James Rhodes And Armando Iannucci on the Transformative Power of Music


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In February 2018 Intelligence Squared brought Armando Iannucci and James Rhodes to our stage to discuss the transcendent power of music. Rhodes is known as the wild man of concert pianists. His approach to the piano is raw and unbridled, his tousled hair a whirl, his hands a blur over the keyboard – the diametric opposite to the composed figure in white tie and tails of classical music convention. He is as likely to play the Latitude pop music festival as the Albert Hall. His knowledge of, and passion for, the great composers is also unrestrained, pouring forth in recitals, documentaries, best-selling albums and his 2015 memoir, Instrumental.

The extraordinary thing is that this virtuoso has no formal musical education. He had a place at the Guildhall but was unable to go, due to mental health issues brought on by harrowing sexual abuse at his London prep school. In his forthcoming book, Fire on All Sides, Rhodes airs his daily struggles with mental illness during a gruelling concert tour. In the depths of Rhodes’s sadness, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin were his solace. The lives of the great composers – as much as their music – inspired Rhodes’s recovery and his mission to spread the word about their genius.

Armando Iannucci is Britain’s leading comedy writer, the creator of Alan Partridge, Veep and The Thick of It. But he is also an obsessive classical music fan, devoted since he was 11 to what he calls ‘the single most inspiring, most moving, most magical thread running through my whole cultural experience’. Although it is comedy that made his name, it is classical music that is his most comforting art form.

In his latest book, Hear Me Out, he tells the story of his lifelong love for music. It isn’t just the canon – particularly Beethoven, Bach and Mahler – that he adores, but also modern composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. Although Iannucci proclaims himself a curious amateur rather than a technical expert, he has composed a complete libretto to a surreal, comic opera about plastic surgery, called ‘Face’.

Like Rhodes, Iannucci is concerned that the British don’t talk about classical music enough. He longs to enthuse the public with his conviction that the greatest artistic miracle of all is man’s ability to create something as extraordinary as Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Rhodes shares Iannucci’s reverence for the work – he is currently recording a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Glenn Gould, the greatest interpreter of the Variations.

Listen to these two evangelists for the power of sound, as they explain how music transformed their lives.

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