Discovering Music is sometimes the best thing on Radio 3 - but is it about to be axed?

The ten-year-old programme is a profoundly effective show and tell: extracts from a decent recording of a piece of classical music are stopped occasionally for analysis, using phrases such as, “We can sense a deepening here."

Discovering Music
BBC Radio 3

“Atonal isn’t a word you’d expect to hear in association with Vaughan Williams but here we are . . .” Just a few minutes into another brilliant episode of Discovering Music (7 November, 8.20pm) about Vaughan William’s seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, and the presenter Stephen Johnson is in his stride, speaking in a way that is hard to render on the page but that sounds incredibly natural and yet also like every other word is italicised.

The ten-year-old programme is a profoundly effective show and tell: extracts from a decent recording of a piece of classical music are stopped occasionally for analysis, using phrases such as, “We can sense a deepening here,” and, “Remember we already heard some evocative sounds like that in a previous movement.” Sinfonia Antartica made a wonderful subject, sounding so absorbed in the freakish, almost alien textures of layered, ancient snow, with lots of grieving harp and piano (“It suggests ice so cold it’s almost dry”).

On a good week, Discovering Music can be the best thing on Radio 3. I mentally tuck into a waitress trolley weighed down with oodles of ham and cheese whenever the show starts. But is it about to be axed? I’m afraid that’s the rumour. Already collapsed in length and inched into a 20-minute concert interval in the last round of cuts, its future never looked good but . . . Oh, such a simple, inexpensive programme! One record, one script. Why lose it?

And why, more to the point, these terrible numbers? Radio 3 fell to the bottom of the network radio league in terms of budget this year, receiving an increase of just £300,000, where Radio 1 managed to grab £3.3m. Even more worrying is that the BBC Trust recently described Radio 3 listeners as a “a subset of the Radio 4 audience”. Never was a phrase more designed to make people feel like the losing crew at the end of the boat race. The disdain contained in that phrase feels absolute. It suggests a license to dismantle not just certain music specialism programmes or even speech-based programmes on Radio 3 but possibly, somewhere down the line, once it’s been squashed to a kind of Classic FM, an entire station, without so much as a single desperate dash across town or a breathless conference in a lift. It really is ice so cold it’s almost dry.

On a good week, this is the best programme on Radio 3. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.