The Playlist Series

The Playlist series, on BBC Radio 4, visits significant locations to present the favourite music of a famous figure to a group of experts. The music is subtly updated, so that questions of mere historicism can be set aside, and the music accepted for what it meant to the programme’s subject, and can still mean for us. The conversations that result from this contemporary encounter are always enlightening, and often break new ground, stimulated not just by the location, but often by a significant object.

David Owen Norris presents the programmes, and arranges and performs the music. The producer is Elizabeth Burke, for Loftus Media.

The series had its origin in a one-off programme, Jane Austen’s iPod.

Jane Austins Ipod pink

Here’s the list so far:

Jane Austen, in her house at Chawton, with her original manuscript music books in her own hand.

Charles Dickens, in his drawing room at Doughty Street.

Benjamin Franklin, in his house at Charing Cross, with his musical invention, the Glass Harmonica.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, with her music collection and other memorabilia at the National Maritime Museum.

Samuel Pepys, amongst his own bookcases in the eponymous (though posthumous) library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, with his Composing Machine.

Robert Burns, in the room where he learned to dance, with his own decorated fiddle.

Oscar Wilde, at the scene of his arrest in the Cadogan Hotel. One of the guests was his grandson, who put his extensive collection of Wilde-related music at our disposal.

Queen Victoria, with her Golden Piano at Buckingham Palace.

Thomas Hardy, in the house he built at Dorchester, Max Gate.

James Joyce, in the Martello Tower featured in the opening scene of Ulysses, with Joyce’s guitar.


(See review at foot of this page)

Shakespeare, onstage at Stratford.

John Clare, in his cottage at Helpston.
“another gem from David Owen Norris.” Daily Telegraph

Nell Gwynn, in her dressing room at Drury Lane.

The Duke of Wellington, in the Waterloo Gallery at his London residence, Apsley House, with his 1772 Grand Piano by Americus Backers – the oldest piano-with-pedals in the world (see the picture at the top of the website). One of the guests was the present Duke.

Here’s a political cartoon of the first Duke as conductor:

Duke of Wellington conductingWebsite

Gillian Reynolds Daily Telegraph June 2012
Radio 4, as all its listeners know from the copious trailers, is about to push out a big boat this Saturday, with a new dramatisation of James Joyce’s Ulysses spread across the day and the time frame of the novel, with live links from Mark Lawson at Dublin locations significant in the narrative and chairing a learned discussion at the close. Before that, Melvyn Bragg and his guests on In Our Time on Thursday will also consider the novel. And before all of that there was, last Saturday, James Joyce’s Playlist, another edition of David Owen Norris’s magical music programme, so good it wouldn’t need to be pegged to a Radio 4 extravaganza to validate its broadcast, so illuminating in its brief half-hour that even the most Joyce-resistant listener will have felt that new light had been shed on his work.

The underlying idea is that we can learn something new about people, whether Robert Burns, Jane Austen or the Brontës, by the music they would have known. The programmes come from a place associated with the subject, with an instrument particular to the story being played, Burns’s fiddle, the Brontës’ piano, in this case James Joyce’s guitar. The relevant songs were performed with relish by Gwyneth Herbert and Thomas Guthrie. What joy it was to hear Declan Kiberd, a great Irish scholar and Joyce specialist, in conversation with music scholar Kathleen O’Callaghan and actor Barry McGovern. The salty breeze of their anecdotes, the tang of the songs blew away musty reverence and let you hear the music in Joyce’s words. If suiting style to subject is any artist’s first duty, these programmes (produced by Elizabeth Burke) deserve gold medals.

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