Stravinsky had stern ideas on musical appreciation: “People are taught to have too much respect for music. They should be taught to love it instead.” If anyone broadcasting today could be said to have fostered a love of music, it’s Donald Macleod. Since taking over as host of Radio 3’s Composter of the Week in 1999, he’s presented famous and not-so-famous composers to listeners with the lively courtesy of a host who wants everyone to get along.
The show, one of Radio 3’s most popular and longest-running series, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. It launched as This Week’s Composer on the BBC Home Service on 2 August 1943. The first composer featured was Mozart. Since 1999, Macleod has personally clocked up some 3,000 broadcasts – a dazzling tour d’horizon of the (mainly) classical canon.
The breadth and depth of his scripts are enjoyed equally by amateurs and experts, but he’s quick to share the credit. “I’m one of the world’s great bluffers. I’ve always felt at a huge disadvantage relative to pretty well all of my colleagues in that I have no musical training at all.
“Life without music would be unthinkable, but everything I know, I either learnt from Radio 3 or read up on myself. So it’s important to say that Composer of the Week is absolutely not a one-man band. I couldn’t do it without the support of our production team – a very bright bunch of people in Cardiff who keep the show fresh because they come at things from different angles.”
Modesty notwithstanding, his knowledge is encyclopedic, gleaned from a lifetime’s “obsessive” reading of programme notes and biographies (“They’re becoming a hazard. The floor in my study is starting to sag.”) Finding the “way in” to a composer’s life and times is one of his favourite parts of the process.
“It’s absolutely not my job to tell people what to think about the music. I’m there to paint pictures – that’s what radio is about – and I often start from a visual image. The very first script I wrote was about Grieg. I discovered he had a good luck charm that he carried round in his pocket, a little stone frog. I thought it was such a charming image, so I started from there.”
The life, Macleod points out, does not always inform the music. “I think it’s a kind of secret collusion between me and the listener to make relationships where they may not really exist. I hope I don’t distort things, but if you get to a particularly tragic point in a composer’s life, you don’t want to go into jolly music.”
There are, however, clear instances when the listening experience is enlarged and enriched by knowing something of the composer’s biography. “I’ve just finished a week on Dvorak, who had absolutely catastrophic, unthinkable things happen to him. His infant daughter died and then two years later, his two surviving children died within a month of each other.
“It’s impossible to imagine the unplumbable depths of the man’s grief. Then I learnt that he’d started a setting of the Stabat Mater before the first child died. It lay incomplete for two years. After the death of his other children, he came back to it. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to make the link. It’s a setting of a poem about a mother watching her son dying. So one imagines the profundity of his grief is something one can hear in the moving music that he set those words to.”
Macleod’s research has also thrown up moments of “extraordinary privilege”, bringing him closer to his heroes. “One of the magic things about working for the BBC – particularly when you go abroad – is that doors are opened for you. While in Venice doing a programme about Monteverdi – one of my absolutely favourite composers – I was ushered into the choir loft of St Mark’s Basilica. To stand up there, at the level of those incredible mosaics was already amazing and then I noticed that the place was thick with dust – I guess nobody goes up there to hoover.
“Now, we’re all shedding little bits of dust all the time – apparently Tube tunnels are full of particles of human skin – and there I was, in Monteverdi’s choir loft breathing in 700-year-old dust and wondering if somehow or other little particles of Monteverdi were being absorbed. I could hardly speak, which isn’t great for radio, but I just found it profoundly moving.”
Over its 70 years, Composer of the Week has necessarily broadened its range. As well as regular outings of the greats, there’s eclectic coverage of lesser-known composers. Recent programmes have featured George Lloyd, the 18th-century Italian composer Luigi Boccherini and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a friend of Schubert.
“We try to cover the whole spectrum,” he explains. “It’s often tricky because if a composer is obscure, there won’t be enough music in good performance to fill the best part of five hours. But you can’t only listen to great music at the exclusion of all else. You can be inspired and moved by seeing someone who has a lot of the ingredient of greatness but isn’t quite there. In climbing the foothills, you get a greater view of the Alps.”
In the meantime, he – and his listeners – will keep the daily “lunch dates” with composers on Radio 3. “People seem to appreciate that Composer of the Week represents radio at its best. It’s entertaining and you get to learn stuff. Certainly I learn stuff. It feels like the opposite of dumbing down. The challenge is part of the pleasure.”
Composer of the Week: Robert Schumann is tonight at 6:02pm on BBC Radio 3