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MEET THE AUTHOR
CLEMENCY BURTON-HILL ~ YEAR OF WONDER: CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR EVERY DAY
In the latest in a series of Meet the Author Interviews and in conjunction with The 2018 Jewish Book Week I am delighted to welcome Clemency Burton-Hill to talk about Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Everyday which was released in October 2017 through Headline Home and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops. Clemency presents Radio 3’s Breakfast Show and also is a leading arts show presenter including the BBC TV’s coverage of the Proms season and also Young Musician of the Year. A distinguished Violinist Clemency has played under some of the world’s leading conductors and also has written a number of novels.
Clemency Burton-Hill will be talking about her book Year of Wonder on Monday 5th March at 7.30pm at Kings Place, London as part of the Jewish Book Week. There are still a few tickets remaining. To book your ticket visit Jewish Book Week or call 020 7520 1490 tickets cost £14.50 each. An event not to be missed. You can also catch Clemency Burton-Hill on the BBC Radio 3 Breakfast Show weekdays between 06.30 and 09.00 am.
JF: Congratulations on your book Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day that was released last October. Where did you get the inspiration for writing a book that has 366 pieces of Classical Music?
CB-H: Thank you. I’ve been lucky enough to have classical music in my life since I was very young, so I know how enriching a regular relationship with this music can be. (There’s so much scientific research that suggests it’s really good for our brains as well as our souls!) Since 2010 I’ve been presenting the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 3 so I’ve also been able to see and hear from my listeners at first hand how a daily interaction with such music can nourish their lives, which has been inspiring. There’s so much unhelpful cultural baggage around the label ‘classical music’ which can put people off or make them feel as though they need special credentials to listen to it – but the fact is, the music itself is some of the most instantly direct, affecting and moving that we have, of any genre (just ask a film director – or a funeral director). So I wanted to do away with the ‘inaccessible’ or ‘elitist’ classical stereotype and empower people to know that whoever they are, irrespective of their background or musical education, they can engage with this music on their own terms. And technology has evolved so quickly in the past few years that now, having access to the music itself is no longer a barrier to entry which is incredibly exciting. Increasingly I was hearing from people who wanted me to make them classical music playlists, so I decided to curate a sort of secular devotional, suggesting a single piece of music for every day of the year, which felt like a manageable and achievable daily ritual – no matter how busy or stressed you may be!
F: Classical Music covers such a wide spectrum, just how difficult was it in choosing the final selections for Year of Wonder?
CB-H: Really difficult – it kept me up at night! I was facing almost 1000 years -worth of so-called classical music, from the medieval era to millennials, and wanted to make sure I represented not just leading figures or famous pieces from within each era but plenty of neglected or forgotten voices too – so, lots of women, composers from backgrounds not usually associated with the classical canon, unusual instruments and really diverse sound-worlds. I also wanted, wherever possible, for the piece to have a compelling connection to the day on which it appears, or else to feel seasonally appropriate; but I also needed each piece to work with the ones juxtaposed alongside it in the playlist (as though I were programming my radio show) so that each month there would be a beautiful mix that flowed perfectly from one work to the next. It was so much fun, but a major headache to have to decide what to keep and what to lose – especially when it came to dropping works that I adored! I was forced to do something I’ve never done in my life and actually created a spreadsheet to keep it all under control!
JF: Do you have a personal favourite piece of music within the Year of Wonder?
CB-H: I of course am tormented by this question, it’s like choosing a child, but if pushed I think I’d have to opt for the slow movement of Bach’s double violin concerto, which appears on February 14. It is not only one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but deeply special to me, as a violinist, having played it for so many years of my life. Bach is my absolute god.
JF: I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Classical Music when I was very young and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto led me to learn to play and eventually move onto playing the Clarinet. How important do you think it is that children are taught Classical Music?
CB-H: Absolutely vital. It’s one of the most depressing aspects of modern life that classical music has been so marginalised in our society and our schools, so that now it’s perceived as being the preserve of rich, white, privileged kids – and is increasingly a niche pursuit. Music is our universal human language, and engaging with it from an early age is as important as engaging with verbal or numerical language. More important, I might argue, as we know it fosters so many other important developmental areas in our brains and emotional centres. There is overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence to prove that children who engage with classical music from an early age also do better with reading, writing, maths, science, teamwork, empathy, friendship, relationships, you name it. So it’s not that I believe children should be forced to learn instruments in order that Britain can churn out millions more professional musicians – we most certainly do not need that given the paucity of opportunity and cuts to public art subsidy. Rather, this is about the sort of human society we want to create. I know that a more engaged relationship with classical music as part of a mixed diet from the beginning would have untold benefits to the way humans listen to each other and interact with each other; it would also bring a great deal of joy and beauty into people’s lives.
JF: Do you think that Classical Music still has this air of scary and that is somewhat daunting to many people and is there more that can be done to bring Classical Music to the masses?
CB-H: Yes, it does – see above. I think there is SO much more that could be done to bring classical music to the masses and it’s part of my mission to do so! We’re fighting an uphill battle: there are so many political, educational, financial, cultural and societal pressures that end up seeming to keep classical music in this bubble only for those ‘in the know’. But like many of my heroic colleagues such as James Rhodes, Nicola Benedetti, Gustavo Dudamel, Alison Balsom, Jamie Bernstein and so many others, not to mention enlightened organisations such as Aurora Orchestra with their amazing series of children’s concerts, I’m doing everything I possibly can, as a broadcaster, writer and communicator, to try and spread the message that this music is for everyone – no matter who they are, how old they are or where they come from.
JF: You are a classically trained Violinist Through the Royal College of Music. What made you want to play the Violin?
CB-H: It’s the great mystery of my life: I don’t know, but it was clearly meant to be! I was two years old. My mum didn’t play an instrument, and is by her own admission tone deaf; my two older brothers didn’t learn an instrument except the basic recorder at school. And there I was, watching some kind of carol concert on TV that Christmastime, and I saw a little girl playing the fiddle and announced: I want to do that. My mum assumed I would give it up, obviously, but I kept banging on about it and eventually, through a friend, she heard of a method of teaching very young children to play, called Suzuki. Bless her: she whipped out the phone book, spoke to a lot of baffled blokes in motorcycle dealerships, and was finally on the verge of giving up when she got through to a truly magical lady at the London Suzuki Group called Helen Brunner. That was the great defining point of my life. I started learning a few months later, and will be forever grateful.
JF: Today you present the weekday Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 3 How important is this to you knowing listeners are starting their day with a friendly voice?
CB-H: Very important. Because of all the unhelpful preconceptions around classical music, people are often so daunted to dive in and actually just listen. For me it is a great responsibility to be in people’s homes, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, commutes first thing in the morning, and I try to improve people’s days, not just through the music I play on air, but also the way in which I present it to my listeners – which I hope sounds the same as the way any other musical DJ talks to theirs. Because music is music. I never want anybody to feel isolated from classical simply because they don’t know the terminology or haven’t ever heard of a certain composer. None of that stuff matters. All that matters is that they have ears and curiosity: that they know it’s their right to listen and make up their own mind about what they’re hearing – just as they would with a pop or any other music radio station.
JF: Some reading this may not know that you have also written two novels ‘All The Things You Are and ‘The Other Side of the Stars’ Are you tempted to one day write another novel?
CB-H: Literature is my other great love, alongside music: I was always a massive bookworm and drawn to making up stories even as a child. I read English Literature at university and my first jobs in journalism were as a book critic and reviewer. I am still obsessed with reading, I always have stories and characters going around my head, and I suppose if you were so inclined you could say a ‘literary sensibility’ is part of how I process the world. At the moment though, I’m focusing on non-fiction and journalism, not least because on top of a busy freelance career juggling many different things I also have a toddler and am about to give birth to my second child – so it’s fair to say life is pretty hectic. Fiction, in my experience, requires a degree of time, reflection and headspace that my current life in no way affords. So, no plans to write another novel at the moment, but I’d never say never…
JF: What do you hope that readers will take from Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day?
CB-H: I hope they will feel empowered to know that there is a wealth of simply glorious music for them out there, available to everyone at the click of a button, and it doesn’t matter a jot if they don’t have any pre-existing background in classical music. I hope they will form their own opinions of the music I’ve chosen each day of the year: I certainly don’t expect or even want them to like every single work I suggest, but that’s all part of the process of them figuring out their own relationship to the music -and then hopefully using that as a springboard to discover more of the sort of genres, artists and sound worlds they do love. I hope to bring people surprise, wit and delight, to move them through this amazing music, and ultimately to prove, through the context I provide and the stories I tell in the book, that, far from being some arcane thing written by some dead white bloke in a powdered wig who has zero connection to their life, ‘classical music’ has been created by living, breathing, thinking, feeling, grieving, celebrating human beings with many of exactly the same concerns as them. Truly!
JF: Final question if someone asked you to suggest a piece of music that would inspire that person to start listening to Classical Music what would your choice be?
CB-H: It’s impossible for me to select any one piece, especially given the breathtaking diversity of the art form and how all our tastes are different, so I’d probably cheekily suggest: how about starting with January 1st’s selection of some rousing Bach and working your way through the 366 pieces of Year of Wonder! I guarantee there’ll be something in there to fall in love with.
My thanks to Clemency Burton-Hill for taking the time to join me on Meet the Author and also to Rebecca Fincham (Bigmouth Presents Book events) and also to Georgina Moore (Communications Director at Headline).
To learn more about the Jewish Book Festival which runs from 3-11th March 2018 visit the official website at Jewish Book Week or join in the conversation by using the Hashtag #JBW2018 on Twitter.