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February 2021 - Victoria Owens

Blaydon Races - George Ridley

My father had, I think, a very good voice. Admittedly he made a point of never joining a choir, claiming that he didn’t want to have to learn bass parts, but he sang around the house, in the garden and on long car journeys. Without any effort on our parts, my younger brother and sister and I came to know all the songs that he liked – The Lass of Richmond Hill, Early One Morning. Men of Harlech and similar. The swinging sixties it wasn’t – except for the year date - but in terms of introducing us to some enjoyable music making, it counted for much.

One of my father’s especial favourites was Blaydon Races which was perhaps rather surprising. A Londoner by birth, having settled happily in rural Bucks, he regarded anywhere north of Birmingham as alien territory – cold, grim and uncomfortable. Yet he seized on this anthem of Tyneside with vast pleasure, having all six verses off by heart and relishing the ‘Scotswood Ro-o-ad’ moment in the refrain. It is my first choice, sung here by Northumbrian bass Owen Brannigan.

Ballade for Cello and Piano - Minna Keal

Early in the 1970s, I went to boarding school. I don’t remember much about the school’s music which suggests that it didn’t greatly impress me, but when I came home for the holidays, I had piano lessons. My teacher, Mrs Keal, accommodated the haphazard arrangement – a few weeks’ tuition followed by my term-long absences – with great goodwill. She told me early on that she was ‘interested in composing’ – a remark which I treated as part and parcel of our end-of-lesson chat. It was, in fact, very much more serious.

Born Mina Nerenstein, she had been admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in the late 1920s. When her father died, feeling duty-bound to help her mother manage the family bookselling and publishing business, she abandoned her studies and side-lined her music. Before long, she joined the British Communist Party. She also married, but it didn’t last. Over the war years, she worked in an aircraft factory where she met Bill Keal who became her second husband.

Around the mid-1970s, quite by chance, musician Justin Connolly came across her student compositions in the Royal Academy library. So memorable did he think them that he contacted her and persuaded her, with the encouragement of his friend Oliver Knussen, to take up composing again. Before long, her music began to catch considerable attention. In 1989, her Symphony in Four Movements was performed at the Proms leading her to observe that she felt as if she was living her life in reverse. By this time, I was married, living in Bristol and had lost touch with her. She died in 1999, having accomplished so much.

During the 2019-20 on-off lockdowns, I have taken to playing my (very elementary) piano pieces again, glad of Mrs Keal’s fingering, which she marked in with a fierce blunt pencil. No doubt, rather than teach me, she would have preferred to spend the time in composition but, speaking selfishly, I am truly grateful for her patience and skill. My second choice, both by way of tribute and because I love its lyricism and grace, is her 1929 Ballade for Cello and Piano. It is played by Alexander and Martina Baillie. Her Guardian obituary, in case anyone is interested, can be found online here.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah - Thomas Tallis

Sometime in the 1970s, Radio 3 featured Thomas Tallis, along with John Taverner and Christopher Tye in ‘This Week’s Composer’ – the programme which is now called ‘Composer of the Week.’ The schedule included his Lamentations of Jeremiah which when I heard it, came as a total revelation.

I had come across Tallis in the English Hymnal, but this music was nothing like the prim little canon that we sang in the school chapel. The way that the voices combined in such rich texture and intricacy was thrilling, but it wasn’t only the beauty of the music that transfixed me– it was also the solemnity and the grief. Only when I realised that Tallis, a wary Catholic in post-Reformation England, would have gone in frequent dread of arrest, accusations of heresy, torture and the block, did I begin to glean some sense of the charge that those desolate verses must have held for him. Here, for my third choice, are Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, sung by the Deller Consort.

Flößt, mein Heiland (Christmas Oratrio) - Johann Sebastian Bach

I wanted to include music by Bach among my choices, and I have lit on Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen, the echo aria from the Christmas Oratorio.

It comes in Part IV, the cantata for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and had its first performance on New Year’s Day 1735. I surmise that when they first heard it, some of the Leipzig congregation may have been feeling a bit liverish and restive. Admittedly the text piously contends that man, having no reason to fear death, should steadfastly rejoice in Christ’s saving power, but it is possible that the more earnest among them were starting to think that the festivities had gone on for quite long enough. Christmas was over. Not that the new year had begun, it was high time to get back to the serious business of banking, or stock-rearing, or shoe-mending or whatever their occupations might be.

If my interpretation of the prevailing mood holds any substance, I’d like to believe that Bach’s echo aria gave the townsmen a collective pause for thought. The interplay between voice and oboe, with its element of surprise, rings with hope and joy. I hope it made the hard-nosed eighteenth century Leipziggers sit up, smile and – for just a little longer - forget their mercantile pre-occupations in enjoyment of this most beguiling exchange.

Le Courlis Cendré (Catalogue d’Oiseaux) – Olivier Messiaen

When I first heard passages from Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux the mix of fierce chords and passages of percussive frenzy seemed abrasive and unforgiving. At the same time, Messiaen’s love both for the birds that he portrays and French countryside that they inhabit was infectious. I could not help but warm to a composer who thought it worth his while to transcribe, in meticulous musical notation, the birdsong that he heard on his walks and then, having annotated its melodic and rhythmic outline, to re-create it for the piano. So I returned to the Catalogue d’Oiseaux, confident that as I got to know it better, I’d find it more rewarding – which is exactly what has happened. Here, for my fifth choice, is the work’s haunting final section- Le Courlis Cendré [the Eurasian Curlew].

Its setting is the island of Ushant, off the coast of Brittany. Besides the curlew with its distinctively chromatic call, Messiaen includes la mouette rieuse [the black headed gull], le chevalier gambette [redshank], le huîtrie pie [oyster-catcher], le tournepierre a collier [ringed plover], le goéland argenté [common gull], le guillemot du Troïl [guillemot], la sterne naine [little tern] and la sterne Caugek [sandwich tern]. The music also encompasses the sea, nightfall and the rising fog, for which the lighthouse foghorn–le Sirène du Phare – sounds its rather ominous warnings.

Through the wonders of technology, my youtube clip includes the score, complete with Messiaen’s directions which reveal much about his unsentimental understanding both of avian nature and the landscapes that he evokes. The pianist is Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen’s wife – who may well have witnessed the music’s development at close quarters and to whom he dedicated the work.

Desert Island Discs is a radio show first broadcast first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942. It's now broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and hosted by Lauren Laverne. You can find more information here.

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