Interview: Rob Cowan, presenter of Radio 3’s Breakfast

by
17 February 2010

I’m a writer and a broadcaster. My first ambition was to be an aircraft pilot, but I got ill with rheumatic fever when I was 12, and was off school for a year. That put paid to that.

While I was convalescing — I was a keen rock-’n’-roll fan — I discovered Wagner. It was an LP my grandfather brought back from America called 50 Years of Music America Loves Best, and it alternated classical tracks with rock ’n’ roll and jazz. This track was the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, conducted by Toscanini. After that, I saved up my pocket money and bought an LP of Wagner, and then Bach’s organ music played by Albert Schweitzer. I loved Bach.

I was quite a spiritual child — I was the oldest of four boys. Quite intro­verted. I started work at 17, and then taught myself everything. I did attend evening classes for a while on the violin and cello — messed about on both. That’s all I can call it.

I think of myself as a writer first and foremost, and my subject is music.

I have the urge to communicate music because I think it makes things better for people, makes the world a better place, takes people to places beyond words. I work through words, and encourage through words, hoping that that will launch people into the music.

I started work in a PR agency that had clients as diverse as a cake-mix company, a philharmonic orchestra, and a modelling agency. Then I promoted Hungarian music on the Pergamon label, but ended up in music publishing, working for Boosey & Hawkes for many years. I became the main contributor on a trade paper called Classical Express in 1984, and also wrote for Gramophone mag­azine (I still write for it now), and used to be a regular music critic for The Independent, going round Europe interviewing musicians.

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I did my first broadcast on Classic FM on Indian music. I worked with Keith Shadwick for three years doing the Friday Night Review, and then Roger Wright approached me to join the BBC on CD Masters. I did that for a little over six years, and then started Breakfast, which has been going for just about three years.

I think Roger Wright wanted me because I didn’t sound like other Radio 3 presenters — though I think my colleagues are marvellous. But what I say is what I want to tell people about the music — not what I’ve been told to tell them. I won’t have that. Sometimes some people say, “Aren’t you going a bit over the top?” but most people seem to like my style.

Being a broadcaster, you listen to your colleagues in a different way — to their technique, how they couch certain things, voice patterns, and so on. One of my favourites is Jonathan Swain; I worked with him on CD Review. Others are Tom Service, Louise Fryer, and Penny Gore. Sara Mohr-Pietsch is one of the bright­est of the younger generation with endless potential; and of the older generation, the one who gave me most appetite for broadcasting my­self is Edward Greenfield — he made you feel that music was a lovely meal you couldn’t wait to get tucked into.

I always reply to letters and cards. I don’t mind the interactive element of broadcasting, but I do like it to mean something. There are interesting themes: clichés was one, and really interesting questions like “What mu­sic gives you spiritual sustenance?” or “What music changed your life?” They can prompt an extremely thought-provoking response.

I certainly don’t look younger, but perhaps my voice sounds younger. I’m coming up for 62 in April. I married in 1971; so I’ve been married for 38 years, and we have two daugh­ters, aged 32 and 29.

My wife’s an artist. I can talk to her about music and she can talk to me about art, and we both have an inter­est in aspects of literature; so we can communicate in a very strong way about these things, and that’s a huge bonus.

My great influence in my 30s, 40s, and 50s was Søren Kierkegaard. I was absolutely enthralled by his books: Works of Love, Either/Or, his journals. . . His attitude to Chris­tianity was that it wasn’t a comfort zone. You had almost to imagine you were a contemporary of Christ, and the demands on you were a totally selfless love. He attacked the Danish Church because he thought people run­ning it were just in it for the com­fort of it.

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Some 20th-century sacred music I connect with very much. I inter­viewed Arvo Pärt and got to know him a little bit in Cologne. There’s a kind of Kierkegaardian austerity about his music. And do you know Mortensen? And there’s Steve Reich and his Tehillim — a setting of the Psalms — which I absolutely adore.

I don’t like soft-option religion, I’m afraid. Kierkegaard understood wor­ship in a universal, under-the-stars sense, not in any temple of any sort. But I have a great respect for people who have an austere and selfless at­titude towards religion. Not happy-clappy. Not indulgent. Ascetic, I sup­pose.

I have to leave here at 5.20 a.m. for Breakfast; so I try to get everything in order — just a bit of cereal and a cocktail of pills — and the BBC sends a car for me. I’m in by six, and go through the papers with my producer and fish out stories that might be relevant and interesting. I’ve got five big drawers of my own CDs in the office downstairs, and bring a ruck­sack of CDs which have been sent to me. I do provide an awful lot of the material played on the pro­gramme.

My front room is totally ludicrous — there’s so much music in it — and now there’s going to be a shed.

I’ve got a very sweet tooth, but dark chocolate is good for you, isn’t it?

There are so many places in the Bible to love, for so many different reasons — the Psalms, Exodus, Proverbs, Job, the Passion stories. I love the tales of the Hasidim and Talmudic writing, and the Mishnah, where the writers show incredible ingenuity in getting round the law if you couldn’t keep it because of your personal circum­stances. These interpretations lend to the biblical text a luminous quality.

My background was Jewish, though we weren’t practising. My mother’s parents were from the Ukraine. My mother herself was an almost pantheistic person, who loved the story of Jesus. I was also drawn to Christianity — even through people like Nietzsche, who, after all, was a pastor’s son.

I do pray. Silently. Anywhere. I have no place to pray, certainly not in a temple, but there are words and patterns that I use. It’s difficult to describe — it’s so intimately tied up with the depths of my con­sciousness, where I sense that there is nothing that can’t be under­stood, no­thing that can’t be forgiven. It’s very personal, very spon­taneous, always in English, never in Hebrew. Something to do with Wallace Stevens’s “idea of God in a godless world” which is so far beyond my under­standing, and yet so capable of understanding me.

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I think the reason why sacred music is so popular now is that it conveys the essence of religion without the embar­rassment of words. I love playing with words, of course, but music helps you make the leap to other states of mind. I don’t believe Bach could have written the St Matthew Pas­sion if he had not been a believer. There’s something of awe, belief, and humility in the music — the same spirit in Bruckner, Mozart, and Haydn — something comes through which would not be there if he hadn’t had a feeling about a deity.

One thing I’m certainly not is cynical — in fact I’ve been criticised for not being cynical enough. But we are more resourceful than we think. We are spiritual — but we need, per­haps, to redefine our houses of reli­gion if we are going to win God back to the hearts of sensitive people — something we are not doing right now.

One thing worries me: computer communications are often very superficial, and now we have Face­book, and so on. People commun­icate screen to screen and not face to face, so that an essential perspective in human relationships is being lost. Technology is devaluing the way we communicate with each other.

The obvious things that make me angry are injustice, pettiness, intol­er­ance (though there’s a contra­diction in that). I try not to be in­tolerant myself. I love listening to other people, and that’s when you learn most. It’s incredibly enriching when people take trouble to find out what other people think, even being patient with the weakness and foibles of others.

I’m happiest when I think I’ve given other people pleasure, when I think I’ve done something well, been useful. And when I share things with people. That’s an aspect of the programme I love.

As for being locked in a church, I’m more worried about boring someone silly than choosing someone who wouldn’t bore me. And lots of people I like were notoriously reticent. Witt­genstein, for instance. I don’t think he’d be much use. But I wouldn’t mind being locked in a church with Stephen Fry. There are so many aspects to him — poetry, music, cul­ture. And Artur Schnabel, the great pianist who was the first to record all the Beethoven piano son­atas, and said so much through his playing, but was also a very inter­esting Modernist composer. I hope people might look him up.

Rob Cowan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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