have For No One. If I were feeling good, I’d have Good Day Sunshine. Both songs are from my favourite Beatles’ album – Revolver. I’m feeling good right now, so it’s got to be Good Day Sunshine (if you’ve got it, listen to it now: I guarantee you’ll feel better – even if you already feel great).
Third? Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. My favourite recording is by the Monteverdi Choir with the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. I first heard this music used in a TV drama thirty years ago. I wish it had been played to me in the womb. If I listened to it every day of my life it would not be often enough. Sublime.
Number four would be The Rose of St Magnus by Ivan Drever (acoustic guitar) and Duncan Chisholm (fiddle). It is modern Scottish music at its very best. We played this at my wife’s funeral and I can’t think of anything more beautiful, or sadder.
I can’t believe anyone has ever played Beethoven piano music better than Mitsuko Uchida. My fifth choice would be her recording of the Piano Sonata no 1, op 106, “Hammerklavier”. I often play this all day, in ‘repeat’ mode, while I am writing. Somehow, it helps.
Only three choices left. This is impossible. I want Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello and Swedish and Hungarian folk music. I want some of the music I learned to like when I lived in China, and some of the dances my Czech and Polish students tried to teach me (I have two left feet when it comes to formal dancing).
Back to the ‘game’. My sixth piece of music would be the Dvorak Piano Trio in E minor, op 90, “Dumky”. I heard this piece of music for the first time in my life, live at the Lobkovic Palace inside Prague Castle (Czech Republic) on a stiflingly hot day ten summers ago. My wife was still alive (Lucy was only 9). It was one of the best summer holidays we ever had. She was diagnosed with cancer three months later. That afternoon, as I sat high up in the Lobkovic listening to the Dumky, all the windows were open. I remember the sound of soldiers, birdsong and distant bells far across the city. My wife and Lucy were at an outdoor performance of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. I remember how enthusiastic we all were when we met up afterwards. Lucy couldn’t stop talking about the opera. I was thrilled by the Dumky. My wife was, as usual, quiet, thoughtful, serene.
Many years ago I worked in Kragujevac, in what today is Serbia. It was a summer school for Yugoslav university teachers. One of my British colleagues had brought some Leo Kottke cassettes and we listened to them the whole summer. I adore Leo Kottke’s music (acoustic guitar; north American folk music) and would choose, as my seventh piece of music, Pamela Brown – a sad song about the girl I never married.
That just leaves The Capriol Suite for string orchestra by Peter Warlock (1894-1930) as my last choice. When I die, if anyone feels like organising a funeral, I’d love it if they played the second movement (Pavane) very loud (even though I wouldn’t be able to hear it, of course).
Very loud? Yes, that reminds me of all the rock music I wouldn’t like to live without. Cream were one of my favourite bands of the late 60s, and I can imagine playing Sunshine of Your Love at maximum volume on my desert island – no neighbours to disturb; I could play air guitar without the risk of being seen by anyone, and it would scare the hell out of the seagulls! Then there’s all the religious music I like – especially organ music. But, actually, I think these really are the eight pieces I wouldn’t want to live without.
At the end of the radio programme they ask which record you would try to save if a large wave came up the beach and washed seven of them away. I would unhesitatingly save the Mozart Great Mass.
And finally, the book and the luxury item. The luxury item is easy: a never-ending supply of perfectly chilled champagne. Choosing just one book, however, is practically impossible. Think of all the writers you would want to read and re-read on your desert island; the novels, the short stories, the essays, the poems…
OK, I stopped writing for a bit, went into my kitchen, made a cup of tea and thought about it a bit more. The great British solution to all life’s little problems – a nice cup of tea. So, did I choose a book? Yes. If I could only have one book on my desert island I would choose Don Quixote by Cervantes, in English I’m afraid. I have never liked the book, never been able to stay awake while trying to read it, never understood what makes it a world classic. A good American friend of mine thinks I’m a complete philistine because I have never finished Don Quixote and I don’t find it funny. If I’m washed up on a desert island there’ll be nothing else to distract me (apart from the music). Maybe finally I will be able to read and appreciate it.
Sorry if I’ve bored you.
Make yourself a nice cup of tea, put Good Day Sunshine back on and everything will be fine.
PS: If you’re still out there somewhere, Federico and Soyoung, you’ve only got a week left to get in touch.
SOME USEFUL WORDS AND EXPRESSIONS
large, white sea birds
an area of coolness and darkness the sun does not reach
making a harsh sound when they move
moving slowly from side to side
a piece of strong cloth hung between two supports (often trees) and used as a bed
a Brazilian alcoholic cocktail made with rum, limes and sugar
directed; when someone conducts an orchestra or choir they stand in front of it and direct its performance
vinyl long-playing record
vinyl is a strong plastic used for making records; long-playing records were vinyl discs with several pieces of music recorded onto them (the common abbreviation for long-playing records was LPs); LPs were replaced by cassettes which were replaced by CDs
the score of a piece of music is the written version of it
sad (a formal word)
the part of a woman’s body inside which a baby grows before it is born [pronounced to rhyme with ‘room’]
Something which is sublime has a wonderful quality which affects you deeply.
folk music violin; informal word for ‘violin’
two left feet
If you say that you have ‘two left feet’ you are saying that you are not a good dancer.
so hot it was difficult to breathe
If you ‘play’ air guitar you mime to rock guitar music, usually in front of a mirror and with no one else around. Very embarrassing when you realise someone has been watching you pretend to be Eric Clapton for the last five minutes.
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