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Composer of the Week

Amongst the many medals and awards constantly being handed over in the 'music industry'. there are a few genuine honours. For composers, I believe one of the highest is being the subject of BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week - preferably while still alive, so that you can fully savour this peak of appreciation.

This last week, CotW has been celebrating an incredible eighty years of the programme; it's one of the majestic things about Radio 3 that they meaningfully maintain these living links to wartime broadcasting (and earlier, in the case of great ensembles such as the BBC Singers.) At first, we learned, the programme just consisted of records put on by the continuity announcer. The magisterial CotW presenter Donald Macleod explained modestly that this was how he himself had started, a few decades ago. But my goodness, what an unbeatable source of knowledge the programme has since grown in to; a better coverage of musical history than most university courses provide these days.

During this anniversary week, some of Donald's interviews with (at the time) living composers were reprised. I can't describe how thrilled I was to turn the Radio Times pages and find, on Monday morning "Stephen Sondheim and Judith Weir". The following days yielded some historical material from true greats; for instance the Birtwistle-Henze episode, and Meredith Monk paired with Steve Reich.

I've since listened to all these programmes with great enjoyment. Personally my favourite interview was the one with Oliver Knussen. Rather incredibly, Olly had turned up punctually every day of "his" week for the series of five interviews at 12 noon (the rest of us I think gave one extended interview from which material was patched into our five allocated episodes.) As ever, how clearly he expressed the truths about a life spent concentrating on music. What kept him composing? Donald asked; a poignant question, since OK famously worked so slowly. Three things, Olly replied: the pleasure of finding a good idea; the satisfaction of writing the music out by hand; and the moment when, after so much time spent alone trying to write your new piece, you turn up to the first rehearsal and "the music talks back to you". I have already started quoting this perfect reply.





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