Desert Island Discs

Radio 4 is kindly allowing us, Joe Public, to offer up our own choices as the venerated programme approaches its 70th birthday (you can submit your choices here, and explore the archive). I put together a playlist on Spotify last week, but didn’t give it that much thought. Meanwhile, a very thoughtful and varied post by fellow-blogger The Argumentative Old Git inspired me to review my choices and make a more considered selection. I have always enjoyed the programme, and although I am not 70 (nor will be for another 25 years!), I do remember Roy Plomley presenting the programme. Desert Island Discs is, like The Archers, and Woman’s Hour, one of our radio national treasures, to be cherished and revered.

The music listed is available via Spotify, free to download and free to use, and the list is in no particular order, rather the pieces are listed as they come to mind. Nor are they necessarily “favourites” (though many are); these are simply pieces which have special resonances for me.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, K581, II Larghetto: My father was a fine amateur clarinettist and this was one of his favourite pieces (sadly, he had to give up the clarinet some years ago because it was affecting his teeth). We used to play a reduced version for piano and clarinet together, and he often played this with Music Minus One, which I would hear from my bedroom as I was going off to sleep as a child.

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet In A Major, K. 581: II. Larghetto

Beethoven – Symphony No. 7: My paternal grandfather was a Marxist, a (old) Labour man all his life, and a trade union leader (NUPE) in the 1960s. He was a fascinating man and I had a great fondness for him. He encouraged me to play the piano from a very young age, and he had a great affinity with fellow Old Radical and his music. This, along with the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6), was one of his favourites. He requested this movement at his funeral, but only I remembered his request – and too late.

Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 In A Major, Op. 92: III. Presto

Kate Bush – ‘Wuthering Heights’: I have always been a great fan of Kate Bush, a musician who never stands still and who has never rested on her musical laurels. She is constantly reinventing herself, while retaining the key elements of her music which make it so distinctive. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first single I bought, after seeing Kate on Top of the Pops in 1978 when she was still a teenager. Her latest collection ‘Director’s Cut’ is about to be released, a compilation and reworking of tracks from her 1990s albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights

Talking Heads – ‘Road to Nowhere’: This is the track of my university days in the mid-80s, oft requested at discos and parties, along with ‘Once in A Lifetime’ from an earlier album of the same name. Whenever I hear this song, I am transported back to Exeter, to a cold attic room in a drafty student house, to learning how to cook for myself in a kitchen with a permanently sticky floor, and arguments over whose turn it was to do the washing up. Happy days! I had waist-length dyed auburn hair, and a penchant for maxi skirts and chunky jumpers. I don’t remember doing that much work, though I did stay up all night to finish typing my dissertation to make sure it was handed in on time! Listening to the track now, the opening lyrics seem rather appropriate for a group of young people poised on the threshold of adulthood.

Talking Heads – Road To Nowhere – Early Version

Joy Division – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’: By being born in the middle of the 1960s, I was slightly too young to appreciate Joy Division first time round, when their lead singer Ian Curtis was still alive. Nevermind the tragic circumstances of Ian Curtis’s suicide, this song is the sound of a heart shattering, of the end of a love affair, the hauntingly tragic lyrics almost crooned over a mournful bass line and robotic drums. Monstrously beautiful and utterly beguiling, brutally claustrophobic, potent and ethereal, as sublime and chilling as Schubert sharing his painful outbursts and lyrical consolations, it sums up emptiness and sadness, yet is both enchanting and intoxicating. This is preposterously good music, with a spine-tingling uniqueness: it gets to me every time I hear it.

Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Schubert – Impromptu in A flat, D899, No. 4: I first encountered Schubert’s Impromptus (the D899 and D935 sets) when I was in my teens and about to take my Grade 8 piano exam. I probably heard the pieces in concert and was struck by the ethereal nature of the fourth of the first set. I bought a Peters edition of the score and set about learning it. When I played it to my piano teacher for the first time, she shook her heard in disbelief at my total misunderstanding of how to play the fluttering semiquavers which make up the main motif of the piece. Once set on the right track, I was able to learn the piece correctly. This, for me, is part of my “tingle factor” collection, a piece I will also stop for, if it comes on the radio. It is both romantic and plaintive, beautiful and haunting. I still play it, though I have, with my current teacher’s guidance, “unlearnt” the fingering scheme of my teens and replaced it with a more logical and comfortable scheme to cope with the semiquavers. It is one of the few pieces I can play from memory (just!).

Murray Perahia – Schubert: Impromptu No. 4 in A-flat Major. Allegretto

Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now‘: As well as missing out on Punk, I missed out on the flower-power generation, and so became a “neo-hippie” in my teens in the early 1980s, discovering the protest music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, as well as Janis Joplin, The Doors, Patti Smith, Carole King, The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, and, my most favourite female singer of all, Joni Mitchell. Like Kate Bush, Joni has managed to reinvent herself, and is still going strong, songwriting and painting. Her voice has deepened, grown more gravelly (like Dylan’s), with time. This song is my absolute favourite, and one which can trigger tears, even when I play it to myself on the piano.

Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A, No. 31, Opus 110: “Who’s your favourite composer, Fran?” asked Ben, one of my keenest students, after a lesson spent working on a reduced version of the Moonlight Sonata with him. “Beethoven” I replied emphatically. “And who’s your second favourite?” he asked. “Ah, now that’s a difficult one, Ben, because there are so many composers whose music I love…..”. Lucky Ben, poised on the cusp of a lifetime of discovery of the greatness of the piano’s repertoire….. I’m not working on any Beethoven myself at the moment (though I probably should be), but he is a composer who I always return to, for his wisdom, his wit, his humour, his ever-changing moods, his sheer weirdness and unpredictability. I have favourites among the piano sonatas, but the Opus 110 is my absolute favourite, and the piece I would take to the desert island with me (also the choice of tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste). This isn’t music, it is philosophy, written near the end of the composer’s life, though there is nothing valedictory nor depressing about it. Truly life-affirming, with that amazing fugue, the most stable and steadying of music devices, in the final movement. Favourite recordings? Glenn Gould, who gives it a quasi fantasia reading by segueing effortlessly between movements, Claudio Arrau, Mitsuko Uchida…..

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major Op. 110: Moderato cantabile molto espressivo

Kirsty Young: “And so, Cross-Eyed Pianist, we come to your book choice. You have the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare…..”

How difficult to be asked to select one book out of many! Here, I think I would have to bend the rules of the programme and ask to take all the books I’ve been meaning to read, and all the books about which friends and colleagues have said “you must read this!”. These include Charles Rosen’s ‘The Classical Style’, Chopin’s Letters, Alan Walker’s three-volume ‘Life of Liszt’, Adam Zamoyski’s ‘Chopin: Prince of the Romantics”, and many, many more, too numerous to list here. You see, I’m far too idle and lacking in practical life-skills (beyond being able to cook and change a plug) to try and build a raft to escape from the Desert Island. And so I will sit on the beach in the sun, or in the shade of a palm tree, reading,reading, reading…..

Kirsty Young: “And your luxury?”

If I was replying as my other blogging persona, Demon Cook, I would request a good cooking knife and a wok. As The Cross-Eyed Pianist I must, of course, request a fine grand piano, and the score of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven. That, and the extensive reading list should keep me pretty occupied until I am rescued….


  1. Many many years ago, or at least before widespread internet cafés and mobile phones, I went travelling for about a year and a half, and I knew my sony walkman was going to be crucial to staying sane, so I had to do this for real. But I gave myself the luxury of filling ten cassettes – 120 minutes each since longevity was not the priority – and I remember well how much fun I had choosing. Of your selection I had two and half – the Mozart, the Beethoven sonata, and the Joni Mitchell (Glen Campbell’s cheesy but differently touching cover!). And I’m sure I only left off the Joy Division because I thought it would be unhelpful at difficult lonely times abroad!

    Despite changes in technology that render Desert Island Discs absurd, I love that it still exists. It’s one of those little unchanging rituals that join up the decades and makes life feel more connected.

    • I love Desert Island Discs and I would be very sorry if it were to disappear from the Radio 4 schedule. As proof that the model works, there is a similar, if more esoteric, programme on Radio 3 – Private Passions – and I’m sure other versions exist across the airwaves.

      Compilation tapes were the soundtrack to my life as a teenager and a student – we used to make them for each other, they were offered as gifts, and each had a special relevance and resonance. In many ways, iTunes and the like has made it possible to continue to make such compilations, and I quite often compile a “mix” for a party or supper. We also do a long journey through France twice a year for holidays (in the Alps) and compilation CDs to play in the car are essential. No doubt my son will remember when he’s older his parents singing their hearts out to ‘Hallelujah!’ (K D Lang cover) on the autoroute south of Dijon!

      Joy Division features on my “running mix” on my iPod. Not easy listening but Curtis’s voice was amazing…..

    • Thank you for your comments. I read your own post on this subject with interest and would make the following response:

      Radio 4 never intended the Desert Island Discs exercise to be a list of “the greatest music of the 20th century”. It is the personal selections of listeners, not a definitive list. I agree that the top 8 selections show a woeful lack of adventurous listening but before you dismiss all those people who don’t share your own musical tastes as “smug, liberal baby boomers”, just pause to consider that musical taste and listening preferences are entirely personal and subjective. You yourself say on your blog post that your personal predilection is for jazz. And what a boring world it would be if we all liked the same things!

  2. 3 of your choices reflect my own with a subtle adjustment. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, I would choose the 2nd movement (Allegretto). I made an arrangement of this for a music class about 30 years ago, and once they had mastered it, I played them the original. The look of wonderment on their faces when they heard the full orchestration was a sight to behold.
    I’ve also taught Joni Mitchelll’s “Both Sides Now” to students – in the days when we used to have Class Singing Lessons! (I AM old enough to remember it the 1st time round!)
    The Schubert Impromptu in A flat was what inspired me to learn the piano. A neighbour who was a pianist & ‘cellist played it. Sadly, by the time I was good enough to learn it, she had committed suicide. Consequently, I’ve never had the heart to learn that specific one, but still stop to listen when I encounter it.

  3. Thanks for that – what an fascinating choice! I was particularly interested by your story about your socialist grndfather. Nowadays, when so many on the Left reject classical culture on the grounds of alleged eltism, it is good to be reminded of a time when left-wingers such as your grandfather regarded this culture as their own. And indeed, if Bethoven’s 7th symphony doesn’t encourage me to go out and help man the barricades, then nothing will!

    I find it fascinating how tastes develop – or, indeed, the fact that we have tastes at all that lead us towards certain things, and away from others. What we take in in our formative years – i.e. from our earliest remembered childhood to the close of our teenage years, say – have a huge impact on us, and I doubt whether anything we discover subsequently can adequately displace what is already in our head by then.

    And finally – popular music of the 60s was full of some of the loveliest and most haunting of tunes, and “Both Sides now” is surely one of the best.

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