The Week In Radio: From the depths of despair to strokes of genius

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Most people, I'm sure, feel at one with Cliff Richard as the holiday season approaches. "Fun and laughter on our summer holiday! No more worries for me or you..." But there's always those, who, when school is out and sun is in, crave a holiday like a hole in the head. Hence, presumably, the timing of Reasons to Be Cheerful, designed to single out and quash the pessimists in our midst.

This is a strange programme. Lots of low-level banter interspersed with educational inserts, plucked apparently at random. The Scottish actor Gordon Kennedy, who believes misery has become our default setting, pitted himself against John O'Farrell, an avowed grumpy old man, in what became a faintly annoying exercise in seeing the bad side in everything – from Fulham FC to basketball. There followed more serious attempts to accentuate the positive, including a visit to the London Centre for Nanotechnology to discover how nanodiamonds can build a living neural network. There was also good news about team sports and bicycling. Ultimately, though, it was all a bit scattergun. It reminded me of myself dredging up fascinating facts to distract squabbling children in the car. Indeed, it emerged that optimists should perhaps not bother. Negativity might actually serve as a form of social networking. According to Richard Wiseman, a professor of the psychology of happiness, research shows greater bonds are formed between two people who loathe the same thing, than those who share an enthusiasm. Therefore, "grumpiness could be a kind of bonding within a generation".

One person who badly needed an infusion of optimism was Sergei Rachmaninov, memorably described by Stravinsky as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl". In a novel twist on criticism – psycho-medico-biographical criticism – Professor Robert Winston is attempting to relate the work of great composers to their own medical conditions. After the disastrous reception of his first symphony, likened to "the seven plagues of Egypt written by the inhabitants of hell", Rachmaninov "went into a terrible funk" and couldn't compose for years. He was cured by sessions of hypnotherapy with a Dr Dahl, which resulted in the great Second Piano Concerto. But Winston wanted to know whether this writer's block was connected to manic depression or a genetic disorder. A fascinating clue was provided by pianist Peter Donohoe, who revealed that most performers can't play some of the chords of the Second Concerto, because it requires such an enormous hand span. Two culprits were in the frame for this – the unusual elasticity of the fingers go with a disorder called Marfan's syndrome, and another called acromegaly. In the end, Winston plumped for Marfan's, because it involves thin fingers, which would fit with some of the compositions. Robert Winston's Musical Analysis is an intelligent mixing of specialisms that works, and whether it explained Rachmaninov, it certainly explains why most of us will never play the Second Piano Concerto.

One of the most uplifting insights into the link between music and mood this week was tucked away on Radio 3's Twenty Minutes, in which a retired headmaster, Edward Jones, recalled how he had used music to communicate with his wife Beryl during the 10 years of her dementia. I've never heard an account of Alzheimer's more redolent with respect and love. The marvellous Mr Jones explained how he learned to answer in a calm voice, to describe himself as Beryl's "new" husband when she accused him of not being the old one, and how they communicated with folk songs, Benjamin Britten and Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. "In these ways I kept my wife with me. We remained very close. Most of the elements that make up the round of daily human life had been stripped away; only the essence of what had existed between us – that thing we call love – remained, and it was wonderful."

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