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Reach for the Sky

Mankind's yearning to fly, from the myth of Icarus to the pioneering astronauts of the twentieth century, reflected in poetry and prose by Da Vinci, Yeats and Carl Sagan, and in music by Vaughan Williams, Weill, Ives and Barber. Readings are by Kate Fleetwood and Will Howard.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 26 Nov 2017 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Ralph Vaughan Williams

    The Lark Ascending

    Performer: Nicola Benedetti. Orchestra: London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Andrew Litton.
    • Decca 478 6106.
    • 478 6106.
  • Leonardo da Vinci

    Will Howard reads a short paean to flight by Leonardo da Vinci

  • Psalm 55

    Will Howard reads the opening section of Psalm 55

  • 00:03


    Hear My Prayer, O Lord (exc)

    Performer: The Russian Sacred Music Choral Ensemble, Blagovest; Galina Koltsova (director).
    • Multisonic 31 0051-2.
    • Tr13.
  • Anne Sexton

    Kate Fleetwood reads To a Friend whose Work has come to Triumph

  • 00:06

    Jean‐Philippe Rameau

    Platee, Act I (exc)

    Performer: Bernard Deletre (Citheron); Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski.
    • Erato 2292-45028-2.
    • CD1, Tr9.
  • John Newton

    Will Howard reads The Kite and its String

  • 00:10

    Elvis Presley

    Amazing Grace

    • RCA.
    • 828765239325.
    • CD2T16.
  • 00:14

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

    Scheherazade (exc)

    Performer: Sergei Levitin (violin); Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev.
    • Philips 470840.
    • Tr1.
  • Anon

    Kate Fleetwood reads a tale from One Thousand and One Nights

  • 00:17

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

    Scheherazade (exc)

    Performer: Sergei Levitin (violin); Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev.
    • Philips 470840.
    • Tr1.
  • 00:21

    Jimmy Webb

    Up, Up and Away

    Performer: The Fifth Dimension.
    • Soul City SCS-92000.
    • Tr1.
  • Charles Coulston Gillispie

    Kate Fleetwood reads an extract from The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation

  • 00:27


    Der Lindberghflug (exc)

    Performer: Cologne Radio Orchestra, Jan Latham-Konig.
    • Capriccio 60012-1.
    • Tr13.
  • Yeats

    Will Howard reads An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

  • 00:29

    Joni Mitchell


    Performer: Joni Mitchell.
    • Asylum 7559-60331-2.
    • Tr2.
  • Andrew Greig

    Will Howard reads an extract from the novel That Summer

  • Andrew Greig

    Kate Fleetwood reads an extract from the novel That Summer

  • 00:38

    William Walton

    Spitfire Prelude and Fugue

    Performer: English Northern Philharmonia, Paul Daniel.
    • Naxos 8.553869.
    • Tr1.
  • Paul Tibbets

    Will Howard reads an extract from Return of the Enola Gay

  • 00:49

    Krzysztof Penderecki

    Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (exc)

    Performer: Aukso Orchestra, Krzysztof Penderecki.
    • Nonesuch 7559-79625-1.
    • Tr1.
  • 00:51

    György Ligeti

    Lux Aeterna

    Performer: Groupe Vocal de France, Guy Reibel.
    • EMI 6279052.
    • CD2, Tr1.
  • Carl Sagan

    Kate Fleetwood reads from Cosmos

  • 01:00


    The Unanswered Question

    Performer: New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
    • Sony SMK 60203.
    • Tr1.
  • John Gillespie Magee

    Will Howard reads High Flight

  • 01:06

    Samuel Barber

    Symphony no.2, Second Movement (aka 'Night Flight')

    Performer: Detroit SO, Neeme Jarvi.
    • Chandos CHAN9684.
    • Tr3.

Producer's Note

A yearning to fly seems always to have been part of what it is to be human.  Inspired by the birds, driven by a restless, questing nature, we have always dreamed of flight - to slip "the surly bonds of Earth."


We have prayed for the gift of flight: Psalm 55 asks "Oh that I had wings like a dove!", heard here in a Russian Orthodox setting by Alexander Arkhangelsky. But John Newton, better known for writing Amazing Grace, used the flight of a kite (and its crashing when untethered) as an analogy for what would happen if we were not tethered by our relationship with God.


One of the more astonishing aspects of Leonardo da Vinci's genius was his anticipation of mechanical flight four centuries before its commission. He drew on his life-long observation of birds' flight and study of their anatomy; indeed several of his designs were engineered recently, of which some proved flightworthy.


Long before we flew, myths abounded - stories enrapturing spellbound audiences and readers. The story of Icarus was a great cautionary tale; by what right could this impudent boy soar towards the sun? Did he not deserve his comeuppance, as the solar heat melted the wax of his primitive wings and he plummeted back to Earth? Inspired by a 16th century representation once thought to be by Bruegel, Auden's famous poem Museé des Beaux Arts speaks of Icarus's “dreadful martyrdom”. Perhaps more apt, however, is Anne Sexton's To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Triumph: there is wonder at the marvel of the boy's flight, yet there is also a woman's unimpressed scorn that brings the end of the poem (literally) back to earth with a bump, just as Mercury, the winged messenger of the Gods, does in Lully’s Platee.


The rich, diverse stories of One Thousand and One Nights speak of magic carpets that could convey the traveller from place to far-off place against all the laws of physics and time. Prince Husain cannot believe his luck when he finds one for sale in an Indian market. It comes at high price, a price however that the wealthy Prince is happy to pay. Rimsky-Korsakov sought to capture the exotic fantasy of stories such as this in Scheherazade; the soaring solo violin representing here the flying carpet just as, in The Lark Ascending, it evoked the stratospheric flight of Vaughan Williams’ bird.


We come to aeroplanes, and pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, which are represented in music here by Kurt Weill and Joni Mitchell respectively. The risk taken by aviators of the last hundred years is that they may have to pay the ultimate price. So used to flight as a routine today, it is easy to forget how dangerous an enterprise it was, and still can be.  Yeats' doomed WWI pilot meditates on precisely why he is flying; rather than for a great cause such as his country or his friends, perhaps it is because a "lonely impulse of delight" is driving him towards a death he even craves.


WWII brought faster, deadlier warplanes. Most iconic of all was the Spitfire, to which Leslie Howard stirringly paid tribute in the film The First of the Few without which we would not have Walton’s equally stirring Spitfire Prelude and Fugue.


Andrew Greig's lyrical, moving WWII novel That Summer tells of a doomed love affair between Len, a shy young pilot, and Stella, a rather more worldly radar operator. Their courtship is both fraught with war's perils of random, brutal death and destruction; and illuminated with flashes of great beauty and touching communion.  When a flyer stands more chance of dying in the wartime air than returning safely, love on the ground is anything but earth-bound.


That conflagration was brought to an end by the American atomic attacks on Japan in 1945. We hear the first hand account of preparations for the first of those flights, the words of mission commander Col. Paul Tibbets, as well as Krzysztof Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.


Almost as soon as we conquered the skies, we turned to outer space. Americans and Russians fought a physically-cold Cold War in what became known as 'The Space Race'. The moon is now old hat, the prospect of manned flight to Mars is tantalisingly close; in the words of cosmologist Carl Sagan: "We are ready at last to set sail for the stars." Charles Ives could not have envisaged space travel when he wrote The Unanswered Question; but what is our reaching for the stars if not an unanswered question?


The last word comes from John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot killed in WWII while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Capturing the awe-struck wonder of flight, his poem High Flight was quoted to moving effect as President Reagan sought to console a grieving world after the deaths of all seven crew on the Challenger space shuttle. Paying the ultimate price of flight, Reagan said, they "touched the face of God."


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