Saturday 24 January
Spirit of the Age
Sunday 25 January
Gould, Tobacco, Bach was the resonant title of the third radiophonic feature in Radio 3's current series of on Saturday evening. Radio Times called it "experimental", to warn its readers that this required imaginative listening. Indeed it did. But, if there was a problem, it was not that you had to bring imagination to it; rather that you were bombarded by a surfeit from the producers (Antony Pitts and Matt Thompson).
It took the character of a meditative fantasy, just under 45 minutes, and the form of 14 programmes on three themes. One of the two producers told us so during the programme, thus parodying the self-accusing habit of presenters to remind us in mid-flow who they are and what we have stumbled across. The title, too, was constantly reiterated, rearranged, and at the very beginning there was the bewildering account of how impossible it was to agree on a recording of "Hallo!" in every known language to put on the Voyager spacecraft. Anyway, one of the producers said "Hallo" to us, in English, which, I am reliably informed, is now forbidden on Radio 3. I shan't complain. Voyager carried Glenn Gould's recording of the C major Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of Bach's 48, and this programme took his four recordings of the F sharp minor Fugue as the subject of a round-table discussion among critics, who had to discriminate between them as well as performances driven by computer.
As for tobacco, Bach smoked a pipe, nor did he die from it, so a 17th- century experiment to weigh tobacco smoke was revived in a Walthamstow girls' school, and given a modern slant as a lesson in the hazards to health. This progressed, intermittently, throughout the programme as an allegory of the vanity of measuring musical genius. Gould was, himself, a pioneer in making "experimental" radio programmes, and this one was worthy of his inspiration - brilliant both in multi-layered conception and technical execution: an obvious candidate for the Prix Italia.
To draw correspondences between music and visual art is hazardous, but extremely pleasant to a cultural tourist. It can also sharpen a sense of style, and in Spirit of the Age on Sunday afternoon, the cellist and gamba-player Charles Medlam justified the programme's title by commenting on eight famous paintings and choosing music which seemed to reflect their values. For Bellini's altar-piece of the Madonna and Saints in the church of San Zaccaria in Venice, he chose the Kyrie from Palestrina's Mass, Assumpta est Maria - not because it was contemporary, for the music was composed at least 50 years later, but because it had similar qualities of symmetry and repose, and expressed the same spiritual values. Van Dyck's painting of Charles I's five children, belonging to the National Portrait Gallery (though not currently on display), was paired with a Fantasia by William Lawes, the King's own music teacher and favoured composer. But, although painting and music had closely connected backgrounds, one didn't shed any light on the other: at least, if it did, it wasn't explained. Medlam asked if the huge dog in the middle of the picture was the English bulldog, which showed that, however responsive he was to the character of painting as well as music, he didn't know much about animals: it's a mastiff.Reuse content