Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music (Stephen Fry and Tim Lihoreau)

--The blurb--
"In his Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music, Stephen Fry presents a potted and [...] rambling 700-year history of classical music and the world as we know it. Along this musical journey he casually throws in references to pretty much whatever takes his fancy, from the Mongol invasion of Russia and Mr Khan (Genghis to his friends), the founding of the MCC, the Black Death (which once again became the new black in England), to the heady revolutionary atmosphere of Mozart's Don Giovanni and the deep doo-doo that Louis XVI got into (or 'du-du' as the French would say).
It's all here - Ambrose and early English plainsong, Bach, Mozart (beloved of mobile phones everywhere), Beethoven, Debussy, Wagner (the old romantic), right up to the present day."

--The review--
"Stephen Fry...national treasure...", opens a certain Weebl video. And certainly very few could argue with that. Beloved by many, he frequently graces our television screens, not least as part of legendary comedies Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, as well as (more recently) on intellectual TV pop quizzes such as QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. He also regularly graces the nation's bookshelves thanks to his autobiographies and books on poetry. In 2004, he released his Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music in partnership with Tim Lihoreau, a musician who works closely with radio station Classic FM. Although the book is ghostwritten by Lihoreau, Fry's inimitable style and humour comes through strongly, and the idiosyncratic and at times paradoxical nature of this is also encapsulated in the book's title, which combines modesty and deliberately gross exaggeration in equal measure.

This Lihoreau-Fry lovechild has many merits, presenting the history of classical music in a concise and accessible manner. As Fry rightly points out on multiple occasions in the tome, there's nothing wrong with accessibility. So what if someone only knows Grieg's Hall Of The Mountain King from the Alton Towers advert? It's better than not knowing it at all. However, one could also argue that it's a little like reading Harry Potter or Twilight: great if you're reading, but not so great if you never move on to anything else. One of the many joys of classical music (and indeed almost any music) is the seemingly endless scope for the analysis of different interpretations, and just as many of us have multiple copies of Cry Me A River, Summertime, Blackbird or Somewhere Over The Rainbow kicking around, we fulfil different needs by having several recordings of, say, Handel's Giulio Cesare, and infinitely exploring its various nuances and emphases. This is something that is little mentioned (if at all) by the Fry-Lihoreau team - but then again, this book is only billed as being an introduction to classical music.

The introduction is eased all the more by Fry's signature sense of humour, which of course has been a key element in marketing this book to draw his fans in. Be that as it may, though, some might consider that Fry's particular brand of humour rests significantly on tone of voice and comic timing, making this book better as a radio series (which is, incidentally, how it originated) or even as a television series (we are still waiting). Nevertheless, this is not to say that the pages never raise a chuckle, and they are packed with brilliantly British puns throughout, referring to everything from Jim'll Fix It (perhaps not so politically correct in these times, but never mind) to The Beano. The authors also do cover a vast period of history in a relatively short space without skimping on detail, but some of this space is meaningless filler (which would arguably be cut out for TV or radio) and some of the space is devoted disproportionately to the composers that Fry just happens to like best (but then again, I would say that, as I'm a devotee of Ancient Greek music and will always feel that it deserves more attention).

To end such an ambitious project was always going to be awkward, and Fry's observations towards the end of the book (that the focus has shifted more towards artists and reality TV now than towards composers themselves, and that film music is perhaps the new classical music) are perfectly salient, leaving the reader with plenty to contemplate. While he has tried to end the book on a contemporary note, the danger of this was always that his conclusion would date quickly - some of the groups he mentions, such as Amici Forever, who were busily popularizing classical music at the time of the book's publication nearly ten years ago, have already disbanded. Future edits should probably take account of this by offering up a more general conclusion, perhaps without mentioning specific names unless their place in history is safely assured (mentioning Pavarotti, for instance, is probably not too big a risk). Ultimately, though, despite these pernickety criticisms, a totally unscientific experiment perhaps proves that the book has achieved its aim of popular appeal: when offered up to a class of twenty fifteen-year-olds for free, alongside an autobiography of Bagpuss' creator and two CS Lewis books, this was the only one to be snatched up instantly.

other works by Stephen Fry
The Liar (1992)
Paperweight (1992)
The Hippopotamus (1994)
Making History (1996)
Moab is my Washpot (1997)
The Stars' Tennis Balls (2000)
Rescuing The Spectacled Bear (2002)
The Ode Less Travelled (2005)
Stephen Fry in America (2008)
The Fry Chronicles (2010) 

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