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Baker's Dozen

Tour De France: Jonathan Meades Selects 13 Exercise Bike Classics
John Doran , March 6th, 2019 09:44

After a recent serious illness, writer and documentarian Jonathan Meades was prescribed 30 minutes a day on an exercise bike. He tells John Doran about his 13 favourite pieces of classical music to accompany his regimen


Sibelius - Voces intimae

Bar Mendelssohn’s piece, all of these small chamber pieces were composed by men who were growing old, were not in the best of health and were grappling with issues to do with their own mortality. Is that something that connects them in your mind?

This brings us to the idea of ‘late period’ art - A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Nabokov’s Transparent Things… but yes, I think that’s a very good point. Most of these pieces of music were composed by people very late on. They are getting down to the bones of their art, there is no padding, no spare flesh at all. Maybe it’s because I’m old now, I find myself in tune with it. I don’t know, perhaps that’s very solipsistic of me to feel that way. But there is such a thing as late period in all sorts of art. With Picasso he just got lazy and he just did scribbles but with more considered and less cynical artists I think there is a kind of reductionism and it’s not surprising because you get to a certain age and most of your friends are dead and you’re realising [LAUGHS] that you’re going to be in that state fairly soon yourself.

I feel quite loath to end this interview at such a negative point…

I don’t think it’s negative at all! I’m scared of dying in pain but I’m not scared of death. It’s absurd to be scared of death because it’s an inevitability.

It was the only string quartet of Sibelius’ mature period and he was quite pleased with it. This is what he said in a letter to a friend: “It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more."

Well there you go. I was put off Sibelius from childhood by my uncle who was very much into first generation hi-fi and had marks on the floor to show you where to put the chairs in order to listen. And he liked Grieg, Nilsson and Sibelius in that order and I find the first two appalling, really unlistenable. But bits of Sibelius seem OK. He had the marvellous Lars Sonck design a house for him. And this Quartet is very much more than OK. They really do Nordic gloom those guys. It’s the kind of music that makes Nordic Noir look positively cheerful.