The A-Z of classical music

Former heavy metal addict Seb Hunter knew nothing about classical music until he decided it was time to 'grow up' and learn to love it. With a new book out describing his journey of discovery, he offers an A-Z guide for Time Out readers looking to get Bach

  • The A-Z of classical music

    Seb Hunter is stuck for ideas for the letter V

  • A

    is for the audience

    Often it’s wise to ignore the audience, as they’re old and off-putting. They won’t, however, mind you, no matter how ill-presented, because you are the next link in the generational chain, and therefore the future of classical music. There’s no pressure because nobody else wants to do it; thus you’ve pretty much got the playground all to yourself. Well, you and those nerds over there.

    B

    is for Bach

    Bach was the best – the original Krautrocker – deep-grooved baroque railroad motorik that will always satisfy you, so long as you’re happy submerged in a deep, rich monochrome. Then Mozart invented colour. Beethoven turned it Technicolor. Wagner 3D glasses. Stravinsky set fire to the cinema. These days we’re just stumbling around in the ashes.

    C

    is for contemplation

    Which is what you should be aiming for if you can’t seem to master that other important C, concentration.

    D

    is for dwarf

    That’s to say Richard Wagner, tinpot Nazi composer of 186-hour operatic ‘Ring’ cycle: his bold attempt to unify all the arts under one all-embracing, interminable operatic umbrella. Personally I’d rather get rained on.

    E

    is for Edward Elgar

    Extravagantly moustachioed, heavily starched Edwardian composer of that subtle celebration of multiculturalism and inclusiveness, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, so enthusiastically harrumphed-along to by Young Conservatives at the Last Night of the Proms (see P).

    F

    is for Frédéric Chopin

    Romantic nineteenth-century pianist genius from Poland whose sickening, florid technique has been much aped by ‘Countdown’s’ Rick Wakeman, etc.

    G

    is for Germany

    The country that has produced the most lasting, rampant and influential classical music. This pompous and overblown sound would go on to be perfected by Meat Loaf and the Scorpions, though thankfully not simultaneously. G is also for Gramophone magazine, which is so full of arcane and pretentious gobbledegook, nobody has ever read a copy all the way through, not even Sir Simon Rattle.

    H

    is for HMV on Oxford Street

    The place where this all began for me, after I accidentally stepped on to the wrong escalator and found myself in a glassed-off section full of bald men.

    I

    is for intravenous Prozac

    Otherwise known as the nation’s favourite broadcaster of soporific somnambulance, the terrifying marketeers’ vice of Classic FM. Smooth Classics at Seven. Numbness at Nine. Trolleyed by Ten. Mogadon at Midnight. Now they are attempting to do this to your babies too.

    J

    is for John Cage

    Mushroom-guzzling Zen master and inspirational avant-garde pioneer – like a Bostonian Andrew Lloyd Webber, only less rakishly handsome. Cage’s favoured dynamic components were complete randomness, and silence. If only Lloyd Webber had deployed a tad more of the latter, this list would be easier for everybody.

    K

    is for Nigel Kennedy

    The, cough, Jimi Hendrix of the violin.

    L

    is for legging it to the bar

    …during the interval and then subsequently having to leg it to the toilet at the end. You’ll be first there, as everybody else is busy giving the conductor/orchestra/fat woman endless standing ovations and cheap bunches of flowers.

    M

    is for Mahler

    Everyone likes Mahler these days; his music is deep and complicated and profoundly metaphysical, and so hardcore there are no minor works.

    N

    i

    s for no clapping between movements

    One time I was going to a Prom and beforehand bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. Instead of asking how I was or anything nice like that, he came right up and hissed at me: ‘Don’t clap between the movements.’

    O

    i

    s for mystic genius

    Olivier Messiaen

    Astonishingly, there’s an entire four-CD box-set of Messiaen playing a church organ in Paris that never gets boring.

    P

    is for Proms

    These are a series of concerts staged every summer at London’s famous Royal Albert Hall. Everyone should try to go to at least one; they’re great, and cheap, though avoid the Last Night at all costs – it’s full of absolute cunts (see E).

    Q

    is for queuing

    Especially when waiting to go for a P. The Proms queue is one of the most famous queues in the world – like the Wimbledon one except without Sue Barker.

    R

    is for Radio 3

    If you’re skimming through your radio’s FM channels and you stumble upon a tiny patch of complete silence, this is Radio 3 – the BBC’s ultra-highbrow classical music oasis. If really no sound emerges and you’re worried your radio might be faulty, turn it right up and you’ll be reassured to discern a lone, faraway bassoon and then a tiny throat-clearance. Don’t worry: the throat-clearer was undoubtedly lynched directly after the performance.

    S

    is for shhhhhh

    You ought to start practising your shushing; mine is so cruel and vicious now it sounds like the crack of Indiana Jones’s whip.

    T

    is for the triangle

    That most pure and noble of firearms in the classical music armoury. The triangle is struck by a percussionist, who over the course of an evening might also be called upon to tinker upon a vibraphone (a xylophone – see X), some timpani (drums), some congas (drums) and a cowbell (a bell in the shape of a cow). The triangle is the easiest; you just hit it with a stick, I reckon.

    U

    is for under a fiver

    As in all CDs on the legendary bargain-priced Naxos record label. Understandably there’s rather a lot of snobbery about Naxos CDs – almost as if people might be suggesting that the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra might not perhaps be the definitive musicians for the task at hand – though the label has been instrumental (ha ha) in the long-overdue-and-not-actually-existent plebeian democratisation of classical music. All CDs not on Naxos cost around £30-40, if you’re lucky.

    V

    is for violin

    What the hell else is it going to be for? Actually, V is also for the incredibly boring Antonio Vivaldi. And Vanessa Mae, I suppose.

    X

    is for xylophone, as ever

    Y

    is for You

    Unless You get it; unless You like what you’re hearing; unless Your ears are open and this stuff is burning through into the dark recesses of your pitiful consciousness, there’s absolutely no point in your being there at all. Stop wishing your time away and lap this shit up, right now. Or leave.

    Z

    is for zzzzz

    The sound that you make about half an hour in. Don’t worry: it happens to the best of us.

    ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ by Seb Hunter is out now published by Penguin (£12.99).

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