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A Classical Affair: An evening with Stephen Fry

In an age where Lady Gaga can sell hundreds of millions of albums and yet a CD of Beethoven sells a few thousand at best, Stephen Fry hosted this special event in the Barbican Hall, London, to discuss the role and perceived decline of classical music in today’s society and what can be done to keep its spirit alive.

Author of the best-selling An Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music, Stephen Fry is well placed to talk about why this great music continues to have such relevance today. A rising star of the classical world, concert pianist James Rhodes took part in the debate and performed some of the pieces talked about while Sir David Tang moderated questions from the audience.

In this interview Stephen Fry explains the reasons behind organising the event.

A Classical Affair

Barbican Hall, London, September 2011

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Piano pieces performed in the program:

Bach – Adagio (2nd mvt) from an Oboe Concerto by Marcello, BWV 974
Beethoven – Waldstein Sonata (1st mvt)
Schumann/Liszt – Widmung
Rachmaninoff – Prelude opus 3 no 2 in C-sharp minor
Bach/Busoni – Chaconne from Partita in D minor for violin


/nilsjohan

  1. wendy simpson Says:

    As a music educator of many years, I can see that this wonderful western musical tradition will become the music of the elite, if it isn’t already. The costs in Australia to attend live performances of this music are for many prohibitive, and inaccessable by distance. Digital music is all very well, but to know what to look for, one has to be educated, and this kind of music education is seemingly being restricted to elite educational intitutiions, where young people want only to be fed populist culture, and so , to survive in the jungle that is the music classroom, the teacher limits listening to the students whims…American rock, etc
    I think this is a travesty, when I know that young people , when exposed to this music, eg The Waldstein, the Operas of Mozart, they are overwhelmed. Long live Beethoven, et all

  2. S Clive Says:

    With the frequent mentions of movie music being a common medium the modern composer uses for his/her creations, it almost seems as though the era of the solely instrumental piece has gone. Maybe the luxury of that kind of composing comes only when you are good enough to make a living with music that meets a market demand. Just as composers of the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical period had to rely on the church for “work”, or teach and write for their wealthy students, the window where composers just compsed for themselves, or for art’s sake seems relatively short (or they just plain starved, take Schubert for example). Perhaps the modern day mindset lacks somewhat the patience and creativity for instrumental art music. To be honest, a lot of solo or instrumental classical music is not played well, and so it’s no wonder the novice may turn aside. A Beethoven sonata in the hands of Barenboim, or Prokofiev in the hands of Sokolov on the other hand…it’s like you never heard the piece before.

  3. Ted Jones Says:

    I enjoyed this discussion very much. There were times when I wished Stephen Fry would say less and give the others more of a chance, but he is a very genuine music lover and a very eloquent advocate of its transporting capability, so his prolixity is forgivable. We live in truly new and astonishing times for musical expression and transmission. It is now insufficient to ascribe merit to music solely on the basis of historical, social or academic tradition. The old magisteria of classical and jazz have succumbed to the Iorek Bernison of free expression, free response, free everything.

    Does this mean classical music no longer has something to tell us ? Of course not ! It is vital, not because it is old, famous, played by important people or an elite part of musical economics and academic institutions. It is vital because the people who created it were free spirits in precisely the same mould as ourselves.

    Debussy’s maxim is more germane than ever – “Just listen, it’s enough” Just listen to classical music and rid yourself of all predetermined, negative association, which is the killer of dreams. When I was young I did not enjoy Bach because of what I knew of Bach the man and his religious association, which I found repulsive. One day, I simply decided to let my brain attach its own images to his sounds and he sprang into life for me.

    You see, this is the whole trick, which so many people, including most musicians, do not seem to understand. Music is completely abstract. It is perfectly all right to allow one’s mind to respond to it as it deems fit. There are no “shoulds” or “ought tos”, and “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” is actually and literally true.

    My point is that most of the rejection of classical music comes from habitual negative association and not from the actual sound and its effect on the brain. But what, I hear you ask, if I really do not like the actual sound ? Well of course that is fine. Some people like strawberries and others bananas. Personal response is accountable to nobody and cannot be debated. But I suspect almost all the rejection of what is called classical music comes from associative prejudice and not naive and intrinsic response, and that is a tragic loss to human consciousness.

    A lot of what the group were saying amounted to this, or so it seemed to me, and I wished one of them had voiced it explicitly.

    I find myself unaligned with the overall pessimism of previous responses here. Musically, I think our age is marvellous ! I can improvise or compose something, and five minutes later somebody on the other side of the world is listening and commenting. I can listen, in brilliant stereo, in the comfort of my lounge, to any musical utterance from any era, tradition or genre, in perfect concentrated solitude, perhaps with nothing more than the push of a button on iTunes or similar.

    I rejoice in this freedom, and I am thankful I am living in such a time.

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