Music documentaries on BBC Radio  

Not being a resident of the United Kingdom, it has taken quite a while for me to realise the extent of the treasure trove that is BBC classical music. More than time, it has required the program-on-demand facility that is iPlayer, the radio section of which is available internationally (unlike the TV player which is restricted to UK residents).
I’m sure there are many of you reading this, living in the UK, who will be saying “oh, it was much better twenty/thirty/forty (insert appropriate time period) years ago” but the Internet wasn’t invented then, so it wasn’t accessible at all to me.
It isn’t so much the broadcast of the music itself that has impressed me - my CD collection is large enough for me to be my own programmer - but the spoken word programs about classical music, which have informed and educated my listening and ever so gently expanded the rather limited boundaries of my technical knowledge of music.

The programs are not all to be found on Radio 3, the BBC flagship of classical music; three of the selections below are from Radio 4, the “speech station for curious minds” (its own description).
On the basis that there will be other readers of Musicweb International who don’t live in the UK and are similarly interested in knowing more about the composers and the works to which they listen, I present for you some programs to which I regularly listen (plus a bonus one from Len).
Along with the website link, I have indicated the period of time that each new program is available on iPlayer: it varies from one week to at least a year. The exception to this is Desert Island Discs, which are being made available in downloadable form (as mp3) as well as being listenable online - there appears to be no time limit.
Composer of the week (Radio 3)
An hour each day of the week dedicated to a single composer, with biographical information and full performances, rather than brief excerpts. The chosen composers are not just the usual suspects: recent weeks have been devoted to Charles Koechlin, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Adams.
Duration on iPlayer: 1 week
The early music show (Radio 3)
As the name suggests, we are in the Baroque period and earlier. Presented by the singers Catherine Bott and Lucie Skeaping, each hour-long episode covers a single topic, or a concert. Recent shows have included Louis XIV's 1683 competition to find his four new chapel composers, an interview with Harry Bicket and a number of concerts from the 2012 York Early Music Festival.
Duration on iPlayer: 1 week
Discovering music (Radio 3)
This provides analysis of individual works, but not in such a detailed and technical way that those, like me, without formal music training, become lost.
It was originally a 45 minute program in a weekly timeslot, with the presenting duties shared. The conductor and presenter of some outstanding TV documentaries Charles Hazlewood was one presenter. It is now 20 minutes long, presented by Stephen Johnson, scheduled during the interval of concert broadcasts, and generally features the work to be heard in the second half of the concert.
Recent episodes include Bruckner’s ninth symphony, Zemlinsky’s opera A Florentine Tragedy, Lully’s religious works and Rachmaninov’s Elegiac Trio.

Duration on iPlayer: at least a year, and past episodes still available date back to October 2011 (at time of writing)
Music matters (Radio 3)
Its website describes the program as a magazine, and includes a diverse range of interviews with notable performers, features on composers and discussion of important topics in the classical world. It is 45 minutes duration and presented by Tom Servis.
Recent episodes have included tributes to the late Hans W Henze and Elliott Carter, a debate on ‘is classical music really for everyone?’ from Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival of Ideas, an interview with Kent Nagano and a feature on Kathleen Ferrier. 

Duration on iPlayer: at least a year, and past episodes still available date back to October 2011 (at time of writing)
Twenty minutes (Radio 3)
Another magazine program, but covering all of the arts. Recent music-related programs have included the early music broadcasters, the pastoralist school of British composers dealing with the aftermath of WW1, the influence of Miles Davis and why we sing to ourselves. As you might have guessed, the show lasts twenty minutes!
Duration on iPlayer: at least a year, and past episodes still available date back to 2009 (at time of writing)
Desert island discs (Radio 4)
An institution in British radio that has been running for more than 75 years, the invitee gets to choose eight pieces of music (of any genre) plus a book and a luxury item to take with them to the mythical desert island. The BBC has begun to release downloadable versions of the program sating back to at least the 1950s so far. The musical selections are very brief excerpts for copyright reasons, but the real reason to include it here are the composers and performers who have been guests over the years. At the time of writing, there are 135 tagged as Classical Music. A few examples to whet your appetites: Sir Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley, Jacqueline du Pre, Sir Arthur Bliss, Lady Susana Walton, Kirsten Flagstad, Sir Charles Mackerras …
Duration: unlimited, and also available as downloads
Tales from the stave (Radio 4)
My personal favourite, but unfortunately the only one on this list not to be a weekly program. The presenter Frances Fyfield delves into the archives of various institutions, such as the British Library, to examine the original manuscripts of great musical masterpieces. With her are prominent musicologists and performers, who are like children in a lolly shop, when faced with these “holy relics”.
The six most recent episodes from a total of more than thirty (with some of her guests in brackets):
- Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Simon Keenleyside, Jane Glover)
- Parry’s I Was Glad (Jeremy Dibble)
- Handel’s Firework Suite (Christopher Hogwood)
- Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Stueart Bedford)
- Hummel’s trumpet concerto (Alison Balsom)
- an apparently lost flute concerto of Vivaldi
Duration on iPlayer: at least a year
There are, I realise, other music-related programs that I haven’t mentioned, but there is only so much time available to listen (particularly when the BBC has so much great comedy on the radio as well!).
David Barker
Len Mullenger has asked me to add one of his favourites to the list.
Desmond Carrington’s The Music Goes Round (Radio 2)
This is light music form the 1920s to the modern day, and each program has a particular theme, the most recent being birds.
Duration on iPlayer: one week