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Review: Soul Music

Robert Weedon | Radio | Wednesday 22nd September 2010

Soul Music

Channel: BBC Radio 4
TX Dates: 2005-present
Duration: 30 mins
Details: Stereo
Overall: 9/10

Soul Music is one of those programmes that BBC Radio 4 does so well, tucked away just after the World at One on Tuesday lunchtimes. Produced in Birmingham, it is currently on its tenth series.

Instead of being a purely analytical musical documentary, it primarily aims to focus on the "emotional impact" of famous pieces of music, usually classical, although sometimes popular songs, hymns or jazz standards.

Of course, this perhaps sounds a little bit mawkish on paper. If it was the news, or a television documentary, it's likely that it would be. However, this being Radio 4 it manages to stay just the right side of being too sentimental.

The programme doesn't have a presenter as such, but instead works as a montage of interviews intersperced with clips of the work in question. In a way, the programme is the opposite of Radio 4's more famous music show Desert Island Discs, in that a famous piece of music is given centre stage, as opposed to a notable personality. Each programme usually has three to five contributors who have a story somehow connected to the piece of music, and they all introduce themselves at the beginning.

The first is often a musicologist, conductor or performer who gives a little background to the work or composer, detailing why it has such emotional impact and why the work was originally composed. I always enjoy this section, as unlike the occassionally rather "know it all" pre-concert talks on Radio 3, this allows the contributor the opportunity to "show not tell"; if there's a chord or melodic passage that's particularly appealing, for example, it's discussed why it is so. Short of Radio 3's Discovering Music strand, that's a surprisingly rare thing to hear.

The second contributor is usually a well-known personality - I would avoid calling them "celebrities", as that word always conjurs up people like Katie Price. That's not the case here - this week's "celebrity" was Sir David Willcocks, the choral conductor.

The third is a member of the public with an (often rather poignant) story connected to the piece. For example in this series, week two told the story of a member of the audience present at the first performance of Czech composer Bedrich Smetena's nationalist work Ma Vlast after the country was freed from Soviet control in 1989. This week's programme, meanwhile, told the story of a vicar organising a performance of Faure's Requiem at his church in St Pancras the weekend after the July 7 London bombings.

Of course, when a programme is dealing with anything as affecting as those events, it's always going to succeed in its "emotional" brief. However, in previous series, it has even made potentially dry subjects like the hymn "Praise My Soul" or the song "New York, New York" into a fascinating topic. Where it really succeeds, though, is making one look at something familiar in a different light.

Another factor I like is the lack of presenter. I'm rather bored of the pretence of TV and radio presenters going on a "journey" to discover something that they already know about, as their personality often ends up overshadowing what they were supposed to be documenting in the first place. After all, to get the programme commissioned, it's quite likely the producer submitted a full list of what they were going to find out months before hand.

Soul Music doesn't do that, but just lets its contributors speak. It's essentially the sort of programme that television could never make, which is what makes it so good. It's quiet radio, unassuming, intelligent, thought-provoking. It's wonderful.



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