Stephen fry – incomplete and utter history of classical music


I’d like to thank Classic FM’s Managing Director, Roger Lewis, for the opportunity, the time and the never-ending encouragement to work on the Incomplete amp; Utter History, as well as Darren Henley for both the original idea and the generous support. Also at Classic FM, a big thank you to Kate Juxon for all her help, as well as Gues Pearman and Jo Wilson. A huge thank you to my commissioning editor, Emma Marriott, who, from day one, has given me nothing but support and encouragement on this project. I’d also like to express gratitude to the copy-editor Christine King and designers Sean Garrehy and Jonathan Baker. Finally, I’d like to give a big thanks and a sloppy wet kiss to Siobhan, Millie, Daisy and Finn, for letting me have so much time in ‘the den’. Love ‘n’ thanks.

Johann Sebastian Bach is quoted as once saying, ‘It’s easy to play musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the time and the instrument will play itself.’ To some extent, I agree with him. I’m pretty sure I could master the techniques necessary to be lord over, say, a recorder or a mouth organ. I could press the right buttons, probably, and who knows, maybe even manage ‘Frere Jacques’ before long. The part over which I almost certainly hold no dominion, though, is the part that happens both before and after you’ve touched the piano key or covered the recorder hole. The bit that says, ‘Play this not only now, but like this.’ Then says, ‘And phrase it like this.’ Even, ‘and draw this out of the note to make people subconciously think back to that part of the tune three bars kick.’ That’s the bit that reminds me that, yes, Bach did have his flutter tongue firmly in his cheek.

The Greeks knew this. They had their nine Muses, each shedding a light on

one particular area of ‘mousike’ – that is the art of the Muse, eovering not just music and dance but all areas of arts, science and, generally, learning. Hence, words like music and museum (even mystery) have an original connection to the works of the Muses. I sometimes wonder if it’s a knowledge of this that intimidates me so much in the area of music. At school, one of my greatest regrets was my inability to produce

Any two notes, in order, which could be said to resemble a tune. One note? Fine, I could produce one note with the best of them, possibly not a very nice note, admittedly, and occasionally attractive to passing wildlife, but nevertheless, a note all the same. It was only when I had to produce two or more notes, in succession, in tune, that I had any problems. Serious problems, actually, hence I tended to shut up, to not join in, to mime even. My music had charms to ‘seethe’ the savage breast, if you like.

So, at an early age, it was decided to leave it to the experts, let them get on with it. They seemed to be doing a good job. And besides, there was one branch of music at which I excelled. I think I’m not being unduly immodest if I were to say many thought I showed early promise in this area. Indeed, sometimes, so accomplished did I become in this particular musical discipline that I more than momentarily considered taking it up professionally. The area I’m talking about, of course, at which I consider myself of Olympic standard, no less, is… listening.

Listening to classical music. I could do it, in the words of Voltaire, ‘jusqu’a ce que les vaches viennent a la maisorC. And how right he was.

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Stephen fry – incomplete and utter history of classical music