Radio Plays about Composers and Musicians

Over the years there have been many good biographical plays about composers and other musicians; here are details of just a few of them. Something which needs explaining to me is why authors avoid using composers' names as titles. As a collector of recordings, I find "The Listening Heart", "Hermit Thrush" or "Cadenza" quite useless in telling me what the play is about........

Never mind - it's only a minor grumble........here we go:

At the beginning of the year we had this colourful biography of Alessandro Stradella by F.D.Boyce (R4, Saturday Play, 1430 9 Jan 16). Stradella was a composer from 17th century Italy and is quite well-known amongst baroque music enthusiasts for his chamber cantatas. His patron was Queen Christina in Rome. His interesting life and his love for Agnese, the Doge's niece, has been pieced together by the writer from original historical letters. He died young, but he fitted a great deal into a short and eventful existence. Alessandro was played by Trystan Gravelle, Corelli by Harry Treadaway, Lonati: Ralf Little and Agnese von Uffele by Alice St. Clair. Production was by Allegra McIllroy. (.....from VRPCC/radiocircle review, April 2016. See also the play "Cadenza" from 1998, listed below, by David Pownall - ND)

FINLANDIA .... 2015
Sibelius - Northern Lights: Finlandia, by Stephen Wyatt. Biographical play. R3, Sun 6 Dec 15. See Stephen's page for write-up.

By Martyn Wade; a play about Gustav Holst. Astrology was the inspiration his most famous work the Planets suite, an innovative composition which is popular and enduring. The play covers 20 years of the composer's life, including his relationship with his family, his friends, his teaching and his composing. It also gives an insight into his solitary walking and travelling. Producer: David Hitchinson.

R4, 1415, 16 May 05. A rather depressing play about Schoenberg's life and work. He spent many years writing music without melody or harmony which, unsurprisingly, no-one wanted to hear. His private life wasn't very happy, either. Stars Simon Tait, Gerda Stevenson, Grant O'Rourke, Matthew Pidgeon as Webern, John Kielty as Berg. Director - Bruce Young.

R4 1415, 29 Sep 04. By Robin Brooks and Richard Heacock. A play about Stefi Geyer, an attractive young violinist, and the two composers (Bartok and Schloeck) who fancied her. A descendant of Schloek contacted me in 2005 about the play ... what a small world. Directors - Peter Leslie Wild and Rosie Boulton.

Reminiscences of Elgar...a nostalgic play by Alick Rowe - please see Alick's page.

by David Constantine. It's 1802, and Beethoven realises that his days as a concert pianist are numbered; he is losing his hearing. Friday play, 55m, 1 Oct 02.
........an imaginative reconstruction of the year when Beethoven realised he was going deaf. Until that point he had been a pianist-composer; from that year the emphasis shifted to composition, and he wrote his best works when most of his hearing had gone. This remains one of the greatest achievments in the history of music. Beethoven was played by Robert Glenister, and the pianist was David Owen Norris.......(ND, VRPCC newsletter, Dec 02).

CUBAN SOLO....2002
By David Pownall. Docu-drama about one of Cuba's best known composers ...to my shame, I cannot recall his name. Information gratefully received...

by Ian Curteis. A docu-drama on Beethoven's life, and how he reacted to going deaf. Friday play, 55m, 21 Apr 00.

IVOR GURNEY*....2000
An interesting biography of the composer Ivor Gurney went out on R4, 8 Feb, 1415, entitled simply "Gurney", by Tim Sanders. Gurney's output is quite small, but includes some attractive songs, piano pieces, and chamber and orchestral works, all of which showed great potential. He was badly affected by his war service, however, and he retired from music, ending his days in a mental hospital in 1947.Gurney was played by Anton Lesser. Directed by Andy Jordan. First broadcast 1998. (P.S. Note to Tim Sanders.......congratulations on the title!)

Biographical play about Berlioz, and the symphony he wrote for the love of his life. R4, 1415, 31 Aug 00. By John Foley.

Amy Beach was an American composer, mainly for piano. If the music heard during the play is representative, it's worth following up. R4, 20 Apr 98.

by David Pownall. Story of the composer and womaniser Stradella. Radio 3, 26 Jul 98.

No-one knows whether J.S. Bach met Georg Frederick Handel. They were almost exact contemporaries. Paul Barz's play Handel's Ghost (R3 2200 21 December) assumes that he did. Handel is a man of the world, well-travelled and wealthy, Bach is only a Leipzig choirmaster. But in their verbal sparring, Handel does not have it all his own way. Robert Hardy and Richard Briers played Handel and Bach respectively, John Wells played Handel's servant, J.C. Smith (a good composer in his own right)..... ND,1997, VRPCC newsletter.

By Martyn Wade. Biographical play about Gerard Finzi, 120m.

ELGAR'S THIRD*....1994
by David Pownall. Biographical play about Elgar and his proposed third symphony. (reconstructed and completed many years later by the composer Anthony Payne.)

........note from the "DOOLLEE" site......
First Produced : 1994 BBC3
First Published : 1993 in "The Composer Plays", Oberon, London
Genre : Radio Play Male : -- Female : -- Other : large mixed cast
Synopsis : composers final, losing battle to write a third symphony in the face of impending death.

note from Clive Lever: - there was a late night series ALL SHOOK UP in 1993 about rock and roll stars who are no longer with us but who left their mark on pop music. I remember:

FEVER - about "Little Willie John"
TAKE THE NIGHT - about Roy Orbison; title taken from a track on his 1989 album Mystery Girl.
THE SOUND OF FURY - about Billy Fury, and starring Stuart Coleman as himself. Coleman was Shakin' Stevens' producer, and produced Billy Fury's comeback material in the 80s.
LONELY JOE - about Joe Meek, producer of the Tornadoes, John Leyton, The Honeycombs and others, and
A CITY CALLED GLORY, about the life of Sam Cooke.

All of the above died prematurely. Fury and Orbison died of heart attacks, as did Willie John, who was serving a sentence for murder. Cooke was murdered and Joe Meek shot his landlady, then himself.

Interesting play about Elgar's later life. Michael Hordern as Elgar.

By Martyn Wade-A wonderful biographical play about William Baines, the Huddersfield composer who showed such promise and who died very young of tuberculosis. Baines combined an impressive pianistic technique with a most unusual keyboard style; conservative but with a unique use of dissonance. Some of his earlier pieces owe something to Chopin, but his later work is very atmospheric - "Tides", "The Lone Wreck", and "Goodnight to Flamborough" are outstanding. See Martyn Wade page and British Music page for more information about Baines.

By Miriam Gallagher, to celebrate the famous Harper-Composer Turlough O'Carolan. Commissioned by Rté, Dublin. DIrector: William Styles, performers: Rté Radio Players; musicians: Michael Mc Iver (classical guitar) Eoin Dunne (recorders) Noreen O' Donoughue harp). A stage version was first performed at Dublin's National Concert Hall in 1986 followed by productions in Helsinki and Estonia, most recently in Saratoga Springs New York in 2007.

    Miriam writes: The work of the producer, William Styles (now sadly dead) is highly regarded. He'd come to the stage version at the National Concert Hall and asked me if I would adapt it for radio. I was delighted to do so and delighted with the actors, who were from Rté Rep.

details from DOOLLEE....
First Produced : 1983 Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
First Published : 1983 Faber & Faber, London
Genre : Play Male : 4 Female : -- Other : --
Doollee's Synopsis : The loyal composer Shostakovich and outsider Prokofiev are confronted by Stalin in 1948 Russia. My synopsis: Stalin gives Prokoffiev a music lesson.
Radio 4 production: stars Timothy West, Jonathan Adams, Peter Kelly, David Bamber. Music arranged by John White; piano played by cast members. Dir. Martin Jenkins.

By Martyn Wade. The life of Percy Grainger - concert pianist and composer. Grainger had enormous ability as a performer and as a composer when arranging folktunes. His two-piano music is excellent; sometimes a superb realization of the tune (as in "Spoon River") or sometimes way over the top (e.g. "Blithe Bells), but above all, it is fun. This play is based on the biography by John Bird.

Written and presented by Richard Stinton. Broadcast on Piccadilly Radio in five 27-minute episodes. This is a dramatic reconstruction of a previously unknown chapter in the love life of Polish pianist and composer Frederick Chopin. It also uses long excerpts from some of his best piano works, and includes his first published piano piece (by no means negligible) which he composed at the age of 7. The opening and closing music for each episode is the C minor study from Chopin's op. 25. The episode titles are:

1.First Love
2.A Surprise Invitation
3.Romance in Paris
4.The Cover-Up
5.The Triumph Of Love

The cast: Chopin: Chris Kaye, Countess Delphine Protowszka: Brigit Forsyth, Georges Sand: Delia Corrie, Franz Liszt: Stuart Richmond. Other characters played by Geoffrey Banks, Andy Rashleigh and Kate Lee. Series production assistant: Andy Johnson. Chief Sound Engineer: Les Woolham. Produced by Piccadilly Radio and the Independent Local Radio Network; producer Tony Hawkins. I think the broadcast date was approximately 1978; sorry for any spelling errors; I had to get the names off the recording ... Ed.

JACK'S BACK*....1977
1 Jun 77. By Michael Robson. An exuberant comedy about J.S.Bach (beautifully played by John Rye). Bach travels to Hamburg where he is assessed (as a performer) by legendary organist Adam Reincken, aged 98, whom Bach had heard twenty years earlier. Especially treasurable is the scene where Bach interviews an aspirant trumpeter, who proceeds to play with dazzling assurance a virtuoso sequence from an obscure Concerto. Producer Margaret Etall.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

Asterisked plays known to exist in VRPCC collections

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