Kate Chisholm

Artist and Believer

Private Passions (BBC Radio 3)

I guess it’s no surprise that, while the rest of us were twiddling the dials on our cheap plastic transistors (made in Japan) to find Radio Caroline, the future Archbishop of Canterbury as a teenager in the Sixties was tuning in to Radio Three. He was hoping to hear the first blast of the latest Benjamin Britten, live not from Glastonbury but from the Aldeburgh Festival. Dr Rowan Williams was talking to Michael Berkeley on this week’s Private Passions (Sunday), Radio Three’s antidote to celebrity chitchat. As if to prove that the Sixties were not all about the Beatles and Bob Dylan, Williams told us that he shut himself in his bedroom to hear the première of Britten’s cantata, The Burning Fiery Furnace. This parable for ‘church performance’ was inspired by the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar and the Three Israelites, who were thrown into the fire because of their refusal to worship the heathen gods. Stirring stuff, and it provoked a fascinating discussion between Williams and Berkeley about the inevitable conflict between belief and artistic expression. How can you reconcile the constraints of faith, the belief in God, and all the rules and boundaries that implies, with the imperative to question, to probe, to explore that is the essential driving force behind all creative endeavour?

Berkeley uses his programme, in which people with a public profile are asked to select pieces of music that are important to them, not to investigate the superficial glosses of a life, the tabloid tittle-tattle, but the inner workings, those deep impulses which determine character. Dr Williams is not just the head of the Church of England but also a distinguished poet; his choices — Britten, Byrd, Bach, Dowland, Mozart, Schumann and a Welsh folk song — were interwoven with readings of his own poetry and that of one of his inspirations, Geoffrey Hill.

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