Music to Write Books By – Barry Forshaw

bmfnmudlEvery Friday I run a post where authors share with us the music they listen to as they write. The full list of music can be found on the dedicated Youtube channel.

Today, I have Barry Forshaw sharing his music choices. Barry is a writer, broadcaster and journalist who has written books on a wide variety of subjects, including British Crime Writing: An EncyclopediaThe Rough Guide to Crime FictionBrit NoirNordic NoirEuro Noir and Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime FictionHe also edits the popular crime fiction website, Crime Time, and writes on classical music.

Given Barry’s expertise in music, he’s helpfully suggested the best CDs to listen to and discussed the recordings’ merits. As most of these tracks aren’t available on YouTube, I’ve given some alternative links so you can get a flavour of the music he’s talking about. He’s persuasive in discussing the quality of his own chosen recording though so I can see a few purchases taking place.

Barry, thanks for taking part in this. Do you have particular pieces of music you write to?

I may be known (if at all!) as a crime fiction commentator with such books as Brit Noir, Nordic Noir and Euro Noir — but those who know me (such as the crime novelist Sarah Ward, herself a singer) are aware of my dark secret: I edit a site called Classical CD Choice ( As this might suggest, serious music is my thing (although I’m also an aficionado of jazz, film soundtracks, Broadway musicals and singers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald).

As to writing my books, such activity is always – and I mean always – done to the accompaniment of classical music. Which in the final analysis is, let’s face it, wrong – serious music should be given one’s full attention, shouldn’t it? But in the real world, one doesn’t always have the time – there are books to be written, and pieces for newspapers (I’m the crime fiction critic for the Financial Times). And one composer I listen to an inordinate amount of time is another favourite I share with Sarah Ward: Ralph Vaughan Williams.

When I was interviewing Simon Heffer about his sympathetic study of the composer, I took gentle exception to his claiming the composer for the political Right (he was adducing RVW’s quintessential Englishness); ironically, when the interview appeared and I mildly suggested that Elgar rather than Vaughan Williams might have been of a Tory nature, I received a deal of critical mail, interpreting my comment as an attack on Elgar. God forbid — I had simply tried to draw a distinction between the left-leaning Vaughan Williams (whose political persuasions and agnosticism were not automatic characteristics of his class) and the older composer. But for those like myself — who love every aspect of the composer’s work from the exquisite beauty of his string writing to the ringing brass fanfares and thundering organ passages of the ballet Job — RVW can do no wrong, Although The Lark Ascending has been voted the most popular piece of classical music in the UK, exquisite though it is, I’d suggest that a far more bracing experience may be found in the composer’s tough muscular Fourth Symphony, an orchestral tour the force that will leave you pleasurably exhausted, particularly in the white-hot performance by the late Richard Hickox. (VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: SYMPHONY NO. 4; London Symphony Orchestra , Hickox, Chandos CHSA 5003)

Has a particular piece of music ever inspired you to write something?

If I need to be jolted out of apathy and placed in a creative mood, there are three pieces by Richard Strauss, which always do the trick: Richard STRAUSS: DON JUAN,



Try the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD F707).The mastery of the orchestra which is the hallmark of Richard Strauss’s achievement is fully evident in this disc of three of the composer’s greatest tone poems, and it is a particular pleasure to enjoy this combination played with such dedication and verve here.

Could you recommend any particular pieces of music for a specific mood?

Well, if you’re writing about murder – or (in my case) writing about people write about murder, why not have your blood curdled by an astonishing and brutal piece of music which features one of the most gruesome murders in classical music, Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin? (BARTOK: ORCHESTRAL PIECES, MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION AND CELESTA, SUITE FROM‘THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN/Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/Chandos CHSA 5130). The first thing to note about these orchestral showpieces from the ever-reliable Chandos is the sheer visceral impact of the surround-sound recording. If earlier conductors (notably Dorati and Solti) have found more Hungarian panache in the scores, Bartok’s music has never sounded better in these recordings which do full justice to the immense richness of the scoring. Edward Gardner and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, a piece that took on wider recognition when it was used by Stanley Kubrick on the soundtrack of The Shining. Also on this disc is the Suite from Bartók’s dark and gritty ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. The work, featuring some of the most colourful music Bartók wrote, tells the story of three criminals who force a young woman to lure passers-by into a room where they intend to rob them. The third passer-by to enter the room is the mandarin. The men try to kill him, but only when the girl satisfies his desire do his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.


Are there any longer works you can recommend? If you need to write for an hour, for example, is there a particular composer/artist you’d chose?

For an hour of Danish music genius, I would recommend two remarkable symphonies by the composer Carl Nielsen.(NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 4 & 5, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS SACD 2028) The test (as much as anything else) of any performance of Nielsen’s dramatic Fifth Symphony is whether or not the side drum is encouraged to obey the composer’s instruction to ‘halt the progress of the orchestra’ – precisely what happens on the superb recording by Sakari Oramo, the first since the legendary Jascha Horenstein version on Unicorn to really take the composer at his word. The disc (in superb surround sound) also boasts a splendid version of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just about finished American Noir (so I listened to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin), and I’m polishing Italian Cinema – so Respighi is a good fit for this. The Italian composer was the finest composer of purely orchestral music from a country best known for its opera composers and the sheer orchestral colour of his music never ceases to exhilarate. Notably his Roman Trilogy: (RESPIGHI – ROMAN TRILOGY: FONTANE DI ROMA/PINI DI ROMA/FESTE ROMANE, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/ John Neschling/BIS SACD 1720). The Roman Trilogy (the tone poems Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals) is one of the most breathtaking sequences of orchestral showpieces in the repertoire, and its rich opulence is finally emerging from the cloud of sniffy disapproval it suffered under. This amazing recording – quite the most breathtaking the trilogy has ever enjoyed — will hasten that process. Thrillingly, the recording engineers have utilised multiple channels to the full on the Super Audio recording (brass blazes from the rear channels, rather than those channels just being used for ambience) – with the volume turned up, your pulse is likely to be racing. Neschling’s highly recommendable set may, however, require the registering of a few caveats: an amazing sound stage, as noted, but a recessed organ and some undercharged elements such as the Neapolitan tune, played in rather straight-laced fashion. But these are small points; many moments (such as the cataclysmic finales) absolutely take the breath away. A truly exhilarating disc.

Perhaps, though, not music to write to…

Thanks, Barry, for taking part and good luck with American Noir and Italian Cinema. Barry can be found on social media via the links below.

Twitter: @BarryForshaw3

Website: www.

10 thoughts on “Music to Write Books By – Barry Forshaw

  1. Margot Kinberg

    I love the power of these choices! They really do evoke the different moods and stages of writing. Thanks, as always, for this feature, Sarah. And thanks, Barry, for sharing.


  2. Adam Creed

    Excellent piece and The VW4 is on my list of things to acquire.
    Music is a constant for me while I’m writing. There’s no such thing as silence, so I need to choose a sound to block all others out.


  3. beryl Foster

    Some great choices, Barry. Unfortunately, as a writer ABOUT music, I find the spoken word (Radio 4) is the only accompaniment I can tolerate!


  4. I love Vaughan Williams too! Love the way he takes relatively simple folk tunes and turns them into something altogether deeper and more complex. My own standout favourite is the Thomas Tallis, but I have a whole CD of other stuff – Lark Ascending (of course), Norfolk Rhapsody etc) and love them all. Thanks to Barry for a fascinating post.


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