In praise of the divine average

The bossy genius of Vaughan Williams is recalled in a trawl through the archives

Stars of a clutch of programmes to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams were the eccentric essays originally broadcast by the composer himself in the early 1950s. Of his beloved Bach (The Essay, 25 August, 11pm, Radio 3), he said: "He was quite a good composer, but not as good as Handel," and went on to deride baroque, which Williams pronounced "Baah-ock" - with the emphasis on the first syllable, giving the impression of someone pronouncing the word for the first time and not much liking the sound. Such superb disdain.

Aged 77, Williams came over like a large man in carpet slippers eating sherbet lemons. His voice had authority but his curious speech impediment tumbled consonants together, as though the sherbet had just dissolved in his mouth and he was hurrying to catch the drips.

Williams was bossy, and thought the harpsichord sucked ("never a pleasant sound"). He was also pretty stern about orchestras - or rather he imagined the orchestras that Bach faced were "ramshackle", the voices in the choir "not good", and the performances themselves "not witty". Williams was all for modern interpretations. To plonk away on a virginal through "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" was his idea of hell. He preferred the wind machine.

At one point he went into an imaginary conversation between Bach and the Modern Audience. "Your nimble horns are soft whereas mine were loud," said his Bach, jealously. "And your trombones are loud where mine were soft." Just when it was all beginning to sound a bit mental, Williams spun into praising Walt Whitman's sound ideal of writing for the "divine average" - the world audience of Joe Schmos, hunched in our seats, listening for a miracle onstage or on the page as though for distant thunder during a drought.

The following afternoon Johnny Cash sang in Folsom Prison (40 Years from Folsom, 26 August, 1.30pm, Radio 4). A short programme about the celebrated 1968 concert, it was full of the familiar sounds of prisoners cheering the singer as he wooed them with songs about tough lives. Tucked inside, however, was a previously unbroadcast recording of Cash and his band the night before the concert just lounging about and talking. These few seconds! Conversations picked up tantalisingly halfway through sentences, a woman's laugh, Cash showing off; his head suddenly very visible: face as pale as Pentelic marble, his duck's ass turned punk by the back of a motel armchair.

Late that night, Williams was back on, talking about Gustav Holst (26 August, 11pm, Radio 3). Recorded four years after the Bach, and four years before his own death, Williams sounded frailer, dreamier, every now and again loudly turning the page of his notebook and criticising his subject. But with each criticism came an upward surge of tenderness and affection. People say Holst was a cold man, said Williams, but they're wrong - it was a cold that approximated to intense heat, see? He was suprahuman and his life was set in the world of visions. Plus he was always on time for appointments and never used more notes than were absolutely necessary. So lay off. Like with Cash - like every genius worth the mention, I'd say - each of Williams's bites ran first with blood. And then honey.

Pick of the week

Jazz Library – Billy Strayhorn
5 September, 10.30pm, Radio 3
On Duke Ellington’s co-composer, arranger and occasional pianist.

The Betrayal of Blackpool
5 September, 11am, Radio 4
Documentary charting the decline of the beloved resort.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food