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Bodleian Bangers: Alan Rusbridger

Starting a new music series where we ask Oxford dons and alumni about their favourite tunes, artists and composers, Matthew Prudham speaks to Lady Margaret Hall Principal and Former Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger.

MP: So, to start us off, what is the one song you can’t you keep listening to at the moment?

Alan: So I, nearly all the music I listen to is classical. Does that matter?

MP: No, that’s fine! 

Alan: So that the answer is I’m very obsessed with the last 45 minutes of Act I of The Marriage of Figaro. It has an incredible structure where it begins with two people, three people, then four people, then five people, finally, and six people. And it’s each bit within it is contrasted with a bit before, and every tune is astonishing. The drama, the pathos, the weight, the sparkling energy,  the musical invention… if you want 45 minutes of music to die to the last bit of the first act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is as good as any 45 minutes of music.

MP: That’s quite a statement. I’m pretty sure that’ll attract some debate! If you had to choose one album or work to be the only thing you would hear for the rest of your life; something that wouldn’t get too repetitive but that you could enjoy listening to over and over again. What would it be?

Alan: Let’s say Bach’s St. John’s Passion. I myself, like a lot of people, sort of underrate Bach because he’s not romantic – his language was more limited and he was writing with sort of smaller forces. Though it’s more intimate than your Romantic opera, The Passion holds a power and intensity, emotional depths and heights. It’d obviously a huge work, at whatever it is, two and a half hours? It’s about the most profound subjects, it holds incredibly revolutionary harmonies and orchestrations.

I mean, it goes from sort of enormous numbers where you see a composer playing for the first time with a possibility of brass, with incredible Baroque trumpets – but also some of the most precious parts. I went to a performance once in King’s College, Cambridge, sitting very near the Viola de Gamba; and Bach writes for whole sessions of just a Viola de Gamba and voice. The Passion can be very small, almost like chamber music, and it can be enormous as if it was an opera or mass. If the challenge is to find something that that you were trying to endlessly fascinating, that would be it.

MP: Who would you say that are the most in the three most important artists or composers in your in your life, which made the most personal impact? 

Alan: I would say Schubert was one of them. Again, I came quite late to Schubert; I sort of thought he was a poor man’s Beethoven, but actually, he’s incredible – especially his range. I mean, just recently I’ve been playing a lot of his song cycles on the piano; his sonatas, his chamber music, his the symphonic music – it’s just an array of astonishing output: 900 and something pieces!

Also, I’m going to say Benjamin Britten. He’s been a sort of hinge into contemporary music for me, with which sometimes I struggled. And I think Britten at his best was the opera Peter Grimes, which feels to me as so contemporary because it’s about society and outcasts from society. If you think about Trump’s America and the kind of populist mobs that exists in Peter Grimes, you know, it’s a very contemporary opera. I think Britten was an admirable, brave person and a humanist as well as a brilliant composer.

And increasingly, Wagner would be. Again, it’s funny how you develop as a listener. I thought Wagner was such a boring and verbose and I wasn’t interested in the plots, but then flipped. I mean, when you talk about the last 45 minutes of Figaro, listen to the last 45 minutes of Act III of Die Walküre. If you’re not in tears by the end of that…  I’m still not really interested in the plots – all that German folklore and myths leave me a bit cold.

I’ve just bought Alex Ross’s book, Wagnerism, the effect of Wagner on the world since his death, his impact on music. At the time, being called a Wagnerist could be pretty damning abuse; people cared enough about music that, concerning Brahms and Wagner and Verdi, you had to be one camp or the other. Can you imagine that right – saying I’m, I’m a Maxwell Davis-ist or a George Benjamin-ist. It’s not that centralised any more. 

MP: So, for a bit of nostalgia for the normal times where we could have fun and enjoy things. What was the last and the best concert that you’ve attended? 

Alan: The last concert I attended was at the Royal Festival Hall in March last year. So just as the pandemic was all kicking off, it was George Benjamin’s 60th Birthday concert. So, the programme was full of music by him, but also with things like the Janacek’s Sinfonietta – you know with the big trumpets (imitates trumpets)…That was the last concert I went to, sadly…

The best… I went to Austria in 2008 when Alfred Brendel was giving his last ever concert. And I went to the Musikverein which an incredible concert hall in Vienna. Just because, you know, there was a man grew up in Austria during the Second World War, and has been a sort of Titan of music. I just wanted to be there for the last time he ever played in public and it was very moving.

I think he was about 80 and it was great to see somebody go out at the peak of his powers.. I’ve been to concerts with very distinguished old pianists who were sort of a bit past their best, whilst Brendel just decided to go while I’m still at the top of my game. He performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat and then a solo piano piece at the end, and it was all there. But I think it was a brave thing to go at his time of choosing. 

MP: I’m going to try and test your your knowledge of the the music of the youth; what artists do you think that this year’s freshers are listening to right now? 

Alan: Adele? (Laughs)  

MP: What should they be listening to instead?

Alan: The Beatles?

MP: I mean, the Beatles are fantastic. You can’t knock that.

If you’re talking about music, it’s going to sort of stand the test of time and was revolutionary – surely The Beatles?

MP: Do you have a favourite Beatles record? 

Alan: I think…. the White Album

MP: I completely agree! It’s just the amount of adventure and that found it so many genres of music in one album. When you say “You know, the Beatles – they invented heavy metal. Some people are bemused because they can’t imagine them being the same band.

So, let’s imagine that it’s late at night at the old Guardian offices, and you need to hear something to get yourself through the last checks of an edition. What are you putting on to give you that extra push something that will motivate you?

Alan: Well, I went through a phase when I was at college, during my university years, listening to the Grateful Dead. I think people felt they were sort of caught up with acid and were quite far out. And if you followed them, people would call you a “Deadhead”. So, I was kind of semi-“Deadhead” for a bit.  There’s an album called Wake of the Flood.  Before the pandemic, I took up swimming while listening to music through waterproof earphones. It’s immensely energetic, invigorating, motivating music. So, yeah, that would be a good choice.

MP: Fantastic. And so finally, if you could sum up Oxford in a piece of music, what would you choose?

Alan: Elgar’s First Symphony in A Flat in the sense that I think sometimes people listen to Elgar, and they think it’s very grand and is about Empire in some sense. But actually, if you listen to it, it’s very tender and vulnerable and emotional. And so sometimes I think Oxford can seem very sort of formal and unchanging and unbending; but actually, the people are what makes it special. So, if you look beneath the surface, as well in that Elgar Symphony, you’re into a completely different sound world – but you have to look beneath the surface, and the same is with Oxford. 

MP: That’s a very apt way of describing Oxford. Well, that’s all the questions that I had to ask. Thanks so much for your time! 

Alan: Well, if one person tunes into one of those things and finds out that they like it, then it’s definitely worth it. 

Find the full playlist for the interview on the Cherwell Spotify: @cherwellmusic.

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