I wonder how many of you listen to, or have at least heard of, Desert Island Discs? For anyone who hasn't, it's a radio show where famous guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and they choose the eight pieces of music they'd like to take with them.
I'm glad to say I wasn't around when it first aired in 1942, but I've listened to it hundreds of times and played the game in my head almost as often. My choice of favourite tracks changes almost as often as the seasons and slightly less often than my moods, but there's one piece of music that has been in my top eight for at least the last ten years.
On the radio, people almost always choose, or perhaps feel obliged to select, at least one piece of classical music; apparently, the most popular is Beethoven's ninth symphony. I'm no different, except for me, there's not the tiniest sense of obligation, and it's not Beethoven I'd pick; the track I'd go for is Sibelius' Finlandia. I'd choose it because every time I listened to it I know I'd be taken away from the isolation and desperation of my desert island, and back to the astonishment and wonder of the first time I heard it performed.
Many years ago, I had a pretty dull job in a pretty fine organisation. There was nothing glamorous about my daily tasks - I filed, I typed, I managed databases and dealt with insurance claims, but my employers had a strong sense of history and a long presence in London. They owned a box at the Royal Albert Hall and for every single concert, any tickets that weren't wanted by the Governors, were made available to staff in a raffle. Once a month it was my job to organise that raffle and distribute the tickets amongst my colleagues. It was by far and away the most enjoyable task I've ever been employed to do. I loved the sense of anticipation as staff waited to see the list of winners posted up, and I loved the look of delight as I handed over the tickets to the lucky winners.
Some concerts were very popular and completely oversubscribed, but there were others, usually during the Proms season, when there was not enough interest to fill the box. One night there were several spare seats for a Proms programme that included Finlandia; I'd heard my Mum say it was one of her favourites so I decided to go along, but if I'm honest I wasn't expecting much. The last time I'd been to a classical concert had been with the school, when I'd yawned and fidgeted my way through the orchestra's best efforts in typical teenage boredom.
I don't remember now what else was on the programme that night, but I do remember looking down from my gilt-framed seat in the box, and wondering at the scale of it all - the number of musicians, the range of instruments, the row upon row of people listening intently as the music played and erupting into loud and enthusiastic applause when it ended. I couldn't pick out each of the instruments that leant its individual voice to the marvellous whole, but I remember sitting there as the music built and built, moving from bold, through calm, to triumphant. And I can picture, even now, the huge kettle drums that pounded out the rhythm and emotion, that matched and lifted the beating of my heart.