Something For Nothing…

For Alan W., in friendship…

One of the annoying things about the length of my working week is that, on the rare occasions when I don’t have to be up early on a Sunday, I’ve usually forgotten to switch off the radio alarm the night before. As a result, I am woken at 6.05am by a programme that is as maddeningly worthless as anything BBC Radio 4 puts out — and that is saying something.

The programme is Something Understood (its title is drawn from a highly sophisticated seventeenth-century word-salad by George Herbert; see here) — and if you’ve never heard it, I really do recommend that you give it an ear sometime. According to the BBC, it consists of

Ethical and religious discussion that examines some of the larger questions of life, taking a spiritual theme and exploring it through music, prose and poetry.

What it actually is — especially when presented by its regular perpetrator, Sir Mark Tully KBE OBE BBC — is the clearest possible demonstration that most people’s sense of the ‘deep’ and ‘spiritual’ is really just the experience of being gently drugged: providing they come away feeling all warm and floaty, any hypnotically idiotic succession of sotto voce non-sequiturs paraded in an obtrusively ‘reflective’ setting will do just fine

Musically, too, the show is an absurd rag-bag — the non-organising principle being, I suppose, that since everyone who tunes in wants to be drugged, no-one should be denied their drug of choice. I particularly remember one hideous instalment I sat through, ages ago (the programme goes back 23 imbecilic years), where we were hurled from Gustav Holst to Neil Young by way of Carlos Santana and some of the spiritual wisdom of Dorothy L. Sayers. I had to hear the whole damn thing because I was stuck in someone else’s car at the time; I have what may not be a wholly accurate recollection of stuffing a pair of driving gloves in my mouth to silence my own screams. (Ah, yes! Here it is! This one: “Mark Tully explores what we mean by ‘spirituality’ and with the help of Professor Ursula King, author of The Search for Spirituality, he considers whether a spiritual life can transcend the purely individualistic and become a force for social good.”)

Still, a piece by Holst on Radio 4 is a piece by Holst on Radio 4 — which thought (deeper than any I heard this morning before I forced myself to go back to sleep without getting up to turn the sound off) brings me to the piece of Liszt that was played in a savagely abbreviated form at the very end of the programme (and which I heard because I am trained to wake up again the moment anything interesting comes on…).

Needless to say, this being the BBC —  or rather “a TBI production for BBC Radio 4” (TBI have been producing this junk since April 2016) — there was a problem. The piece they played at the end was Liszt’s wonderful Concert Étude No. 3 in D flat (the final piece of the set he composed in 1845-9); and you’ll never guess what happened

Attached to these three pieces are Italian subtitles that modern scholarship believes did not originate with the composer — a discovery which didn’t come as any surprise to me: in the case of this specific étude, I could never see any reason at all why Liszt, having produced a work that contained thousands of tiny glittering notes, should then have called it ‘Un sospiro’ (‘A Sigh’) — the name by which it is nowadays universally known.

Did I say universally? Not this morning. On this occasion, the back-announcing continuity guy identified the piece as — are you ready for this? — ‘Un soripso‘…

Your BBC, ladies and gentlemen — Tory-prescribed profit-seeking ‘external provider’ included…

Is someone unable to type? Is someone unable to read? Does no-one do any proofing or checking? Does no-one know the piece? Does the guy not know any Italian? Does he not even know the word ‘suspiration’, which would surely give him SOME KIND OF CLUE THAT SOMETHING WAS UP? Does anyone at the BBC even care? It seems not: looking at the programme’s webpage, I see that, while they mention “The Hollies, Florence and the Machine and Puccini” they haven’t even tried to name this final musical item of today’s ‘breath-related’ outpouring — which means that any listener who wanted to look it up and seek out a recording doesn’t have any access to the title in a written form, erroneous or not…

Which, as not seldom, means that the BBC’s job needs to be done by me. Here are two performances of this piece on YouTube videos — the first of which allows you to see the printed music (three staves are sometimes needed to accommodate all the overlapping patterns on their journeys from one hand to the other…), while the second allows you to see an actual pianist’s hands in action…


Oh, and remember: don’t ever pay the licence fee



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4 thoughts on “Something For Nothing…

  1. My dear Mark,

    I hope that my message find you in fine fettle. To judge from your feisty blogs (I read them all) I am sure that it does. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened your latest message to find that it was inscribed for me – at least, that is what I supposed from the fact that it included a description of “Soripsot”, followed by performances of that wonderful Liszt Etude which, while adequate, are by no means definitive. Whatever the case – deepest thanks for the post and for thinking of me. That Liszt biography took 25 years of my life, as you know. I do hope that it made a difference.

    Looking back on those faraway days in BBC Radio (1960s), of which I was a part, is like imagining a university of the air which no longer exists. Everybody was an expert at what they did. Foreign languages, manuscript studies, discography, performance practice, 12-note music, plainchant, vocal studies, you name it. We all worked under the same roof at Yalding House, where the Music Division was based in those days. The old periodicals of the house journal “Radio Times” give you an idea of what we were able to accomplish. Did you know that BBC announcers had to graduate after several weeks from their training programme at the BBC’s location in Kingswood, Surrey, before they could even be allowed anywhere near a microphone? That’s the 1960’s for you. Now they seem to pick these people up from the street. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

    Enough already! Keep in touch. With best regards.


  2. “Something understood” is an unfortunate title for a program which confuses ethics and religion with spirituality, thus rendering each less understandable. Naturally since the BBC supports the established Church, which worships a tribal war-god, any real attempt to approach spiritual matters is scuppered before it starts. Job done.

    “I do not have a soul, I am a soul; I have a body.” C S Lewis.


    • “Body am I, and soul” — so speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children?
      But the awakened one, the enlightened one, says: “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body.”
      The body is a great wisdom, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.
      An instrument of your body is also your little wisdom, my brother, which you call “spirit” — a little instrument and plaything of your great wisdom.”
      Thus spake Zarathustra…


      • Being aware that we each create our own reality, out of the relatively tiny amount of information our five senses provide, I feel it vital to understand that the only philosophy worth harbouring is one that uplifts and supports a worthwhile life. Kant’s work on the phenomenon and the noumenon makes it clear that we are all guessing, that none of us can grock the complexity we experience — thus rendering argument a pointless occupation.
        In my dealings with people, I find a visceral resonance more useful than mere intellectual agreement.


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