Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
Long, long ago, in the Fifties, the Third Programme broadcast a series of so-called satires by Henry Reed, documenting the trials and triumphs of a composer, Dame Hilda Tablet. She was an upper-class feminist, played by the redoubtable Mary O'Farrell as a sort of latter-day suffragette, probably lesbian, whose adoring and long-suffering sidekick, Elsa, was an eager-to-please soprano with a strong Viennese accent, played by the much-loved actress and broadcaster Marjorie Westbury. The programmes were harmless fun, but pretty wide of any marks as satire, and the music, by Donald Swann, was a philistine's idea of "this modern stuff". The hopeless vagueness of the pastiche was hilarious in itself. The obvious model for Dame Hilda's gritty determination was the long-dead Ethel Smyth - though her music was clearly focused and highly professional. It's said that the late lamented Elisabeth Lutyens thought Reed was aiming at her, though Lutyens wasn't lesbian. Obviously, Reed and Swann had all kinds of figures in mind. Dame Hilda's magnum opus was an opera, Emily Butter, with an all-female cast, suggested, surely, by Britten's Billy Budd.

Reed's romps were brought to mind by a perfectly serious programme broadcast as the Sunday Feature on Radio 3, called In Search of the Great Music. Presumably, the definite article indicated that we were not to think of Bach nor Beethoven. With his tongue in its usual place, Brian Morton examined the importance of music for the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid created a "synthetic Scots", which you might suspect conveyed as much sense as Stanley Unwin.

If it's poetry's privilege to be nonsensical, what then of music? MacDiarmid became obsessed by it, though some that knew him said he spent more time reading about music than listening to it, and that he had no musical ear at all, even in his poetry. Which goes for some composers. Take the curmudgeonly Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, one of MacDiarmid's particular enthusiasms in the Twenties and Thirties, who wrote his music in the Reading Room of the British Library, perhaps to impress the eye more than the ear; its glamorous, mythical reputation was enhanced for many years by a general ban Sorabji imposed on performance. Eventually he relented, though only to allow the most valiant players to conquer, the likes of John Ogdon, who once stupefied a Queen Elizabeth Hall audience with Sorabji's compendious Opus clavicembalisticum.

Perhaps MacDiarmid recognised in Sorabji a kindred spirit. But as far as regular friendship went, he deferred to a much milder character, the song composer Francis George Scott, who had taught MacDiarmid as a schoolboy. Scott set MacDiarmid's poems in a style, to judge from one example, that could be harmlessly conservative. Not surprisingly, he was sceptical of Sorabji - as many people still are. But if Sorabji was really out of touch with the likely sound of what he wrote, at least his music doesn't fall flat on its face in aiming at grandeur, like Ronald Stevenson's piano piece, The Heroic Song of Hugh MacDiarmid, with its mooning Gaelicisms and petulantly dissonant rhetoric.

The strains of Stevenson's music permeated much of the programme like a refrain, casting over it a sense of absurd aspiration and improbability. Stevenson recounted that he and MacDiarmid first met on a bus in Edinburgh - a burlesque touch worthy of Henry Reedn Adrian Jack

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