BBC Music Magazine
As Michael Berkeley celebrates his 70th birthday, the composer and broadcaster looks back at 23 years presenting Radio 3’s Private Passions
In his 70th birthday year, the composer looks back on 23 years of presenting Radio 3’s Private Passions
A s 1994 became 1995, BBC Radio 3 decided it would like a new programme in which interesting people who were not professional musicians discussed their musical likes and dislikes. I was intrigued because, ever since seeing John Freeman’s revealing interviews on Face-to-face, I had nurtured the idea that talk of music might reveal as much about a person, if not more, than direct personal questions, a view reinforced by the writer and psychoanalyst Adam Philips in his own Private Passions. Music can articulate our most private feelings, our most intimate and lifechanging events and in discussing it we volunteer that which we might resist in the face of bald personal questions.
I suggested Private Passions as a title since for many of the artists already on Radio 3 music was clearly a public passion. We were keen to show, however, that people who you might not associate with classical music were in fact passionate devotees, so we began on 15 April, 1995 with Elvis Costello who I knew was wild about Purcell. We then went to Cambridge to talk to Germaine Greer about her love of singing and the female human voice.
As an independent production company, Classic Arts recorded the programme in a spare room at the top of my house, and I used to delight in greeting guests like Joanna Lumley and Diana Rigg with a cup of tea in my kitchen (and on the way to the studio, they would ask if they could pop into the loo which was also my labrador’s kennel!). Guests as diverse as the Duke of Kent, singer Neil Tennant and filmmaker Sam Taylor-johnson have talked about the intimacy of the programme. Nowadays a new production team, Loftus, record the programme from a studio in Shepherd’s Bush and, I must admit, not having endless people clambering through the house is something of a relief.
Even in those early days surprises soon began to emerge: philosopher Isaiah
Berlin memorably recalled, as a young boy, peering through a balcony in St Petersburg, seeing below the White Guard ride past during the Russian Revolution. ★e then went on to describe a wickedly scurrilous conversation with Stravinsky about Benjamin Britten (despite their eminence these two titans were fiercely competitive). Knowing perfectly well the sort of answer he might elicit from Stravinsky, Isaiah meekly enquired about the maestro’s opinion of the British composer. ‘You ask me of Benjamin Britten – I will tell you: without question he is the greatest accompanist of his generation, that is what I think of Benjamin Britten.’ We had two visits from Barry ★umphries. In one he appeared as himself and then as Dame Edna. I wondered how he would be attired for this, but in fact he came in a smart (men’s) suit and suggested we sit side by side, wearing headphones, close our eyes and imagine that he was in full regalia.
People tend towards music that profoundly moves them, and at one point we had to steer guests away from, for example, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and encourage them instead to try some of the other Strauss songs. This need for a cathartic experience exemplifies, I think, both the magic and the mystery of music – that in its abstraction the listener can bring and take from it that which is totally personal to them. Writers, recently Richard Flanagan, Sebastian Barry and Richard Powers, are particularly well versed in putting abstract ideas into words and that is the great challenge of Private
I love a profound conversation with someone who knows their musical onions
Passions because nothing speaks more eloquently than the music itself.
I think my experience as a composer (the theme tune is from my brass quintet Music from Chaucer) is most useful when the guest is a bit shaky on musical context and I can add a bit of insight into the mechanics and circumstances of a piece. As one of his choices, the late John Peel asked, typically curious, that I introduce him to something he did not know; he was so taken with the Conlon Nancarrow study for player piano that he immediately took it back to Broadcasting ★ouse and aired it on Radio 1. I love nothing better than getting into quite a profound conversation with someone who clearly knows their musical onions, the comedian John Bird, for example, who could not understand why everyone did not love Boulez and Webern like he did. ‘Just like a walk in a strange but magical wood,’ he said.
Of course, the trend for profound catharsis is occasionally bucked – Stephen Fry chose an almost entirely light and frothy programme and was reduced to fits of laughter by ★erb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and ‘A Walk in the Black Forest’.
And then there are the surprises: ★arrison Birtwistle’s love of Roy Orbison’s voice; the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy playing us out with the music she wanted at her funeral: David Rose’s The Stripper; and nestled between Britten and Schubert, the painter Maggi ★ambling rejoicing in the theme tune from Coronation Street. We had a succès de scandale when the 112-yearold percussionist Manfred Sturmer (alias John Sessions), recalled attempting to commission a concerto for spoons from Brahms. Some listeners were annoyed to find that they had been duped and complained – most found it hilarious.
We took the decision long ago not to re-invite guests for a second shot, being convinced that there are always new people to find who love music and, in particular, classical music. As we sail past our 1,000th recording, I am happy to report that our optimism only grows stronger by the week.
‘Winter Fragments’, an album of Berkeley’s chamber music, is on Resonus; his carol ‘This Endernight’ is on ‘100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols’ on the King’s College label. Private Passions is on Radio 3 on Sundays at 12pm