I don’t know much about classical music. I’ve been to a few concerts and can recognise a few pieces, but my knowledge is more Now That’s What I Call Classical… than rattling off my favourite Fauré b-sides to a cellist backstage at The Barbican.
I’ve always wanted to learn more about it, to not have to sit there quietly when it’s brought up, but where do you start? If you want to get into rock ‘n’ roll you’ve got 60 years of music to learn about, for classical you’ve got centuries.
A few years ago however I came across a solution that enables me to chat about classical music and come across as fairly knowledgable, with minimal effort. I decided to become an expert on one composer, and use that knowledge to give the impression that I’m not mentally deficient. If you want to give it a go it’ll take a few hours, but will provide a lifetime of cultural blagging.
It takes a little time to pick the right composer. You don’t want to go for a Beethoven or a Bach: that’s like knowing a lot about Coldplay. You’re much better off going into the second tier of composers, the ones whose names you vaguely know. The ones you like because their music was on an advert in the 90s. Pick a Mansun or a Longpigs.
I mulled over a few options, then picked one. Clair de Lune has always made my heart feel squishy, so Claude Debussy was the lucky man to pack his bags and move his belongings into my brain space. Take your shoes off at the front door Claude and don’t feed next door’s cat.
It’s not that hard to become a relative expert in Claude Debussy because most people don’t know much about Claude Debussy. They probably know Clair de Lune. They might know he’s French. That’s kind of it for 95% of the population. In my case, I did what I normally do when faced with a problem. I bought a book.
Paul Roberts’ book Claude Debussy is unsurprisingly mostly about Claude Debussy. It follows his life from his birth in 1862, to his death in 1918, slipping away aged 55 as the explosions of the German Spring Offensive echoed through the sky. I read it from cover to cover, accompanying each section with the music Claude was writing at the time.
Like many lives in the olden days, Claude’s was one of rolling monotony interspersed with huge, dramatic incidents. Pages and pages will be devoted to composing pieces I’ve never heard of, then BANG (quite literally), his wife shoots herself in the tits whilst standing in Place de la Concorde. It’s a decent read, full of romance and love and illicit affairs (he was French), with the odd bit of misery and dramatic boob-based suicide attempts to liven things up.
Once I’d learnt about Debussy, it was simply a matter of slipping him into conversation. The key is never to talk about the things you don’t know about, but wait patiently for a chance to Debussy things up.
“Blah blah blah blah blah Franz Liszt…’
“Well Liszt was of course a massive influence in pulling Claude Debussy from his depression…”
Alternatively, just refuse to discuss their topic and just talk about Debussy anyway:
“You’re off to see a performance of Chopin? God, all I’ve been listening to recently is Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. I find Debussy perfect as the afternoons start to warm up, no?”
Getting the hang of it? You’ll be amazed how easy it is to turn things around to being about Claude Debussy. Once you get confident at it, you can even chuck some Claude at a non-classical conversation:
“Could you pass me that football jersey?”
“Ah Jersey, where Claude Debussy took his lover Emma Bardac in 1904.”
“Robbie, a guy at the pub says he saw your wife fellating a sailor down at the docks.”
“Debussy and Bardac went to the docks when they fled Paris for Eastbourne in 1905.”
There really is no situation where it’s not the right thing to say.
Of course, you can’t pick Debussy. You need to pick your own composer. If we all start to talk about Debussy then the truly intelligent people will notice something is going on and the game will be up. Get your own cultural entry point, dickhead.
There’s a serious side to this of course. We recently recorded a podcast with the brilliant Greg Gilbert. After hearing Greg talk passionately about 1970s medieval cinema I was feeling stupid, lamenting to a patient Sadie that the only 1970s medieval film I knew was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. She pointed out that you don’t need to consume that much of something to come across as an expert. If you watch one 1970s medieval film and like it, it’s a gateway to others by the same director or studio. Watch a handful and you sound super intelligent.
And so immersing yourself in one tiny segment of art leads you down cultural paths you would otherwise never have strolled down. Going to see Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune at the Royal Festival Hall allowed me to discover Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (on the same bill) and reading about Clair de Lune led me to the poetry of Paul Verlaine.
And that I guess is how you expand your cultural world. Consume something you like and go off on tangents, with wide eyes and an open heart. Soon you’ll find something you love.
Maybe something you love as much as Claude Debussy did his daughter Chouchou.