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Seventy years of Desert Island Discs has shown one thing very clearly: it’s never just about the music

We all have our eight choices: but do we understand how much they reveal?

By on Monday, 30 January 2012

Duke Ellington (AP photo)

Duke Ellington (AP photo)

Everyone knows what happens on Desert Island Discs, which has just celebrated its 70th anniversary with a fourth appearance by Sir David Attenborough (who I have to admit, though a legendary national treasure, is one of my pet aversions, so I won’t be listening to that one).

It’s a simple but invariable formula. Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them; discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they would save if all the rest were swept away by the sea.; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible: they are then asked which other book they would take with them. They also choose a luxury of some sort.

Would you appear on the programme if asked? Of course you would: so would I, just as I would accept if I were offered them both a knighthood and membership of the Order of Merit (than which an appearance on Desert Island Discs is scarcely less prestigious). The fact that I won’t be asked to appear on the programme has never been a disincentive to my thinking up, repeatedly over the years, what my eight desert island discs would be. You’re not asked on, of course, for your musical taste, but for your distinction and achievements. But a surprising number of people think it’s all about the music. I think it was Sue Lawley (the last regular presenter before the present incumbent –the best – the admirable Kirsty Young) who said that people were always coming up to her with their own list of eight choices, under the impression that if she thought they were a really interesting selection she might ask them on to the programme.

The point is that what you choose is supposed to elicit some anecdote or other explanation of why you chose them (apart from any possible musical merits) which will be revealing about the sort of person you are. This was charmingly epitomised by the selection of the great cook, Nigel Slater, who chose some excellent music, but when it came to the record he would save before all the others chose “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” because he always found it so comforting at times of anxiety.

Well, as I say, I’m not going to be asked on to the programme, not now, not ever. But I’ve been refining my personal Desert Island Discs for many years now and the anniversary provides me with my last big chance, one which will never come again: this is my big opportunity to tell the world what I would choose if I were asked. So, here goes (log off now if you’re not interested):

1. Louis Armstrong Hot Five (1928), “West End Blues”
2. Elgar, Violin Concerto (played by Jascha Heifetz)
3. Duke Ellington (1940), “A portrait of Bert Williams”
4. Beethoven, Cello Sonata no 3 in A major (played by Jacqueline Dupré)
5. Jelly Roll Morton, “Doctor Jazz”
6. Schumann, Piano Quintet
7. Mozart, Final sestet of Le Nozze di Figaro
8. JS Bach, B minor Mass: Sanctus (Karajan and the Berlin Philarmonic

But what does that tell you about me? And why on earth should you be interested? Well, what it may indicate – which might be of interest to someone else, and not just to myself – is how very revealing the Desert Island Discs basic formula really is. That choice of eight pieces is never just about the music, since musical taste is always, at least in part, about who you are, sometimes even about how you came to be who you are. I thought I was just choosing some of the pieces which over my lifetime have meant the most to me on purely musical grounds. The fact is, though, that when I look at them from an autobiographical perspective, how much they explain about my own attitudes over the years becomes blindingly obvious to me. That Louis Armstrong piece, for instance, certainly explains not only why I have always detested racial prejudice against black people: not because it made me an anti-racist, but because when it comes to the music I really loved at that time (I was 16, I think, when I discovered the early Louis Armstrong) I was actually distinctly racially prejudiced, but in favour of black people. White jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke were all very well. There was nothing actually against them; I travelled down on the train (still pulled by a vast steam engine) from Yorkshire (in 1957, for heaven’s sake) to see the very white Humphrey Lyttelton, one of my great heroes, in his famous club at 100 Oxford Street.

But it wasn’t just that black people were better jazz musicians: it was that only they reached the level of actual musical genius. That recording of “West End Blues” wasn’t just great jazz: it was music which operated at a level which can only be described as sublime. I still think so more than half a century later. Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton underlined my sense of black people’s musical superiority, which came to be balanced, but never entirely expunged, by my slightly later (though overlapping) discovery of dead whites like Elgar, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

It was the great classics which, I suppose typically enough, came with age to move centre stage in my musical tastes. And here, too, it wasn’t just the discovery of the music which was life-changing. I was still a Protestant atheist when I had to depart early from a rehearsal of the Bach B minor Mass to be performed a few weeks later by the Dublin University Choral Society. The choir was singing Bach’s majestic Sanctus. I noticed a Catholic priest, just inside the double doors which formed the main entrance to the hall: he was in tears. My companion, a theological student at this still very Protestant institution, explained: the priest, he told me, said the words the choir was now singing every day at the altar; they were at the very centre of his life: he had never heard them like that before.

I thought about that scene many times over the years, every time I listened to the B minor Mass in fact. Little by little, it was the Sanctus I found myself waiting for when I put on my increasingly worn (and now replaced) CD. What part did that day, long ago, play in my conversion 30 years later? God knows, not I. But this story does exemplify one thing: music that really matters to us is never just music, it always puts down roots to intellectual and emotional levels well below anything we fully understand. I could write about all my eight choices at equal length: but in the immortal words of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, I have “delighted [you] for long enough”. Time to sign off. Cue: “By A Sleepy Lagoon”…

  • EndGame

    A pretty self indulgent article Mr Oddie. Our Catholic civilisation is burning down around us, with so much critical news and issues to discuss, with so many of the troops yet to be informed and rallied you just want to kick back on the deck and listen to music dreaming wistfully of times gone by. Some follow up to your last article, which was actually very pertinent to the current Catholic Zeitgeist. Seems to be retirement beckons for you which would be no bad thing for the Faithful who look to the Catholic Herald as an important watchtower and gatekeeper, both of Catholic orthodoxy and as buttress to the enemies at the gates (and the fifth column inside the gates).

    Another problem with taking your eyes off the ball while on duty is the bizarre meanderings into your inverted racism. Spare us please and get back on duty, or step aside and let someone else do, what is such an important job at such a critical time.

    Am i being too harsh on you? I prefer to call it tough Love….eternal souls are at stake after all, and over every soul brought back to the Father through this website all Heaven rejoices…..

  • Mike

    @EndGame – I admire your zeal, but let’s not forget that it’s God who converts and saves souls, not you, me, this website or Dr Oddie. That allows us to make space for the lighter things in life.

  • EndGame

    God uses PERSONS, places and things to convert souls Mike. To deny that and just shrug your shoulders and say it all up to God to do all the work is a reckless and contrary to the example of the best of us Christians, the Saints, who worked tirelessly for the Church in their various roles and vocations. That’s the bar and i fear in the coming few years ahead it is only those that prepare now and completely dedicate themselves to Christ NOW, who will survive the great test of faith fast approaching.

    It would be lovely to trip through the fields picking daisies and listening to desert island discs but might i suggest we put the raging fires out first, and postpone playtime for a more appropriate time. 

  • Anonymous

    ‘EndGame’ (hmm …): “eternal souls are at stake …”
    Response? : now and always, world without end …
    Strategy? : stay on the good foot …
    Result? : you won’t confuse the upbeat with the downbeat.
    Da capo …

    God bless.

  • Mike

    I agree with you EndGame – of course, we shouldn’t do nothing. But we bring others to Christ by doing what we can out of love for God and neighbor and praying frequently, not going around po-faced and feeling as though one carries the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. We are only instruments of God, doing what we can and He does the rest. Isn’t the victory already won? 

  • W Oddie

    Tough love be damned. You’re just a nasty little man.

  • EndGame

    Er no, the victory is not already won, the battle is currently raging in case you have not noticed. Victory is assured in a general sense for the Church, but there are still literally billions of individual souls to reach before Victory is declared. Their destiny still hang in the balance. You could perhaps step out of the comfort zone, pick up a cross and assist a few lost souls. Assistance sometimes being a stern rebuke. Or you could just stay on the fence, convince yourself prayer is enough and carry on attempting to shoot down those that are willing to speak out in truth for love. I don’t have a ‘po-face’ and don’t carry the weight of the world, however i do carry a responsibility to reach out to a lost or confused soul. Often times these days that is a fellow Catholic that should know better……

  • EndGame

    Why does your response not surprise me?

    Sorry i had to rouse you from your slumber but needs must, there is a war on after all……

  • EndGame

    Bankrupt move having my post removed Mr Oddie…..

  • W Oddie

    It was not I who had it removed: that can only be done by the Herald, which must have found what you had to say so offensive that they had no alternative

  • EndGame

    I did not post anything offensive, the proof being my post had been up for over 12 hours, the whole working day in fact. It was only when you posted you nasty response that both posts were immediately removed……

  • Mike

    Victory is assured – that’s what I meant. Thank you.

  • W Oddie

    Let us be done with this nonsense. It is preposterous to say that you “did not post anything offensive”. Your post was not only deeply offensive, it was pretty obviously intended to be so. It was, that is, intended to give offence. I regret that I have given you the satisfaction of knowing how successful you were. 

  • EndGame

    Again your response is disappointing and is indicative of your inappropriate self absorption, which was actually my main criticism of you in the original post. Yes, my post was personal to you but ‘obviously intended to be deeply offensive’? No, im afraid you exaggerate once again. Emotionalising and overly personalising my post is a narcissistic character flaw on your part and i hope i have been helpful in pointing that out to you so you can work on that….constructive criticism is always a healthy thing i believe.  ;-)

    By the way, i did not say anything offensive according to general rules and standards of news outlets comment sections. Hence the Catholic Herald left my post intact all day and only removed my post (and yours) immediately after you responded in such an aggressive and personal manner, which does in fact normally break the rules.

    The fact that you choose to take such offence is your prerogative but not really my concern. I found your racist comments offensive but so what…it’s a still a free country…. and might even stay free if persons in the media such as yourself can stay focused on what is important…..

  • W Oddie


  • EndGame

    Another phone call to the helpdesk Mr Oddie? Bad form ideed…

  • W Oddie

    I have not been in contact with the Herald at any stage of this disagreeable business. May I suggest that we leave it there?

  • EndGame

    Agreed. I hope to see you back on duty with renewed vigour very shortly. Thanks for the chat  ;-)

  • Adela

    The last two paragraphs of this post remind of two parts Pope Benedict’s audience of August 31, 2011 on art and prayer. Hope you like them too:

    “I remember a concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach in Munich,
    conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the end of the last passage, one of
    the Cantatas, I felt, not by reasoning but in the depths of my
    heart, that what I had heard had communicated truth to me, the truth of
    the supreme composer, and impelled me to thank God. The Lutheran bishop
    of Munich was next to me and I said to him spontaneously: “in hearing
    this one understands: it is true; such strong faith is true, as well as
    the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth”.”


    “Paul Claudel, a famous French poet, playwright and diplomat, precisely
    while he was listening in the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the singing of
    the Magnificat during Christmas Mass in 1886, had a tangible
    experience of God’s presence. He had not entered the church for reasons
    of faith but rather in order to seek arguments against Christians and
    instead God’s grace worked actively in his heart.”