Desert Island Disks

  1. Beethoven is a must, the problem being what to choose. It could have been the prisoners’ choir from Fidelio, a music that, to this day, makes me shudder with emotion, or it could have been the Sonata No. 8, the second movement of which I recommend as the best medicine if you are in a really despondent mood. It could also have been a symphony, the 6th or the 7th rather than the 5th or the 9th. In the end, however, I would choose the 5th piano concerto, for biographical reasons. I first heard the music sitting in a cafe with a colleague during my teacher training course. I was immediately thrilled and found out from the landlord that it was a piano concerto by Beethoven, but he didn’t know which. So I kept humming the melody to myself in order not to forget it. I still remembered it the following morning, rushed to a music shop and hummed the melody to the shop assistant – Can you imagine how ridiculous it must be to hum the melody of a piano concerto to a stranger in public? – and she immediately identified it as the 5th. My musical tastes have never been the same since that day. I also remember the occasion for another reason: The colleague who had joined me in the café, to my greatest surprise, ordered a hot chocolate for herself. Till then, drinking hot chocolate had been something for either little children or elderly ladies with a hat – and here there was this modern, critical, decidedly feminist woman ordering hot chocolate. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Certain things just change with the times, sometimes for unknown reasons.
  2. The Rolling Stones are a must, the problem being what to choose. They were the idols of my youth, and I still have a little treasure trove of old records by the Stones at home. I have long, of course, given up idealising them as persons, and I am occasionally still appalled by Mick Jagger’s tastelessness and bad behaviour, but the music still appeals. Amongst my favourites are “Time is on my side”, “Paint it, black”, “Come on “, “Ruby Tuesday”, “That’s how strong my love is”, “You can’t always get what you want”, “Sympathy for the devil”, but the final choice would probably be “Gimmie shelter” – I defy anyone to sit still for the five minutes or so of the song.
  3. In my days, if you supported the Stones, you automatically had to dislike the Beatles (and the other way round), and it took me a long time to overcome my aversion, but now I am reconciled with the Beatles, although I still think that they have written some pretty awful songs (I would never admit that of the Stones), Yellow Submarine being one of my pet hates (It is only bearable in the football ground to the words of “Zieht den Bayern die Lederhosen aus!”). But the Beatles – Who can deny it? – can also be grand: “I want to hold your hand”, “Eight days a week”, “I feel fine”, “She loves you”, “We can work it out” (which I secretly liked even as a teenager), “Ticket to ride”, “Run for your life”, “Back in the USSR”, or the lesser known “Across the Universe” – one could go on. My final choice may well be for “Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She came in through the bathroom window/ Golden slumbers/ Carry that weight”, the slightly experimental series of shortish pieces at the end of Abbey Road.
  4. Now for something different: Pablo Milanés is one of the bards of the Cuban Revolution, the author (and singer) of songs that are sometimes quite explicitly political, sometimes quite irritably political. In addition, Pablo Milanés has a somewhat squeaky voice, but you forget and forgive all this if you hear “¡Ojalá!”, the song I would choose. It is very repetitive, but, like Ravel’s Bolero, it just drags you along and never becomes boring. The lyrics are highly enigmatic, although the words themselves are simple.
  5. Sonny and Cher’s “I got you, babe” is one of the records I would take to a desert island. It smells a bit of the 1960s, but it is still a beautiful, simple love song.
  6. The next piece of music is Cho-Cho San’s aria from the second act of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, one of the most moving pieces of music I know. The opera caused a scandal when it was first put on stage at the Scala. Amongst other things, the Western audience was not very pleased with the idea of a Western character, albeit an American, being depicted as a traitor and, in some ways, as the precursor of the modern sex tourist: He deserts the Japanese woman whom he has married and with whom he has a child, and many years afterwards returns, accompanied by his American wife, to the house of the woman who has been waiting for his return all this time, thus driving her into suicide. Nobody ever asked if it is was not equally irritable for the Japanese audience to see a Japanese character sacrificing herself for a Westerner. Anyway, although the theme was Japanese, it was heavily adopted to European tastes: The music may sound Japanese to us, but has little to do with the original Japanese music which inspired Puccini. The depiction of the harakiri at the end would have been highly stylised and committed in complete silence on the Japanese stage, on the European stage you had (and still sometimes have) a highly realistic depiction, with liquid spurting out of the wound, and with the protagonist crying, yelling and seeming to run a sword through her body, to the effect that when the opera was staged in Japan, the audience were so terrified that they thought the actor had really committed suicide. On a less dramatic level, I also like the opera because I fancy the idea of an American man telling a Japanese woman in Italian that his name is Pinkerton. The opera also reminds me of my only ever stay in New York: I was dragged along to the Metropolitan Opera but I was worried about my clothes, which were anything but appropriate for a visit to the opera. Fortunately, the prices were so steep that we ended up high in the air, far away from the fashionable people. When we left the building, I saw a woman walking out just in front of me wearing a shabby red coat, short white socks and incredibly dirty gym shoes. That reconciled me with my own clothes.
  7. “Land of Hope and Glory” is Britain’s unofficial national anthem and, needless to say, much better than the official one. The words are outspokenly chauvinistic, even if regarded in its historical context, but the music is grand.
  8. The next item on the agenda is an official national anthem, that of Russia. It used to be the national anthem of the Soviet Union, but then, after the fall of the Soviet empire, was discarded, together with all the rest – prematurely, as it turned out. The people were so fond of it that the politicians who had abolished it had to bring it back. The music is the outmost degree of solemnity you can get without reaching the borderline beyond which there is only sloppiness.
  9. Jana Bitschewskaja does not look like a Russian matreshka, quite the contrary: she is small and slender-built, with delicate features, but: What a voice! If you did not see her you would think she looked like a Russian matreshka. My favourite song is “Po dikim stepjam Zabaikalja – Across the wild steppes of the Baikal”.
  10. “Heilig, heilig, heilig” from Schubert’s Mass in F Major brings back echoes of my childhood, but is still a favourite. When we were children, our parents during our holidays in what was a “foreign” part of the country used to take us to a church where they never failed to sing it during the Sunday service, although it had been banned from the prayer book. That did not matter, as everyone knew it by heart anyway. For us “foreigners” it was a great thing to hear the people pronounce “heilisch” instead of “heilig”, and we, the children, had a great time joining the crowd singing, at the top of our voices, “Heilisch, heilisch, heilisch”.
  11. It is difficult to choose a pop song without regretting not to have chosen at least a dozen others, but if I had to choose if would probably go for Don McLean’s “American Pie”. It is not only the music, it is also the enigmatic words. I have never figured out what the song is about, nor what the individual passages may mean. So that would give me something to chew on on my desert island.
  12. The Zarzuela is a very Spanish type of music, somehow comparable to our operetta, but much more popular, more popular with the audience, and with a more popular stock of characters. Plácido Domingo has done a lot to make this music better-known abroad, and Nietzsche was also quite fond of it, although perhaps only to annoy Wagner after he had fallen out with him. One of the most beautiful pieces is the Habanera from Don Gil de Alcalá, a wonderfully soothing piece of music, which is the last of the items that I would take on to a desert island.


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