Magazine article The Spectator

Life Lessons

Magazine article The Spectator

Life Lessons

Article excerpt

Talking to my dentist, as one does, we discover a mutual enthusiasm for Radio Three's Composer of the Week (Monday to Friday) and especially its presenter, Donald Macleod. How does he do it? we both exclaimed. Each and every week he comes up with five hours of elegant, informative, entertaining script, interspersed with carefully chosen nuggets of music from major and minor figures in the classical world. It's like listening to an audio encyclopaedia. But Macleod doesn't just give us a catalogue of facts, figures, fugues and fanfares; he fills in the background, making sense of why the music is still important to us.

Take this week, for example, devoted to Pachelbel, mostly known and often reviled for that ubiquitous Canon in D (think Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People or the adverts for Ambrosia and British Gas). From Wikipedia you can discover that it's 'a strict three-part melodic canon based, both harmonically and structurally, on a two-measure (or -bar) ground bass'. Macleod begins instead by telling us that last year a young Korean guitarist put up on YouTube a video of himself playing the Canon on his Fender Stratocaster. So far he's had 50 million hits, still rising. A baroque ditty written sometime in the 1680s by an obscure organist from Nuremberg has become one of the most popular musical items on a 21st-century gizmo.

What is it about Pachelbel that still appeals? Macleod seeks to show us by presenting the whole range of his music, from a delightfully springy chaconne (from Musicalische Ergötzung, or 'Musical Delight') to a glorious setting of the Magnificat with soloists and a large band of instruments including four trumpets.

Next year marks Macleod's tenth anniversary in the job. 'It's kind of awesome, ' he says, 'when I think that I must have written almost 2,000 individual scripts.' He was asked to take over the programme, which predates Radio Three, although not quite the Third Programme, by the current controller, Roger Wright, who recognised Macleod as a presenter who could tell stories uncommonly well. At one time Composer of the Week went out at 7.30 in the morning and was really nothing more than a joined-up selection of works by said composer. What Macleod has done is to turn it into a personal odyssey through the music of the last 1,000 years, characterised by telling biographical details and a persuasive assessment of the music.

Does he do all the research himself? …

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