Laureation address: Mr Donald Macleod

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music
Laureation by Dr Michael Downes

Thursday 22 June 2017

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, Donald Macleod.

I read when I was researching this laureation that Donald Macleod speaks at a rate of 174 words per minute. I have been given a maximum of three minutes to sum up his long and distinguished broadcasting career, so I hope you will forgive me if I speak a little faster than that! The ‘174 words’ statistic is a small indication of the consummate professionalism that has seen Donald become one of Britain’s most respected classical music presenters. He is perhaps best known for his work on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, and here a few more statistics that are the most economical way of conveying the magnitude of Donald’s achievement: the programme appears five times a week, fifty-two weeks a year, and Donald has been its sole presenter since 1999, so in the last eighteen years he has recorded more than 4,500 programmes covering composers from Arne to Zemlinsky and everything in between. This achievement is more impressive even than it initially seems, since Donald does not merely present but himself writes the scripts for each of those programmes. Each script draws on a huge amount of research in which Donald is ably supported by a team in Cardiff, but the credit for the informative, illuminating and entertaining way in which the scripts navigate each composer’s output belongs to Donald himself. His ability to speak about classical music in a way that neither puts off the less experienced listener with technical detail nor glosses over the complexity of the work or the demands it makes of us is very rare indeed.

Depending on one’s perspective, one might argue that his lack of formal musical qualifications makes this ability either more or less surprising, but we can certainly agree that the Master of Arts in Psychology that he took from this university in 1977 – exactly 40 years ago this week – must have helped to develop his equally famed ability to coax the best from those he interviews. Not only have many of today’s leading composers – John Adams, Steve Reich, Peter Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave, Judith Weir, Sally Beamish, to name but a few – appeared with Donald as Composers of the Week, he has also interviewed many of the world’s great singers, instrumentalists and conductors as well as opera designers and directors as part of his role as a presenter. He joined the BBC straight from St Andrews, his first job involving creating often outlandish sound effects in plays for the Radio Drama department. He began his career as a presenter in 1982 on Radio 3, adding television experience to his portfolio two years later when he worked for BBC1’s news and current affairs programme 60 Minutes as a reporter and newsreader. Donald was Head of Presentation on Radio 3 for four years, and in May 1996 he took up the challenge of setting up and presenting Through the Night, Radio 3’s first 24-hour broadcasting service. He has presented countless Prom concerts and live broadcasts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra from all over the world, and is a particularly familiar figure in his native Scotland owing to his annual broadcasts from the Edinburgh International Festival, where he presents the majority of the live lunchtime recitals from the Queen’s Hall as well as concerts from the Usher Hall and the Festival Theatre.

He has been a crucial figure in the gradual evolution of the role of Radio 3 broadcasters from mere announcers to genuine presenters, winning the trust of producers and editors who encouraged him to write his own scripts. He delivers these with a calm assurance that have made him one of the best loved voices on radio, and he has a legendary ability to summarise even the most convoluted opera plot in such a way that the characters’ behaviour sounds almost reasonable.

His achievements have been recognised by several broadcasting awards, including a special award in 2007 from The Voice of the Viewer and Listener for Excellence in Broadcasting and another in 2014 for Best Music and Arts Programme, but perhaps the greatest monument to his achievement is the worldwide recognition of the unique radio programme he has done so much to shape.

All of us who believe that a dissemination of music and the arts is vitally important to a healthy society owe Donald a huge debt, and so Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to broadcasting and classical music, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, on Donald Macleod.

Dr Michael Downes
Director of Music

Response from Mr Donald Macleod

This is a truly awesome day. I’m conscious that whenever a broadcaster is given a platform there is a danger you may not be able to get rid of him. I promise to be mercifully brief, I hope.

I never dreamed, sitting down there 40 years ago almost exactly to the day, that I would one day be standing up here with these so magnificently robed gentlemen and ladies.

I realised just a few days ago that my mother always had the ambition for me to be a doctor. She had in mind, I think, more of a Doctor Finlay figure, but I realised that finally, she has got her wish. 

What I have to say, really consists of a series of "thank-you's". I’m conscious that in certain circumstances, in the Oscars for instance, I think two years ago, in order to get the performers to shut up and move on, they started to play the theme from Jaws. I’m just hoping that I don’t hear any of that terrifying music while I speak.

My first thanks must of course go to this glorious, amazing, long-lived institution, the University of St Andrews itself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that someone, who during his undergraduate days here was known by some of his friends – and I emphasise that they were friends – as "motor mouth", I am finding difficulty in finding just the words to express the extent of my humility and appreciation of this award.

One man stands out because it was his strange idea that I should be proposed for this degree, to the Senatus Academicus, and I am absolutely delighted that he’s up in the balcony able to be with us today. His name is Professor David Meldrum, also formally of this parish. David, I thank you from the depths of my heart.

No man, of course, is an island, and all of you, my fellow graduands, know that only too well. There are so many ways in which we derive support, material and otherwise from our family, loved ones and friends. And to all of those who have helped me in the incredibly generous, supportive and tolerant way that they have – because I can be incredibly irritating – I thank them publically now. 

As Michael alluded to, there’s a certain unfairness I represent, as it were, the tip of the iceberg really, because I am the voice that you hear if you should ever have the misfortune to turn on Radio 3 at a certain time of day. The programme is repeated, so even if you escape the first broadcast, there’s a serious danger of getting it the second time around. I write the stuff and I speak it, but I have the most marvellously talented and knowledgeable group. Only a handful, a literal handful of them, based in the BBC in Cardiff, without which the programmes would not be what they are. And it’s similarly a great delight to have Chris Taylor, who heads up that team, present today to share this amazing occasion.

There’s a certain feeling, I guess, an expectation that some old greybeard, or indeed whitebeard like me, will offer you amazing pearls of wisdom. I do not presume to do that. The world which you are about to enter is so different from the one which I entered 40 years ago that I can offer you – particularly in these extraordinary times – no compass whatsoever.

What I am acutely conscious of is in the time I’ve been in the BBC – rather disgracefully it does display an extraordinary lack of initiative for 40 years come September that half of that time was freelance – it’s a bit like a giant pinball machine. I mean you go in at a certain point, and you have in mind a certain destination, but chance and various means of propulsion tend to make one deviate and ricochet around the place. So I think I’ve had nine different jobs, but I’ve had absolute glory and immense pleasure and satisfaction of presenting this remarkable programme, which has run for 70 years, for the last nearly 20 years, and so much of that is down to luck. If you have a fraction of the kind of luck I’ve had in your careers, you will be fortunate indeed.

And so on this special day, I wish you all the luck in the world.