Desert Island Discs: the most popular classical music choices
We reflect on the programme’s most popular choices, and the BBC Music Magazine team choose the pieces they would happily be stranded on an island with.
As we approach the end of the 75th anniversary year of the legendary BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs, we look back on some of the most popular classical music choices from over 3,000 episodes – not forgetting the show's main attraction, the Desert Island Discs theme tune.
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’
One of the most well-known works by Beethoven, there is little surprise this one has made the list. First performed in 1824, it was the final complete symphony written by Beethoven. Its title, ‘choral’, comes from the fact that it was the first major example of a composer using voices within a symphony. Its final movements feature four vocal soloists and a chorus, with words taken from ‘Ode to Joy’, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785.
Chosen by conductor Claudio Abbado in 1980 and author Alice Walker in 2013.
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor
An incredibly intense piece, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was premiered at the end of 1900. The premiere of his first symphony in 1987 had been tremendously poorly received, leading Rachmaninov to suffer a psychological breakdown. The composer’s return to health was marked by this piano concerto, which was dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, the physician he had worked with.
Chosen by founder of the Samaritans Chad Varah in 1992 and actress and singer Gracie Fields in 1961.
Schubert String Quintet in C major
Sometimes known as a ‘cello quintet’ because of its scoring for an additional cello instead of the conventional extra viola, Schubert’s final chamber work is the only string quartet in his repertoire, despite him having written 15 string quartets. It was thought that Schubert chose the key of C major for his string quintet because he was inspired by Mozart and Beethoven’s quintets in the same key.
Chosen by pianist Sir András Schiff in 1999 and biologist Dr Richard Dawkins in 1995.
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, ‘Pastoral’
Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is known as the ‘Pastoral’ symphony because of Beethoven’s infatuation with nature, with each movement reflecting an aspect of countryside living. The second movement, Szene am Bach (Scene by the brook) features motifs imitating babbling brooks, and woodwind cadenzas imitating the sounds of bird calls, whilst the fourth movement depicts a ferocious thunderstorm. Beethoven composed this symphony at the same time as his much more dramatic fifth symphony.
Chosen by author Margaret Atwood in 2003 and pianist John Lill in 1970.
Elgar Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
The mark of any good show of patriotism. The uproarious Trio from Elgar’s March No. 1 contains the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, arguably one of Britain’s finest musical exports, and one that has become a part of ceremonies worldwide. It was first played at a graduation ceremony in 1905 at Yale University where Elgar was being awarded an honorary doctorate of music. The title of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Othello; ‘pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’.
Chosen by tennis player Fred Perry in 1952 and politician and Prime Minister John Major in 1992.
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, ‘Emperor’
It appears that many of these popular selections are taken from composers’ final output of music – clearly there’s a magic ingredient in the music of one’s latter years. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was his last completed piano concerto, premiered in 1811. It was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, the patron of the arts who later became the Archbishop of Olomouc, and most importantly in this context was Beethoven’s patron and pupil. The title ‘Emperor’ was not Beethoven’s choice but was coined by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto.
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Chosen by children’s author Jacqueline Wilson in 2005 and pianist Peter Donohoe in 1988.
Elgar Enigma Variations – Variation IX, ‘Nimrod’
In 1898, Elgar began composing fourteen orchestral variations on an original theme, each dedicated to a close acquaintance. The title ‘Enigma’ was chosen by Elgar himself, and this enigma never been solved – it is supposedly a hidden melody. The ninth variation ‘Nimrod’ is dedicated to music editor August Jaeger, who had helped Elgar through a low ebb when he struggled to continue composing. Jäger translates as ‘hunter’ in German, and Nimrod refers to an Old Testament figure known for being a mighty hunter. The piece is often used in funerals and memorials because of its reflective tone, but was also performed at the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Chosen by sailor Sir Ben Ainslie in 2014 and pop legend Sir Elton John in 1986.
Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A major
Beethoven and survival on a desert island appear to go hand in hand, if these choices are anything to go by. The second movement, Allegretto, is most often chosen by castaways, and has long been the most popular of the four movements, often played away from the complete symphony. It also featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech in a very fitting tribute to King George VI’s journey in overcoming his stammer, beginning in a very sombre style, before growing into the swelling melodies Beethoven is so famous for.
Chosen by writer and illustrator Judith Kerr in 2004 and actor Kelsey Grammar in 2017.
Our Desert Island Discs:
Oliver Condy, Editor
Britten: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
One of the pieces that first got me genuinely excited about classical music – there was a time I played it on loop on my Walkman.
Fauré: Fantaisie for flute and orchestra
My brother once practised this beautiful gem every day for six months – it has remained rooted in my brain ever since…
Widor: Marche pontificale from Symphony No. 1 for organ
This was played at the end of term by my director of music on our chapel organ – it made me want to take up the instrument. Which I did.
Mozart: Sonata for four hands in B-flat major
My dad and I still rattle through this when I visit – we’ve been sight-reading it for 35 years and our performance hasn’t improved much with time.
Jeremy Pound, Deputy editor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Allegro Molto Vivace
This was the first symphony I ever got to know as a youngster and, several decades on, it still moves me more than any other
Howells: Collegium Regale Te Deum
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
I will gladly eulogise for hours about Howells, a favourite of mine since I was a chorister at New College, Oxford. This is the great choral genius at his most inventive.
Ravel: Piano Trio – Final: Animé
The one piece that, above all others, introduced me to the true wonders of chamber music. The last movement is as uplifting as it is utterly thrilling.
Vierne: Symphony No. 1 – Final
I decided that I was going to have this thundering organ masterpiece at my wedding long before I actually met the person I would eventually marry. Thankfully, she agreed…
Rebecca Franks, Reviews editor
Thanks to Mendelssohn I discovered how much fun chamber music could be, particularly when played with a bunch of friends. Those energetic, expectant opening bars always make me smile.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Life without Beethoven? No thanks. If I can only pick one piece, I’ll go for the Ninth Symphony. The Ode to Joy might be just the thing to lift the spirits when stuck on a lonely island.
Bernstein: West Side Story
Songs from Bernstein’s brilliant musical were a staple of my school’s choir concerts – I can still picture the handwritten arrangements we sang from.
Schubert: Fantasie in F minor
I first came across this miraculous piece when I was a teenager and played it with a pianist friend. I love Schubert’s sublime harmonies, and also this music simply brings back happy memories.
Neil McKim, Production editor
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 – Allegretto
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
As a hopeless player in the back row of my school orchestra I tried playing this. It left a lasting impression as a wonderful, uplifting piece of music.
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto – Allegro
Julian Bliss (clarinet), Royal Northern Sinfonia/Mario Venzago
One of the most popular classical pieces of all time and deservedly so, I never tire of listening to this.
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
LSO/Sir Adrian Boult
On a desert island, Vaughan Williams would be a much-needed reminder of home. To me, this piece always evokes English summer scenery.
Bach: Passacaglia in C minor
Peter Hurford (organ)
I heard this at Bath Abbey as a teenager and the whole building felt like it was shaking – it was amazing.
Freya Parr, Editorial assistant
Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
This was the first piece I ever conducted (albeit badly) with a full orchestra. It sparked a love for conducting that has never left me.
Georges Hüe: Fantaisie pour flute et piano
A handmade recording of Emilia Parr
My little sister followed in my flute-playing footsteps, and the first time she played this my jaw hit the floor – her tone was crystal clear and irritatingly sublime. I’ve never heard it played as well.
John Adams Harmonium
Live recording: BBC Proms 2017
This 2017 Prom marked my return to the UK from my travels to commence a wonderful summer of concerts! It would make a great accompaniment for stargazing on the island.
Bernstein West Side Story Symphonic Dances
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Ever since I conducted my university’s production of West Side Story, these dances have accompanied my walks with my dog Bill ever since. He loves the Mambo.
To listen to our playlist of Desert Island Discs, click here.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.