BBC Radio 3 – The soundscape of a century of Radio 3, 1920s


This operatic aria by Puccini was first performed in 1926, but gained real mass audiences in 1990, when the BBC used a recording by Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti as the credits for its World Cup coverage football in 1990.

Steve Reich. Photo © BBC

It was truly a time when classical music and football shook hands. The aria is taken from Puccini’s opera Turandot, big-hearted Italian opera at its finest. The tenor soloist hovers above the full-bodied orchestra, as the magnificent romantic melody builds triumphantly, creating a collective lump in our throats to the heart-swelling final cry of “Vincerò!” (“I will win!”).

The recording, although over ten years old, catapulted to number two on the UK charts and Pavarotti, already an esteemed opera singer, rose to worldwide fame. Nessun Dorma became his signature song and it even received a platinum disc from footballer Bobby Charlton. The association with the opera also contributed to the image of football, which had been plagued by hooliganism. By now, football was “the beautiful game” and was beginning to be seen as an art form.

WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich (2011)

In 2001, people around the world froze in horror as the 9/11 terrorist attacks played out on their radios and televisions. The composer and New Yorker Steve Reich is deeply affected by this. He used sounds from that day to create his haunting work WTC 9/11, which combines air traffic control, police and fire department recordings with music. The music captures some of the pain, darkness and shock of the event in a short piece for string quartet and pre-recorded tape, written in tribute to the victims of the attacks.

Hannah Kendall’s Spark Catchers (2018)

Hannah Kendall’s work The Spark Catchers captures a handful of historic moments in one piece. The work is inspired by a poem written by Lemn Sissay, the poet laureate of the London 2012 Olympics, which evokes the strike of 1888 by women matchmakers who worked in a factory in east London. The poem itself is listed as public art in London’s Olympic Park.

Spark Catchers is sparkling itself, with shimmering string lines, bursts of melody and musical patterns jumping through and around the orchestra. Commissioned by the BBC, it was created at another historic moment – the first appearance of Chineke!, Europe’s first predominantly black and ethnically diverse orchestra, at the BBC Proms. The ensemble is now a regular at the Proms and BBC Radio 3.

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