I've just got my monthly newsletter from the quaintly titled "Controller" of Radio 3. They always make me smile -- pure state socialism in action applied to national cultural life. Look what British taxes are funding... and that's for just a single month... at the start of a deep recession. Pretty amazing really. (Sorry to brag)
Welcome to December's Controller's Monthly Note
I am sorry to start this new note on a sad theme, but I just want to comment on the tragic news of the death of Richard Hickox. Through his work with the BBC orchestras and BBC Singers and at the BBC Proms he was a regular part of our world and we have lost a wonderful musician, friend and colleague. With the death of Vernon Handley earlier this year 2008 has been a particularly sad one for British music.
No-one who heard the Quartet for the End of Time during the Proms this year can forget the experience of four performers in a vast hall, bringing to us a work composed by Messiaen in rather different circumstances - as a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A, Görlitz. Discovering Music explores the quartet on the afternoon of Sunday 7th, as a prelude to a week celebrating Messiaen whose centenary we have been marking through the year. On the eve of this birthday itself ( Tuesday 9th) Performance on 3 presents the BBC Philharmonic in an all-Messiaen programme conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw. His song cycle Poèmes pour Mi is Messiaen's love letter to his first wife, comprising nine poems by Messiaen himself. The concert ends with Chronochromie, whose title merges the Greek words for time and colour. It is one of his major orchestral works, all too rarely performed.
BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year
On the evening of Monday 8th you can hear the category Finals of this competition which has involved over 5,000 singers, as the remaining six choirs compete at London's Royal Festival Hall. It is introduced by Petroc Trelawny and hosted by Aled Jones. It is the UK's largest amateur choral competition, arranged into four categories: children's, youth, adult and open. Since the competition began, 120,000 singers from over 2,000 choirs have taken part. Open to all, the competition is free and aims to encourage participation in singing across all age groups and local communities. If you have heard our coverage of the build-up to this grand final you will know how exciting the event has been so far.
John Milton and Paradise Lost (complete)
The Sunday Feature on December 7th is John Milton's Adventurous Song, the first programme in our season marking the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great English poet. David Norbrook explores evolving views of Milton and his importance to us today. He places Milton's work within the social and political turmoil of his times and our own. Throughout the week, actor Robert Glenister will read Milton's poems in Breakfast, Afternoon on 3 and In Tune. On December 14th you can hear a new production of Samson Agonistes, the dramatic poem published three years before his death. Written in the form of a Greek tragedy, it follows the biblical story of the blind Samson wreaking his revenge on the Philistines. For total immersion, listen to Anton Lesser reading the complete Paradise Lost, Milton's best known work, every weekday at 5.00pm and at the weekend at 9.30pm, from Monday 22 December - a real holiday treat.
Opera on 3
On Saturday 6th December, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is conducted by Daniel Barenboim in his long overdue Met debut. A leading interpreter of Wagner, Barenboim is joined by tenor Peter Seiffert as T ristan and soprano Katarina Dalayman as Isolde. Ever since its premiere in 1865, Wagner's setting of the ancient Cornish myth of two lovers locked into a doomed love affair has had enormous impact on audiences. The composer Giuseppe Verdi said that he "stood in wonder and terror", while Bernard Shaw described the opera as a "poem of destruction and death".
I trust you are finding the continuing broadcasts from the 2008 Free Thinking festival stimulating and provocative. One of the events which most captured the audience imagination was hearing from Tony Benn. You can hear his contribution in Night Waves on Thursday 11th. With ten grandchildren, Benn has found himself thinking about the world that they will live in. At a time when experience and youth are pitted against each other, Tony Benn reflected on the value of experience. There are some unforgettable moments, such as his memory of being taken by his father to meet Gandhi when he was six years old.
As usual, we have a strong line-up of Christmas music towards the end of the month. One event I would draw your attention to is Britten's cantata St Nicolas. It comes live from Lancing College in Sussex, the institution which commissioned it 60 years ago. The BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers and Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral are conducted by Paul Brough. It presents the life of Nicolas, patron saint of children, sailors and travellers, with the part of Nicolas sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy. During the interval, Louise Fryer explores how St Nicolas came to be written, using Britten's letters and conversations with some of the surviving members of the first performance. And you can watch as well as hear the concert at bbc.co.uk/radio3; it is also the first Red button offering for television from BBC Radio 3.
Throughout December, Breakfast will play a Bach dance after the news at 8am each morning, a joyous start to the day for the winter mornings. In 2009 we have a wonderful year for you - the most ambitious year of classical music programming we have ever mounted as we celebrate the anniversaries of Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn - more about that in due course.
With my best wishes
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On December 14th you can hear a new production of Samson Agonistes, the dramatic poem published three years before his death. Written in the form of a Greek tragedy, it follows the biblical story of the blind Samson wreaking his revenge on the Philistines.
Or do my eyes misrepresent? Can this be he,
That heroic, that renowned,
Irresistible Samson? whom, unarmed,
No strength of man, or fiercest wild beast, could withstand;
Who tore the lion as the lion tears the kid;
Ran on embattled armies clad in iron,
And, weaponless himself,
Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery
Of brazen shield and spear, the hammered cuirass,
Chalybean-tempered steel, and frock of mail
But safest he who stood aloof,
When insupportably his foot advanced,
In scorn of their proud arms and warlike tools,
Spurned them to death by troops. The bold Ascalonite
Fled from his lion ramp; old warriors turned
Their plated backs under his heel,
Or grovelling soiled their crested helmets in the dust.
Then with what trivial weapon came to hand,
The jaw of a dead ass, his sword of bone,
A thousand foreskins fell, the flower of Palestine.