The Radio Times gives only very vague indications of Radio 3 broadcasts these days, rarely listing the actual repertoire. So I wasn’t surprised that for a programme curated by myself and brilliantly delivered by the BBC Singers, the RT mentioned only ‘Judith Weir…the Queen…the Queen’s birthday…Wesley, Stainer and Mendelssohn’. But under cover of Royalty, I was able to smuggle some fairly radical choral music (by Piers Hellawell, Michael Finnissy, John Furse, Elliott Carter) onto the airwaves. It has now arrived on iPlayer, where I warmly invite you to join us for the next few weeks. Of course, once on R3’s internet site, the music is impeccably presented, with every title clearly listed and immediately clickable.
The programme grew around Piers Hellawell’s extended setting of short extracts from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The subtle music emphasises the gently philosophical tone and spiritual range of the book, and never satirises it. Pondering the remarkable young author (21 when she began to write her book, 28 when she died) I wondered if musical settings would illuminate other famous women writers of the nineteenth century. They did indeed. John Furse’s setting of Emily Bronte’s poetry created a vivid impression of those dark times lived at Haworth, with literature the only source of illumination. Elliott Carter’s 1938 joyous setting of Musicians Wrestle Everywhere crucially supplemented the known facts of Emily Dickinson’s also rather grim story. Thinking of these difficult, soon interrupted lives, it felt like a miracle that their writings had reached us, and that we were able to commemorate them in this way; as ever, thanks to the generosity of Radio 3 and the skill of the BBC Singers.