Wednesday, 4 May 2011

My thanks to Disney, Visconti and Kubrick for leading me to classical music

During my childhood our house was filled with classical music – on records, on the radio, and, of course, on the piano in our music room (we all played a variety of instruments, naturally). Apart from that, there were endless visits to Covent Garden, and the Proms and the Wigmore Hall. Once a quarter, my parents would host musical soirées: I remember once having to help break up a fight about the correct way to hold a baton between André Previn and the Aussie bruiser, Charles Mackerras…

Well, no, it wasn’t quite like that, to be honest. 

There was practically no classical music in the house, as far as I can remember. I spent two painful years learning the violin at school and then, when it was adjudged a trifle, shall we say, “delicate” for such a big lump of a boy, the viola. Rather than waste everyone’s time by moving inexorably up the scale to the cello and, ultimately, the bass, I decided to throw in the sponge. The music I was being asked to play bored me to tears, and my violin technique was so bad my grandmother once - seriously - asked if there was a wounded cat trapped somewhere inside the house.

As so often in my life, the movies were responsible for unlocking the door to enlightenment. 

The first time I became vaguely aware that there might be more to life than popular music was when my brother took me to a screening of Fantasia at a cinema on the King’s Road. It was, I’ll admit, that delightful musical world tour The Nutcracker Suite that, as it were, cracked my musical nuts. And Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, featuring the scary Demon. And The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of course. And Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphonysounded wonderful, despite the accompanying collection of embarrassing centaurs and nymphs. As for The Rite of Spring – it was sensational. Critics have given Fantasia a bit of a kicking over the years for the vulgarity of its visual interpretation of great music, but it was made for ignorant people like me, not the cognoscenti.

I bought one or two records as a result of that visit – including an EP of excerpts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and a wonderful compilation of Wagner’s orchestral pieces (The Ride of the Valkyries actually brought tears of excitement to my eyes).

But the film that really made me realise what I’d been missing was Death in Venice. I was reminded of its extraordinary impact on me by a recent Radio 4 programme in which people described the effect that first hearing the Adagietto from Mahler’sFifth Symphony had on them at the time – and subsequently. Hearing it for the first time in a cinema in the West End, accompanying Pasqualino de Santis’s liquidly beautiful cinematography, made me experience, at the age of eighteen, a depth of emotion I didn’t know I was capable of. 

I saw Death in Venice eight times in the year following its release. It was only when I bought the soundtrack  that I began to realise it was the music, more than anything, which was making me blub during the movie: I can sympathise with those critics who’ve dubbed it a 130-minute classical music video. I’ve never deserted popular music – it’s an immensely enjoyable and harmless addiction – but ever since Death in Venice, I’ve known it’s mainly an amusing diversion from the real thing.

By the time I got to college I was still massively ignorant when it came to serious music, but some of the friends I made there weren’t, and I was soon buying box-sets of Solti’s Ring Cycle (when I could afford them, which made it a slow process) and exploring further afield - Elgar, Brook, Saint-Saens, The Flamin’ Groovies, you mame it. I remember with great fondness some friends and visiting the Cambridge Union Society and playing the sublime ending toGötterdämmerung in the enormous music room there, while (and I’m not making this up) quaffing Grand Marnier  - dead Evelyn Waugh, we were – until someone came and told us we were drowning out the debate downstairs (no doubt some public schoolboy from Godalming with a White Man’s Afro whanging on about Vietnam or Black Power or Trotskyism or somesuch twaddle).

The third in the trilogy of films that introduced me to classical music was  A Clockwork Orange. I’m sure purists were horrified, but Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’s synthesised versions of Beethoven’s Ninth and Purcell’s haunting, majestic Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary led me to the originals, and to The Moog Strikes Bach, an album by Hans Wurman, which used to drive my more aesthetically evolved companions mad – but which also undoubtedly paved the way for my “discovery” of Bach some twenty years’ later (for me, he is The Boss).

I was reminded of the dumbed-down, “accessible” nature of my route to classical music when I was introduced to someone as “a fellow Wagnerian ” (yes, we could be that pompous) at a Cambridge party. He had one of those glossy, fat faces which, in those days, betokened a young man heading for the City. “Wagner’s wonderful, isn’t he?” he drawled. “Did you get to Bayreuth last year?”

I weighed up the pleasure I’d get from smashing his face in against the likelihood of being sent down (no doubt Pater had “roomed” with the Senior Tutor).

I contented myself with saying, “No, I was with my people in Monte. Frightful bore.”

He nodded. “Pity.”

“I’m joking. I’ve never been to the opera. I’ve only ever heard Wagner on records.”

“Ah!” He wafted away without another word.

I really hope he went to work for Barings.

I’m pretty sure I’d have “got” classical music eventually - but I’m grateful to those directors for accelerating the process.


  1. Kubrick of course started the ball rolling with Also Spracht Zarathustra in 2001:A Space Odyssey? I assume many people took an interest in Classical Music after seeing the film and hearing the opening to Richard Strauss’s tone poem…same era, Mozart Piano Concerti 21 from Elvira Madigan…more of an art-house movie for a much smaller audience but it certainly made an impression on lots of people including me.
    Saturday, May 7, 2011 - 02:47 PM

  2. Harumphrey. I agree with you entirely about Elvira Madigan. It was my introduction to classical music in 1967. A few years later I found myself in the advertising business and looking for a television commercial concept for Gale’s Honey [the client was Reckitt&Coleman and unusually cretinous]. So I got hold of a print to show them some excerpts to illustrate idyllic summer scenes together with the music. Imagine my surprise when they insisted on watching the whole film. They wanted Elvira Madigan for their brand and when they were told that the music was in the public domain they were doubly enthusiastic. The agency [J.Walter Thompson] shot a beautiful 45-sec TVC complete with an excerpt of Mozart’s andante and we ran it fairly heavily for 6-months. Sales of Gale’s Honey went down and I moved on.
    I watched it again last year and after forty years it is still a breathtaking film. Mozart’s music is simply ageless and is edited into the film seamlessly. The great Swedish beauty, Pia Degermark, performed wonderfully for an amateur [she was a Golden Globe and Bafta winner in the most promising category and won Best Actress at Cannes that year]. She had a very sticky life after that.

    Scott. After your public endorsement of Toby Young and pejorative remarks about OAPs in earlier posts and now cracks about public schoolboys from the Godalming region I think you should probably nurture your client base more carefully.
    Sunday, May 8, 2011 - 04:41 PM

  3. Good article. It got me surfing and I found an interesting item about classical music in films at at By 2001, Mozart was the most used composer in films having racked up 252, with Tchaikovsky second Wagner third and Bach fourth. The article mentions the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” which featured lots of Wagner. I remember seeing this on Television growing up. It may not have been as influential as Fantasia when it came to developing an interest in serious music, but I think it helped. It’s worth watching just to hear Elmer Fudd sing the line “Kill the Wabbit” to the Ride of the Valkeries. I’ve never seen Elvira Madigan but will look out for it. The clips on You Tube are intriguing. Like countless others, Amadeus helped me grasp just how great Mozart was, especially the Requiem.
    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - 05:19 PM

  4. I haven’t seen Elvira Madigan since it came out, Harumphrey – I’ve never even seen it advertised on TV. Am I going to have to join one of those companies offering legal downloads?

    This prompted a recollection of the “Songs of the Auvergne” used by – was it Dubonnet? Rural picnic scenario? I wonder if the ad sold any more of the drink? From the little I know of advertising, it seems that doing brilliant adverts often isn’t about selling more product, but more about “enhancing the brand” (a marketing exec at a car company told me this a few years ago, and kept a straight face while doing so). I mean, did those brilliant Guinness adverts with the thundering horses in the waves and the bloke with the scar actually sell more Guinness? I’m guessing not. Did those superb Honda adverts (the one where the cars in pieces, the choir imitating the sounds of a car and “The Impossible Dream”) actually sell more cars? Given how unbelievably tedious TV adverts are now, I rather wish they’d go back to making lovely or amusing mini-movies for the show-reel that’s going to get them their first job directing a proper film. Anyway, you were evidently ahead of your time, SDG – and I even remember enjoying the free honey that came with the glamorous job in Berkley Square.

    Thanks for the Bugs Bunny link, Gramsci – never seen it before, and really enjoyed it. I don’t want to sound too pompous, but getting Wagner into a kid’s head any way you can seems a good idea to me (unless it’s at a Nuremberg Rally, of course). Re “Amadeus” I was reading recently that poor old Salieri was actually an enthusiastic supporter of MozartL if so, it’s sad that he’ll now be remembered as vicious mediocrity motivated by jealousy. I always doubted that Mozart was quite as crude as he was painted in the screenplay: I just can’t believe anyone capable of producing such sublime music could possibly have been quite such a witless boor. But it was a great film – odd that the lead actors never went on to achieve much. It was seeing “The Magic Flute” at Covent Garden that made me understand just how utterly wonderful Mozart was – still my favourite opera. And the list of classical composers used in films was fascinating. Thank you.
    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - 05:29 PM