David Attenborough on Stravinsky’s last stand

The riveting intensity of Stravinky's farewell tour

In 1965, Igor Stravinsky, 83 years old, was due to come to London to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of some of his works. The farewell tour of one of the greatest composers of the century was clearly an event of real importance and, as controller of BBC2, I determined that viewers should be there to share the occasion. I was disappointed to discover that the promoters were strongly opposed to the idea. Television technology would upset the Maestro, they said. The negotiations were lengthy, but eventually we came to an agreement and when the time came I went to my seat in the Festival Hall feeling like the Duke de' Medici attending one of his masques incognito.

The first half of the concert was not to be televised. It was a performance of Stravinsky's most recent work - Eight Instrumental Miniatures - and was going to be conducted by the composer's amanuensis, Robert Craft. Stravinsky himself was saving his energies for The Firebird Suite in the second, televised half.

The lights dimmed. Craft, a tall, elegant and grave figure, entered to appropriate applause and silence fell. The Instrumental Miniatures proved to be a work of extreme austerity.

A few isolated notes from the piccolo; a tap on a triangle; a dissonant chord from three fiddle players. Those of us in the audience concentrated hard to follow the line of musical thought. Suddenly, a stentorian bass voice from backstage bellowed, "Turn 'em on, Fred" - and the entire auditorium was flooded with light blazing from banks of huge lamps that had been specially installed for the television relay. Craft continued to conduct in the dazzling brightness as though nothing had happened. The audience whispered to one another and shifted uneasily in their seats.

I broke out in a cascade of sweat and wished I could hide under mine. After a few seconds, and equally suddenly, the lights turned off - only to turn on again. Craft and Instrumental Miniatures battled on. At last the lights cut and the stage returned to the reverential half-light appropriate to the occasion.

But the intellectual grip of the Instrumental Miniatures on the audience was gone. I knew only too well what had happened. The electricians who had been contracted from an outside firm to instal the extra lighting needed for television had arrived well in advance of the beginning of the scheduled transmission. They had found the hall in semi-darkness and totally quiet except for a few tinkles from the percussion and tootles from the woodwind. Presumably, they had assumed that such noises were being made by one or two musicians rehearsing a few of their trickier passages, and had decided to do a little rehearsing on their own account.

Understandably, Craft, in his memoirs, writes bitterly of the occasion and lambasts the BBC. However, in the end there was a great and permanent reward. Stravinsky's conducting of Firebird in the second half was electrifying. His craggy, aged face was immobile, but somehow radiated vigour and ferocity. At one point he gave a savage stab with his baton to cue a blast from the French horn. But it was two bars too soon. Alan Civil, the instrumentalist concerned, was too experienced to be fazed by this and remained silent. Stravinsky turned his eyes away from him. Two bars later, the notes came, correctly timed, from Civil's horn and a transitory but grateful beam flitted across the composer's face. It was, I think, his only change of facial expression throughout the piece. But the whole performance was of riveting intensity, and as far as I know is the only visual record of Stravinsky as a conductor.

David Attenborough's memoir "Life on Air" (Ebury, £20) is out now