REVIEW: music critic Fiona Maddocks brings a classical Desert Island Discs to LitFest

Written by Ruth Lamdin on .

Genevieve Clarke (left) with Fiona Maddocks at the LitFest event in the White Horse Bookshop (Photo copyright Ben Phillips) Genevieve Clarke (left) with Fiona Maddocks at the LitFest event in the White Horse Bookshop (Photo copyright Ben Phillips) The lovely new gallery space at the back of the White Horse Bookshop was full for Fiona Maddocks’ event at Marlborough LitFest on Saturday afternoon (September 30).  It took the format of Desert Island Discs, with Genevieve Clarke, who is a member of the LitFest committee and the programme manager of the Reading Ahead scheme at the Reading Agency, as a suitably sympathetic interviewer.


The core of the interview was Fiona’s book, Music for Life – 100 works to carry you through, which was published last year by Faber.  She described it as a  “compendium of a listening life.”

Carefully chosen classical music pieces which have been important to her, are briefly described and grouped into categories such as childhood and youth, change, love, war, grief and so on. The book is fascinatingly illustrated with black and white pictures from the vast postcard archive of Fiona’s husband, Tom Phillips.

In the course of the session we learned about Fiona’s career as a journalist and writer.  In 1992 she became the founding editor of the BBC Music Magazine, then since 1997 has been the classical music critic of The Observer.  Along the way she has written two other books, Hildegard of Bingen and Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks.

The seven extracts she chose to play for us were some of the better known and easy to listen to pieces from her collection:  Mozart’s Wind Serenade, Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin for example.

Fiona Maddocks (Photo copyright Ben Phillips) Fiona Maddocks (Photo copyright Ben Phillips) But the book offers the opportunity to sample some things we might never think of listening to, by giving a brief introduction to a composer and an example of their music. I shall certainly be testing out Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child and Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, both completely unknown to me.

Fiona had great difficulty restricting herself to 100 pieces for the book, so at the end of each section she has an Overview which lists many more potential items that we might like to explore.

I was impressed by Fiona’s fairly gentle approach to being a critic.  She sees herself as an advocate of the art form and will always attempt to find the good in a composition and its performance if at all possible.  As she emphasised, and as the book suggests, our response to music is always personal and subjective.

A book such as this would of course not have been possible only a few years ago.  But with the almost universal ownership of computers and their attendant technology all these pieces of music are available without having to purchase CD’s or records.  They can all be found on Spotify, YouTube or similar playlists.  

I think the book can be used in different ways. As an educational tool to broaden one’s knowledge of the classical repertoire, as a daily dose of aural exercise or meditation, as something to dip into when a particular mood needs enhancing or expressing with music, or just when we want something to surprise us.