a common reader

Stephen Fry’s Classical Music

· 25 December 2015 |  by Maarten
· Published in: English texts · FOCUS · geschiedenis · muziek

Stephen Fry's Incomplete and Utter History of Classical MusicStephen Fry & Tim Lihoreau
Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music

Stephen the Fry

Stephen Fry is of course a world-renowned (in Britain at least) media figure, famed culture lover, vocal proponent of Enlightenment values, actor and comedian, and quiz master.1 So you can imagine my delight when on a sunny November morning in lovely Cambridge I passed a second hand book store, and this colourful book caught my eye.

The dancing letters on the cover and the over-the-top ramblings which I unavoidably encountered on the first page I opened almost conspired to make me think the better of it. Luckily, I quickly put my stuffy thoughts aside.

British Humour

Where first I saw rambling, I quickly found light-heartedness and British humour. Which is quite refreshing in the often overly serious world of classical music lovers (at least, that’s often my perception in Belgium). This book does away with any stuffiness, perceived or otherwise; indeed taking itself serious is the last thing it can be accused of. And it communicates all the more effective for it! Here’s a paragraph on Mozart the wonder child:

The big thing in 1764, musically speaking, was the little thing, as it were. The first offerings of the eight-year-old Mozart. You can just imagine him being patronized by people who didn’t quite realize the genius they had in front of them. ‘Awwww, little Wibbly-Wobbly Amnipoopot Mozart… aww… have you got some music for the nice people… have you?… have you?… Oh, it’s a full symphony, right. In, er, four movements. Good. For full orchestra. Right. Good. Well. Let’s hear it then.’ Then, quietly, under their breath, ‘Clever little sod.’

It is a deeply personalised account of classical music history. Haydn is quickly put aside as boring, while Wagner receives not only inordinate amounts of attention, but even an eye-catching font of his own. Fry’s love for opera pervades the pages.

This didn’t bother me too much. It is, after all, an honest way to deal with this age-old and unavoidable truth in music tastes: de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. Rather than aim for a ‘fair and balanced’ approach, Fry tries to get across some of his love for classical music culture. The best proof of his success is that I quite often put the book aside to look up some piece of music about which my curiosity had been piqued.

What did bother me, though, is that there are quite a few pages where Fry — or rather, his stand-in author, Lihoreau — doesn’t have much of interest to say at all, so that he’s at times positively rattling off all the years he feels obliged to cover.

Also, forced wit is no longer funny. After a while, the silly attempts at silly humour became really tedious. Call me stuffy, but Britishness is no excuse for this. Lest I be accused of inconsistency, though, I should hasten to add that I still appreciated the overall effect.

Classical Music and European History

Much of classical music is best appreciated with an understanding of the historic circumstances in which it came to be. For example, why music used to exist almost exclusively in the realm of the Church, and how it slowly but inexorably found its way into other domains of life. Or the role that Napoleon played in Beethoven’s life.

Thus it is entirely natural that this music history is interspersed with European history. Completely in tune with the rest of the book, it is a personally handpicked understanding of that history — in which, for instance, Fry’s love of the Enlightenment really comes across. It is a bit too England-centric for my continental tastes, but hey, what could I expect? A more deeply British personality than Fry would be hard to find. (Russel Brand? :-p)

To close, I ‘d like to quote a paragraph that speaks of The Ninth — and for itself:

It’s said that at the first performance, with Beethoven himself conducting, the piece came to a close after a somewhat ragged performance, in which the orchestra and the chorus had even got out of sync with each other. Nevertheless, get to the end they did and Beethoven put down his baton, somewhat physically drained from trying to keep his brand-new work together. At this point, he didn’t really know how it had gone. He was, remember, totally deaf now. He apparently looked deflated and a little disappointed. It was left to a young alto soloist from the chorus — Caroline, her name was — to come across to make him aware of how it had been received. She walked across and physically turned him round 180 degrees. It was only at this point that Beethoven realized quite what a hit his new symphony had been. The entire audience was on its feet, clapping like there was no tomorrow. Many in the crowd at this point realized that Beethoven had been unaware of the applause, and this made them clap even louder. To Ludwig, the applause seemed to go on for years. Now he knew his symphony had arrived.


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  1. I’m devastated to learn that he’ll no longer present QI.

    In case you don’t know Stephen Fry yet, check out at least the IQ-squared debate on “The Catholic Church is a force for good”.