Chiswick Book Festival – Idler Guide to Classical Music

On Sunday 13th September at 1:30pm, I’m talking to Sam Norman about my Idler Guide to Classical Music at the Chiswick Book Festival, St Michael & All Angels Church, Priory Avenue, London W4 1TX. There will be talking, listening, explaining, and playing – do come along! This blog entry, written for the Idler website a few months back, outlines what the book’s about:

Although I’ve been a professional musician and broadcaster for all of my adult life, most of my friends are Normal People who live in the Real World. It’s after having several conversations with them that I decided that my Introduction to Classical Music had to be written. What the book is seeking to do is to present the history of classical music in a way which would resonate with people who are engaged with the other art forms: reading novels, going to films, discussing architecture, and so on, but for whom classical music remains, well, a closed book. Rather than moving from great composer to great composer, I’m looking at four of the key eras of classical music: Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Early Twentieth Century, talking about the main developments and roles of music in each, before homing in on one work from each era and discussing it in detail.

People quite often say to me: “I listen to classical music to switch off; I don’t need to know anything about it.” That’s fair enough, and in a way I don’t blame them. But great classical music engages the head as much as the heart, and a little knowledge of context or makeup can greatly add to the emotional understanding of a piece of music. The Sanctus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass (1749) is a great example of this. At first hearing it’s a thrilling and majestic experience. But if we dig a little deeper, and find out that the number three permeates so much of the makeup of the music – it’s scored for three trumpets, three oboes, six voices and so on, and the number three dances around endlessly in the figurations of the voice parts – and realising that the threes are intimately connected with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, then our response to the music become so much deeper and richer.

Another Bach example, and one I examine in the book, is the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier (1722), also by Johann Sebastian Bach. It shows the opposite site of the composer: someone who loved the simple craft of composition, and had an almost geeky obsession with placing one note against another to create a wonderful piece of music out of limited means. This piece is entirely built on one repeated pattern: a spread-out chord, or arpeggio. There’s no melody, or rhythm, or even notated speed markings or indications of how loud or soft the music should be; all we have is that pattern, which gradually shifts across the tonal spectrum – creating tensions, resolving them, moving away from the home key and eventually returning to it. Two minutes later, Bach has exhausted all of the possibilities of this kernel of an idea. Musically, there’s nothing more to be said – which makes it for me a perfect little piece of music.

Perfection though isn’t always the point of music; sometimes it’s full of rough edges, violence and fragmentation, with disorder instead of order – this is the anti-classical side of classical music. Take Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps – the Rite of Spring (1913). It’s full of disorientating twists and turns, newly-minted chords and cliff-hanger endings. The aesthetic is different , but Stravinsky still puts the music together with incredible care and precision. This is just a different kind of masterpiece.