Esther Chadwick: Castaway

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

What better way to illuminate the theme of ‘islands’ than by re-enacting Desert Island Discs? Radio 4’s much-loved series has been entertaining the British public since 1945, and today it stands as a treasured tune-in across the country. My castaway is Dr Esther Chadwick, who kindly agreed to share her choice of eight discs, a book and a luxury item, along with some insights into her interests and ambitions. Her song choices, she states, are selected not only because she loves them deeply, but because they say something about her history.

Seated in the National Gallery, following our ‘Possibilities of Portraiture’ class, Esther began by describing her specialism:

I’m interested in the eighteenth century because of its paradoxes and contradictions. On one hand, it’s seen as a century of freedom, enlightenment and progress, but on the other, it is a century that witnesses, for example, the height of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s this dialectic I’m interested in, and I think nothing better illuminates it than art history.

In the past, I’ve worked on the relationship between portraiture and slavery, precisely as a site for negotiating this tension between civility, politeness, wealth, and the dark side of the Enlightenment. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” as Walter Benjamin said.

Song 1 - J. S. Bach, St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (composed 1727) [Recording: John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir, 1989].

My first choice of music, in fact, was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century by probably my favourite composer: J. S. Bach. This piece is incredibly meaningful to me. As a child I was a chorister – I sang in Leeds Parish Church Choir – and singing has always been with me. This is a piece that I first sang as a member of the so-called ripieno chorus, a children’s chorale that comes in on top of the main orchestral and choral texture. Singing a blazing, trumpet-like chorale over this stormy, very intense sound, I will never forget the experience of being in that ripieno choir for the first time.

How old were you when you first started singing?

I guess I’d always been singing, but when I joined the girls’ choir I was a founding member (of the course the boys had been going forever!), I must have been about twelve or thirteen.

Song 2 - Bach, Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (published 1741) [Recording: Glenn Gould, 1955].

The second track that I’ve chosen goes to show you how much I love Bach, but I discovered him as a child. I used to rifle through my parents’ collection and listen to these pieces of music over and over again. I always come back to these works as a kind of meditation whenever I’m feeling stressed out. They are oases of calm amidst the storm.

Illustration by Naomi Jennings - O'Toole

That’s great that your first two songs not only remind you of your childhood but of what piqued your interest in eighteenth-century art.

Yes! And it has to be said that part of being attracted to the eighteenth century is that it’s the period these pieces of music came from.

Song 3 - Bobby Short, ‘I’m in Love Again’ from Bobbie Short Loves Cole Porter (1971).

My third choice takes us into my present, and it’s Bobby Short. It’s a fantastically romantic, schmaltzy but brilliantly executed song. It’s witty and theatrical. And it reminds me of my partner – we love this song together.

Song 4 - Gustav Mahler, 5th Symphony, (composed 1901-2), [live recording: Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic in 1988].

This piece of music I remember hearing very vividly at Birmingham Symphony Hall when I was fourteen. I had made the choice to go to boarding school, but I really didn’t like it at all. There was a trip to go to Birmingham to see Simon Rattle conduct the BSO, and it was while listening to the Mahler that I realised I needed to change my course of action and go back to school in Leeds. The music made a connection to something much bigger than my present worries and it spurred me to action.

Song 5 - Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (composed 1741), bass aria in Part III, ‘Behold I tell you a Mystery’ and ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ [Recording: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Clare College Cambridge, 2006].

So, my fifth track takes us up to my time studying art history at Cambridge. I always knew I wanted to study art history; I’d loved making art at school but also thinking about its historical context. While I was at university, I was also a choral scholar at Clare College. I was singing in the chapel choir alongside my degree most nights of the week so, for my fifth track, I’d like to choose a recording that I made with Clare Choir. The Messiah is a bit of a cliché – we hear the Hallelujah chorus and think, oh god, not that again! But there are some incredibly magical moments. It reminds me of singing with my fellow students at Cambridge, and we toured with this piece.

Where did you go?