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Desert Island Discs

The notion of that famous desert island, first visited, with a chosen guest in tow, by Roy Plomley, that most excellent of radio hosts, has ever remained an intriguing prospect for musicians.

The programme, it seems to me, has never really been about "music" but rather is a show-case for celebrities of all walks of life to show off, talk about all the world-shattering things hey have achieved, and how superior they are to ordinary people. There have, of course been exceptions, modest people who have been genuinely interesting to listen to. The music they have chosen has been nothing more than a peg to carry the narrative forward, since no-one could really believe that the chosen music – in most cases such ephemeral stuff – could form the basis of a permanent consolation to a castaway. However, I have to confess to having asked dozens of musical people what their choice just might be. The choice at least gives some indication of their cultural attitude overall.

How impossible it would be for most of us to choose just eight, since there are probably hundreds of things we cherish. All this is obvious. My own choices could be legion, but for the sake of some notion as to how my musical leanings go here is a list. The idea behind it being that some variety would be essential and there would have to be a reflection of some contrasting interests that have intrigued me over the past fifty years or more; some of them having been, for one reason or another, especially influential, such as, for example, the Brahms Academic Festival Overture.

Now, for me this is the kind of interesting point about all this: Way back in 1937, at the age of 14, I chanced to see on a bill-board in Manchester, the annual advertisement for the Belle Vue championship brass band contest to be held on the first Monday in September – the first day back at school in the new year. I hurried from school that afternoon just in time to get into the hall before the famous Besses o’ th’ Barn Band took the stage under its distinguished conductor William Wood and heard, for the first time in my life the Brahms overture.

I was spell-bound by this incredible experience; it was simply stunning ... A few weeks later I chanced to notice that this same work was to be played at a Hallé concert the following week. Now, I had already been to Hallé concerts, the ones promoted by Manchester Education Committee for school pupils, but the brass band still held a prior interest. However, going to this latest concert when the Brahms was played by a large – and very fine – orchestra was a turning point in my musical life. It demonstrated the really essential link that brass band transcriptions could lead otherwise uncultured brass band types to appreciate what one might call "the real thing". So it has been ever since: band transcriptions can still lead those who have not "seen the light" – the unfortunate point is that nowadays most brass band types just do not want to be led to better things. As the saying goes: "you can lead the horse to the trough but you cannot make it drink". However, the Brahms Academic Festival Overture became a talisman for me for the rest of my life, and it still is.. I have conducted this piece scores of times – with orchestras – but relatively few times with bands - they just don’t want to know, for the most part. I chose this as the opening work in my farewell concert with Huddersfield Philharmonic after being conductor there for thirty one years. But it is more than that: it sums up for me a whole European culture: the essential classic-romantic way of German music. So this would certainly be an essential part of any desert island choice for me.

It would be possible, I suppose, to give similar lengthy reasons for each of the following choices, but that would be far too tedious for anyone to read and would be akin to inviting them to sit as an observer while a psychiatrist sorted me out on his interviewing couch. Here is the list (such as it is, bearing in mind I could offer maybe a dozen or more such lists):

Bach; Fantasia & Fugue in G minor for organ

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A-flat

Sibelius: Symphony No. 6 in D minor

Sibelius: Tapiola

Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat

Cesar Franck: Chorale No 3 in A minor for organ

None of my own music, since it is all too familiar in my head anyway. (Unlike Malcolm Sargent, who is reputed to have chosen only recordings that he had himself made! ). I could, say, have chosen something by: Monteverdi, Mozart, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss, Moeran, Franck, and many other things of Brahms, Sibelius ... .maybe even some Russian music.

Equally other things would never find room in my collection. It is all very well asking people what they LIKE, but just as revealing is what they do NOT like.

I could never willingly hear a note of Mahler for instance. It would be possible to investigate a whole set of attitudes to a person’s culture and outlook were one to write a thesis on the kind of music that attracts – and equally repels – them. The trivial choices made by some celebrities indicates that probably they have not really thought about what motivates them. They have not considered the ephemeral nature of much trivial music, or a shallow sentiment casually suggests itself for the moment. Really deep and long-lasting musical emotions can never be eradicated from the psyche.

Arthur Butterworth



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