I’m a member of U3A and recently I was invited to pretend I was to be banished to a desert island where, absurdly, I would have time as a frantic hunter-gatherer to listen to ten of my favourite pieces of music.   It was fun working out what music I’d choose but I’m very glad that the likelihood of being whisked away to a desert island, even with my ten choices, remains unlikely.    

1  I was born in Oxford in 1937 and music didn’t really feature in my life (my parents didn’t have a gramophone) until I became a choirboy at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in the High Street.  There was a tradition whereby every Christmas Eve the whole choir, fully robed, climbed up the 127 spiral steps and entered a small door that led into the space inside the stone spire.  It was pitch dark inside but we lit candles, stood in a circle and sang carols.  This was an odd ritual because there was no room for a congregation, it was just the choir singing carols into an empty void.  Our duty done, we climbed down again and went to the vicarage in nearby Holywell Street to enjoy mulled wine and mince pies.  I did this for three or four Christmas’s.  One of the carols we always sang on those occasions was The Holly and the Ivy and it has been a favourite of mine ever since.    

2  When I was 13 my family moved from Oxford to the Isle of Man — from a city of dreaming spires to a windswept island in the middle of the Irish Sea!   I went to a boarding school on the Island and, of course, like most teenagers we mostly listened to pop music on Radio Luxembourg.  However, one of my friends was an exception and he played classical music on a gramophone in his study.  I often joined him there to do my homework and one of the records he frequently played was Ceasar Frank’s Violin Sonata.  At the time it was merely background music as we worked but I heard it so many times that it has become a lifelong earworm and I’ve loved it ever since.

3  During my teens I sometimes visited an uncle during summer vacations.  He and his wife ran a home for disturbed children from broken homes.  Many of them had been abused.  The house was a large rambling, red brick Victorian mansion, set in the countryside outside Leicester.   Unlike my parents, my aunt and uncle had a gramophone in their sitting room and a record collection.  I used to creep in there, wind up the gramophone, and play, over and over again, Drink, drink, drink sung my Mario Lanza.  At the time, I was probably about 16, I was convinced there could not possibly be a more rousing song.

4  Having left school, and before going to university, I did two years of National Service.  After doing my basic training at Oswestry, followed by officer training at Mons in Aldershot, I was posted to Malaya where I was on active service during The Emergency.  My regiment was based on a small island (now renamed Sentosa) just off Singapore.   At a party in 1958, I met an attractive young woman who was eventually to become my wife.  After I had plucked up the courage to ask her out, we often went to a nightclub in Singapore to dance (well, she danced, I shuffled!) to the music played by the resident band.  One of the tunes they regularly played (and if they didn’t we requested it) was Because the Lady is a Tramp.  It became ‘our’ tune and whenever I hear it I’m taken back to that nightclub on Princess Street: the romance, the tropical heat and the struggle to get my subaltern’s pay to last until the end of the month.

5  Sometime in the 1970’s (during my mid-life crisis!) I discovered Leonard Cohen and I have been hooked on his songs ever since: it was never Bob Dylan for me, always Leonard Cohen.  He has a totally undeserved reputation (I admit to being hopelessly biased!) for being gloomy but I have always loved listening to his (often unfathomable) lyrics and subtle humour.  I was fortunate enough to attend two of his live concerts at the O2 Arena when, approaching 80 years of age, he returned to touring after his manager had stolen and spent all his money.  Confining myself to one Leonard Cohen track is a real challenge because I’m soppy about so many of them:  Take this Walz, The Tower of Song, Hallelujah, Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel, Everybody Knows.  In the end I have chosen Closing Time,a delightful, drunken romp.  For many years I played it at full volume as a gentle hint to party guests that it was time to go home.  This was often self-defeating when people, having heard it for the first time, asked me to play it again!

6  Most of the music important in my life is classical.  I love watching a large orchestra in full flight at, say, the Royal Festival Hall.  The ‘big band sound’ that really bowls me over is the third and fourth movement of Sibelius’s Second Sympathy.  I relish the seemingly never ending crescendo.  It’s frantic and uplifting and I know it must eventually end, but I sit there egging the orchestra on, longing for it to loop back and play it all over again.  And then again and again until we are all exhausted.

7  By contrast, my next choice is a piece of solo piano music.  I had some piano lessons when I was a kid in Oxford but unfortunately my piano teacher was very fat and, even though the piano stool was designed to accommodate two people, she occupied most of it leaving me clinging to the edge.  To make matters worse, her clothes reeked of stale sweat so my piano lessons were the equivalent of aversion therapy!   Despite this, there are many piano pieces I enjoy (listening to, not playing!) and one, no matter how often I hear it, always stops me in my tracks: the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

8 & 9  I enjoy listening to the music of so many composers —  Pergolesi, Vivaldi, JS Bach, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, and many others — but, out of all the contenders, Franz Schubert emerges as my clear favourite.  Just about anything by Schubert is a winner with me, so much so that I must take two pieces by Schubert with me to the desert island.  Schubert completed the song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey) towards the end of his life.  It tells a bleak story  of a young man, unrequited in love, wandering through a winter landscape.  I know I can’t have all 24 songs with me on my desert island so, with great difficulty, I’ll choose one:  the first in the cycle Gute Nacht (Good Night).   My second Schubert choice is the second movement of his String Quintet in C.  This was his final chamber work, completed just two months before he died.  Some years ago my wife and I had a memorable visit to the house in Vienna where he lived.  The quintet was playing in the room where he died.

10  My final choice is the overture from an opera.  My taste for opera is essentially lowbrow.  I struggle with the likes of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and find many of Handel’s operas too long (in my view both Wagner and Handel would have benefited from an editor!).  My favourite opera is Verdi’s La Traviata.  There are lots of others I very much enjoy, for example Don Giovani, Cosi fan Tutti, Fidelio and Carmen but when the overture of Verdi’s La Traviata strikes up, I sit back with a smile on my face and allow myself to be seduced by the romance, the tragedies and, above all, Verdi’s melodies.  So, please may I take the Overture of La Traviata to my desert island.

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