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Bodleian Bangers: Dame Helen Ghosh

In this week's "Bodleian Bangers", Matthew Prudham chats Beethoven, Taylor Swift, and music as memory with Balliol master Dame Helen Ghosh.

In the second instalment of Music’s Bodleian Bangers series, interviewing key Oxford dons and alumni about what plays into their ears, Matthew Prudham speaks to Dame Helen Ghosh, Master of Balliol College, former civil servant and former Director-General of the National Trust.

MP: So, first of all, what is the one track or song that you can’t stop listening to, at this moment?

HG: Of all the things I’ve chosen… gosh, this is such a great question! People of my age, we all go back to Desert Island Discs. I think this would be the final ‘which of this records would you choose?’ I think, I think it would be Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, because it’s got tremendous get up and go. You can’t listen to it, and not think “right, get on with it.”

Essentially, the pandemic has been really hard work. Bizarrely hard work even for the heads of colleges, you know, with no students or few students you think we could all do nothing. In fact, it’s been it’s harder to run a college with no students in it, than with lots of students in it, I’ve discovered. The particular thing that I miss is being with students, because the real plus of the job is talking to students, getting your energy, getting ideas. You know, learning about other people’s lives. And if students aren’t there, there’s none of that fun.

MP: Could you just tell us a bit more about the reasoning behind Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Do you find it quite motivational?

HG: For me, it’s both motivational and sentimental. Because I first consciously heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony when I was a student. I was a student at St. Hugh’s reading History. I went to a concert that some of my friends were playing with the Oxford University Orchestra in the Sheldonian. It was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and I was absolutely blown away by it. I think it’s perhaps one of the sort of unfashionable Beethoven Symphonies. People are supposed to like the more sort of tortured ones- and my husband who is a tremendous classical music expert and lover would always go for one of the late quartets, which are fabulous. But, in terms of you know what is so special about Beethoven, it’s that sense of “Right, come on. Pull yourself together! Get going!” Particularly in the the final movement.

MP: So you just touched on that a little bit so what next what’s your most like when you were studying at Oxford. What the music that you listen to when you were at Oxford, alongside your friends? 

HG: Yeah. Two or three things on that. So, of course, we were students in the mid 1970s (a terrible thing to say). So, really, we didn’t sit there, we couldn’t sit there with things in our ears!  

I still find it strange looking at my children who are 30 and 32. But the idea that you can seriously work with music. I can’t work.  I can’t do the two things. I don’t understand how anybody can but clearly students today can. 

So, I suppose, two things. One of my next-door neighbours, who’s still a great friend, in St. Hughs had some tapes of a wonderful pianist who died very young called Dinu Lipatti. These tapes had two things on them: he had lots of Schubert Impromptus and Chopin, various kinds of Etudes, Nocturnes and so on. We listened to a lot of those sorts of things. Remember this was tapes, there was no downloading, there was no Spotify – you just had to listen to what there was. At the same time – so I said I had some friends who were musicians -, there was a flautist in our year, and she was a member of the University Orchestra so that introduced me, by going to hear them play, to a world of classical music I had never heard; I mean, my parents had some classical music in their record collection… my mother also loved musicals. But, true access to classical music – I mean, I remember getting down to a local record shop and the first LP – again, extraordinary – that I bought, the first classical LP that I bought was was someone playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the Moonlight Sonata.

But, of course, at the same time, it was just a fabulous time for “pop” music. Yes, we listen to we were listening to the Rolling Stones – All of those great sixties bands. Even now, if you play ‘Honey-Tonk Woman’, that’s what I would get up and dance to. It could not have been a better time for partying.

MP: I think that they’re still very much enjoyed with the student population. 

HG: I’ve lived in Oxford ever since I was a student, because my husband is a fellow at St. Annes. In fact, we’ve lived in the same house in south Oxford, just south of the river for 30 odd years.  And so, we have lots of neighbours that we know, families our children have grown up with. And when we have neighbourhood parties, like On New Year’s Eve, it’s things like Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock’ or the Rolling Stones or ABBA. Everybody gets up – everybody of all ages, dancing. 

MP: I know one of the things that was really popular, back when we could go out and have fun long ago… there was an ABBA night,  and it was sold out every single week in Durham.

HG: Everybody knows them, and everybody can sing along. Therefore, it feels like a real, wonderful community. I know at Balliol balls they have silent discos.  What is the point of a silent disco? The whole point is all to be singing and dancing at the same thing at the same time. Very old idea, a silent disco. 

MP: What’s brilliant is when you, when you actually take off your headphones for a moment, and then you can hear everyone singing totally out of tune, totally discordant.

HG: Is everyone listening to the same song?

MP: No, because there’s usually two or three different tracks on the headphones. So, you might have some ABBA but also some of the people may be listening to some Beyoncé at the same time, while others are listening to say some Metallica. So you hear this really weird mashup

HG: That is part of the fun, I believe. I think of all the local New Year’s Eve party which of course, sadly, we haven’t been able to have. This is just somebody’s sitting room, kitchen, and lots of families dancing. And the fact is we’re all dancing to the same thing, and we’re all singing to the same thing, you know whether it’s “Dancing Queen” or the Rolling Stones, or whatever it is, Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”. We’re all singing the same thing, and it’s just lovely.

MP: So, if you had to pick the three most important artists, or composers, in your life, are the ones that have really influenced the way that you think about music, who would you choose?

HG:  If I was thinking autobiographically, I think, about my life and what albums, what pieces of music or collections of music would I say? 

I did ballet when I was young, I didn’t learn to play a musical instrument, ballet was what I did. So, one of my picks in my choice, which I thought of for this, was the final scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I would undoubtedly want a piece of ballet music because of all the pleasure I’ve had seeing it and doing it. So I’d say Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, particularly the Royal Ballet version: just the most wonderful combination of music, Kenneth McMillan’s choreography, and design!

In terms of thinking of growing up… I suppose, Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970). I remember my brother was quite into things like Led Zeppelin, actually Cream – that’s not quite like Led Zeppelin. When I said, “Could you give me a lift. I want to go and get this new record” – it was something like it cost something like four pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence, just under five pounds – “I want to just get some money out of my savings account, so I can go buy the new Simon and Garfunkel LP”. He said “What was a terrible waste of money” but actually, all of that just lives with me in many ways forever. 

For a song from that album, it’d have to be “The Only Living Boy In New York”, which I heard Paul Simon sing. I’ve never been – a terrible thing to say – to a ‘pop’ concert, ever. But I did hear Paul Simon live in one of these kinds of very middle-class things that they used to do at Cornbury in Oxfordshire. Hearing him sing “The Only Living Boy In New York”, was just fantastic because he’s been a lifetime hero – 10 years ago I heard him. 

Thinking of later in my life and my family life, I suppose, and the things I’ve enjoyed with my children and my husband, actually, you know, I probably go for some Ella Fitzgerald, her Rodgers and Hart American Songbook. (1956).

MP: I really adore her versions of the songs from Porgy and Bess. I guess they’re just amazing that you actually did with Louis Armstrong I think those are some of my favourite things to him to listen to, especially when you need something that’s relaxing. I think she just has such a soothing tone of voice and it’s fantastic.

HG: She does this scat singing – I love the way she can use her voice as a musical instrument. 

MP: So what has been the best concert that you’ve ever attended had the pleasure of attending?

HG: There’s a question of what the concept meant to you, on the one hand; and how brilliant it was as a musical event, on the other. If it’s what the concert meant to me. Actually, it would be Alfred Brendel playing in Oxford Town Hall, Schubert’s D. 959 Piano Sonata – probably other things as well. The reason that’s important to me is, in fact, my husband. I didn’t go with him I didn’t even know him then –  but I remember looking across Oxford Town Hall and seeing my husband, who was a history student in the same year, thinking “Oh, that’s interesting. Peter Ghosh is here,” you know, I knew him by sight. “Oh, he’s obviously interested in this kind of thing.” It’s probably the first time I sort of registered him at all. So that’s completely sentimental. 

For the other…we always, but clearly not this year, try to go to two or three of the BBC Proms, and we quite regularly get up to London to the Royal Festival Hall and hear pianists or string quartets or whatever they may be. I suppose, probably. I’m trying to think of a particular one. The power of hearing something like one of Mahler symphonies played live – it’s completely extraordinary. 

MP: Yes, yes, yes. I completely agree.

HG: Again, when I was a young civil servant  – so this must have been about 1979 – Peter and I went and heard Rafael Kubelík with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s First Symphony. I thought it that was simply wonderful – you’ve just got to hear Mahler’s symphonies live.  

MP: So, have you had any concerts, which you had planned to attend, cancelled or postponed thanks to the pandemic?

HG: One of the great jewels in Balliol’s crown is that we have a series, you must look out for them, On Sunday evenings in term time we have four concerts, every term, which are all endowed – that means they’re completely free to the public. What we tend to do is to get up and coming musicians – sort of like BBC Radio Three Young Artists, new generation artists, whatever they’re called – to come. Our students organise it students get in touch with the players. And we had to cancel all of those in TT20. We paid all the musicians, because, you know, we knew how much musicians are struggling at this time. One of the players who would have been fabulous to hear again  – we’ve had him at Balliol before  – is a classical guitarist called Sean Shibe. Last term, we managed to fit in two [of the concerts]. One of them had a jazz quartet, called Dinosaur. 

The other artist we had was a quintet from CHINEKE! They played, amongst other things, a wonderful selection of World Music and European classical music. Part of their repertoire was Schubert’s Trout Quintet, so that was great. We’ve had to cancel people like Pavel Kolesnikov, who was supposed to be coming, and, again we paid them. We had a wonderful programme but this term, we just had to say sorry you can’t come. Here’s the money. 

Another thing we actually managed to keep going – as well as in many other colleges – was the choir. So choral music would actually remind me of pandemic; especially something like Stanford’s Beati Quorum Via. I love English choral music! 

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

HG: So, I have the disadvantage that my children are now 30 and 32. So if you had asked me this question 10 years ago when they were both students, I would have been able to answer it. The other problem I think parents have now is that, of course, the music doesn’t fill the house, you could be driving somewhere, and they’ve got their earphones in. You want to listen and you want all singing along which is also a lovely thing to do in the car. 

Are they listening to people like Robyn? It depends what kind of thing. I mean I think what’s amazing is just how broad people’s tastes are now. People can listen to sort of cheerful people like Taylor Swift, Robyn’s quite cheerful…  and then of course, there are all of these just amazing musicians – whether it’s what I think is rap or garage – I imagine people listened to quite an eclectic mix. 

MP: Personally, I can go from listening to some Dua Lipa who’s been absolutely fantastic – to listening to some of the indie rock music, like Shame, that I very much enjoy. I think the availability of the streaming services has meant people have been able to just listen to whatever they want, whenever they want, which is just fantastic.

HG: Of course, the music culture now is very different and creates a sort pretend sense of community. Is there a common canon? Now, like with so much of culture, what’s the value of a common canon?  How do you weigh that against the against the wonderful opportunity of greater diversity? I mean that’s a question in every cultural person’s head. 

MP: People do try and keep up with what’s happening the charts and stuff. There’s always like the big hits playlists on any streaming service so I think people do end up listening to some of the same artists, but then people can be  listening to things back from the 70s, or 60s, or 50s, or to more diverse and obscure artists, and even things from overseas. 

HG: It’s instant gratification! I have two children, as I say. My daughter lives and works in London. My son is in fact in Oxford, an Early Career Fellow at Jesus. And so, obviously, we haven’t seen that much then but we’re consuming, and you know, we had a brief period where we were able to go for a holiday in North Yorkshire with our son. But one of the things we always do when we’re going together on a long car journey is that [her children] put together a playlist. 

I think one of the things I was going to say – this was a song that I would associate with the pandemic year is that wonderful Taylor Swift song “London Boy”. It’s sort of a very witty song that she wrote about whichever British person – Tom Hiddleston or someone – she had been going out with; I think she’s been out with a succession of British boyfriends. She puts on a bit of a cockney accent; it’s all about going to Camden Market; “Do you fancy me?”, I mean, with a joking tone. Although I think some contemporary music just takes itself too seriously, I loved that. I had no idea about Taylor Swift before but now happily have that on my Desert Island. 

MP: Yeah, I think some people are thinking that she was referencing to Gemma Collins at one point – I found that hilarious. 

HG: So I keep up to date, but not as much as I should. 

MP: So what other music reflects your experience of the pandemic over the past year? 

HG: Like everybody, I was thinking “Right, okay, lockdown, and what do I do? Self-improvement!” There are two things I tried. One of them is intellectual, which was finishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I had meant to do for a long time. The other was to do Couch to 5k. Although I’ve been doing a bit of running over the years and have occasionally done a 5K, it was just to get me back up to speed. I did the NHS Programme and I was so proud of myself for being able to run a 5k without stopping – unfortunately, I did it so enthusiastically I then managed to hurt my ankle so I stopped and had to start again! If you asked me “what am I proud of?”. I did Couch to 5k. Okay, so going with that for a running song I would say Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (1985). Definitely one of my pandemic songs. 

Another thing was that we find ourselves shut up with our families. And in our case, you know, my husband and I – Peter is upstairs as we speak.  I can hear his tutorials because I’m downstairs in the conservatory and he’s upstairs in his study – I mean our study! – teaching something about history.  The pandemic tests whether or not you can get on and that you’ve still got things in common. We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary, last year, had a wonderful family holiday in India to celebrate. But it’s nice to discover actually, you can do it, and the sort of theme song for that would be. And this also reminds me of one of my favourite films When Harry Met Sally. “It Had to Be You”, the Frank Sinatra song (1980). (Sings) “For all your faults I love you still. I didn’t like these people who were cross or never crossed or try to be boss, it had to be you”… because we both think we’re always right.  So, definitely that one! 

MP: Finally, if you could sum up Oxford in a song, what song would you choose? 

HG: A song about Oxford or what Oxford means to me? 

MP: I’d say…both? 

HG: Good heavens, that’s a tough one. Do You ask everybody that question? 

MP: Yeah! 

HG: Let’s think… It’s got to be a piece of music that encompasses so many things. So, if you think of the city, it’s got to sum up beauty because it is a beautiful place. And it’s got to sum up, having some sense of the length of time. I will say to students, “one of the things that Oxford should give you is this sense that ‘Yes we live today, but there’s centuries of past and centuries of future and what we worry about or what we believe may seem very strange in a few years’ time, what we worry about will be trivial’”. So, it’s good to have a sense of time and space. Obviously, there’s learning, there’s thinking about the common good. 

It’s not a perfect choice, but how about Jessye Norman, one of Strauss’ Four Last Songs: beautiful, serious, thinking about the end of things as well as current. I’m just trying to remember what the last one is called… “Im Abendrot?” You could choose something English [like Alan Rusbridger], but it’s such an international university now. 

MP: I know ! When I am in my accommodation, I think I’m one of the only two Brits, which is absolutely brilliant. 

HG: Across the University, I think about 80% of the graduates are international, 20% UK, partly because – having seen my son go through all this – it’s so hard for UK students to get funding. Particularly for humanities – very, very difficult – which is why the University is focusing so much on raising funds for research scholarships and particularly for groups who are even more marginalised, such as UK black students. Undergraduates I think it’s about the reverse.

So, we’ve talked about Beethoven seven, we’ve talked about ballet music, and all the rest, and we’ve even talked about “Crocodile Rock” (laughs). 

MP: it’s a very eclectic mix we’ve got here so I’m sure people will be very eager to hear it! 

Listen to Dame Helen Ghosh’s ‘Bodleian Bangers’ Spotify mix @cherwellmusic. Image credits: Balliol College, Oxford.

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