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The Art of Change with Stephen Fry - Episode 2

Nothing Concrete text
13 May 2020
20 min listen

In the second of our series with Stephen Fry, exploring music, art and mental health, Stephen speaks honestly about his own suicide attempts and battle with bipolar disorder, and how Beethoven’s music helped in his recovery from his lowest points. 

Maybe that connection that I forged with Beethoven is still alive, so that’s something that his music still does, the inexplicable power to make me go ‘YES!’

The Art of Change is a series where we meet artists and performers who are passionate about changing the world, presented by journalist Chris Gunness. 

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CG: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican’s podcast. I’m Chris Gunness. This is the Art of Change, a series featuring artists who are passionate about changing the world. Today the second in a four-part series featuring Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian and campaigner, who I’ve been talking to about many issues including his own bipolarity. Last time we explored Beethoven’s suicidal Heiligenstadt Testament – the note written to his brothers as his deafness drove him to the depths of depression, but also to the heights of creativity. I put it to Stephen that it was this aspect of Beethoven – the highs and the lows – that really spoke to him.

SF: Before I could even begin to understand it (and I’m not claiming that I really do now because who can understand music) but when I was 12, 13, 14, a miserable adolescent not quite knowing what my sexuality was, or what love, sex and everything else was, not conforming to rules, one of the pieces of music that most obsessed me – there was a little gramophone room in the school you could go and you could book it, because you know people didn’t have their own music systems in those days, or if they did, most of my fellows at school it was all Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and charming too – but I would go down and I’d discovered the Egmont Overture, which is like all of Beethoven concentrated into a capsule form. So if you want to know what Beethoven’s like it’s in a way the perfect piece of music because it has so many of the qualities I’ve been talking about. And I would go and I would air conduct, with tears streaming down my face, I mean absolutely in a state of complete bewildered ecstasy, in the way that only an adolescent can be. And maybe that connection that I forged with Beethoven is still alive, so that’s something that his music still does, the inexplicable power to make me go ‘YES!’. You know it reminds me of a great line of Philip Larkin’s, he wrote a poem on Sidney Bechet, his passions, jazz of course, and I could say this of Beethoven: ‘On me your sound falls as they say love should – like an enormous yes.’ Isn’t that…

CG: …Magical

SF: I think that’s it. Now obviously I don’t know what it’s like to lose hearing. All of those who are blessed with hearing and sight and all the senses are bound to imagine sometimes what it would be like. And we know from the extraordinary achievements of people who have no hearing or have been born deaf or who have acquired it, and similarly with sight too, what they’re capable of, and Beethoven is an example of that too. He is an example of something that has taken us a long time fully to understand, that the only real disability is a lack of curiosity, a lack of will, a lack of love – those are disabilities. But a lack of hearing is something that doesn’t stop anyone from being 100% human, it’s only a lack of love that stops you being 100% human.

CG: Stephen I have to ask you, one of the things I assume that attracts you to Beethoven is this man of great highs and great lows. You’ve been very passionately and very movingly honest about your own manic depression and bipolarity. Is that one of your attractions to Beethoven?

SF: Yes it is I think. I think because for two reasons, one because you feel a fellow spirit in some way, someone who is also brave enough – he is in his case – brave enough to reveal something about the human spirit. I mean Mozart was charming and sometimes there are little moments, flairs of it, but with Beethoven there’s a true sense of the frailty and vulnerability of what it is to be human. So there’s that, but also there’s a – I won’t say curative because that’s certainly not the word – but there’s a healing quality to listening to it that actually helps, especially with those quartets I find that they do, you know when combined with not drinking too much, walking and eating properly and all the other things that sort of supposedly help one’s mental health as well as clearly one’s physical health. But yes, you look to that sort of thing, the purity and the passion of art does help with the mind, I think. And when I get a lot of letters from people saying ‘how do you stay sane?’ and I say ‘well I don’t’ for a start, it’s partly an acceptance of what is a doctor would call a chronic condition – it’s there like diabetes or asthma or something – it’s how you manage it and cope with it. And one of the ways I cope with it is to bathe myself in music like Beethoven’s and to think of people who have gone before me who have been lit by the flame of mania and doused by the icy water of depression, and lived those lives of flaring up and going down and being close to the edge, and how they have managed to do things and to achieve things and to retain their love and hope, and one clings to that. And I of course am lucky that so many others, I have so much support around me, and I’ve also been able to give myself time to help myself physically which I think is a huge help.

CG: Can I ask you though – I mean, it’s very personal stuff – but you have attempted suicide three times, you have been very public, very movingly passionate about the issues around that. In those low moments do composers like Beethoven, do what he stands for mean even more, or is that too cheesy a thing to ask you?

SF: I think they do when you recover from the real depths that make you want to take your life, because once you come to that feeling that’s inside you, this overwhelming feeling of – it’s such a cheap phrase it sounds – ‘what’s the point?’ but that’s sort of really what it’s about, inside you you just do not see the point of anything. Nothing has flavour or savour, nothing has any meaning, everything is just hopeless. There’s no future, there’s no sense of anything ahead of you. And you have to hope that something will stop you and in my case it was just failed attempts and waking up in a hospital. In your recovery, in the fact that you realise people are kind enough to forgive you – because you feel such a fool, you feel you’ve done it to them, you know all the guilt and shame that comes from an attempt on one’s life that has gone wrong – and it’s in the recovery, it’s when you suddenly find that flavour, suddenly life has colour again. And Beethoven is a perfect example of someone who brings that colour back to you quicker than almost anything else, and that’s a sign that you’re back.

CG: I’ve actually seen you said you couldn’t imagine life without Beethoven. Is this what you’re talking about?

SF: It is, it is that. And I’m fully aware that to those for whom this is, I don’t know, elitist or something, it sounds pretentious. And obviously I can’t make someone feel what I feel when I listen to Beethoven, but I do know many others who feel the same, and many others who are not in any way musicians or in any way from privileged backgrounds where they’ve had it taught to them. You can’t really somehow, you respond and you just hope. I mean it’s the greatest hope of those of us who love Beethoven is that this celebration of him and his life, his personality, his struggle, his art, all the things we know about him will just open the door to more young people who will suddenly hear him and be thrilled by what they hear, and realise that he’s a modernist, he walks with us in the present in the way that music always can, and that he’s not a… he’s probably the first of the great composers not to have a wig, which is a hugely off-putting thing for a lot of people! You know, they describe classical music as the people in wigs, and I can see what they mean – Handel and Bach and Mozart. The wigs get smaller but eventually they have their own hair – the frizzy hair of Schubert and the marvellous hair of Beethoven.

CG: Now when you describe him as a great humanitarian, what exactly are you getting at?

SF: Well, I suppose you can look at the obvious landmarks in his music like the Eroica which he famously scratched out his dedication to Napoleon because he couldn’t bear tyranny, so in that sense he was a – we certainly can’t use phrases like left-wing – but he was a man of the people. He had supported the revolution, he didn’t like the aristocracy, he believed that all men (and by that he meant mankind of course, it wasn’t gender-weighted) should be brothers (ie brothers and sisters). All humanity are brothers and sisters, which to us is an easy thing to say and sounds like a cheap greeting card, but in the early 19th century this was revolutionary. It led in the 1840s, 20 years after his death, to the great period of revolutions that looked as if… you know, it dislodged a lot of ruling houses and so on. And it was the beginning of the journey of our species, certainly in Europe obviously, from the enslavement of ecclesiasticism and absolute monarchy to some element of democracy. Of course, it didn’t stop the beginning of the Age of Empire and the shackling of many others, and slavery was still going on in this time, so of course we can scold the era very properly for all the things that it got wrong in our estimation. But there were energies in it that still to this day are about the human spirit, about the greatness of the individual, the possibility of the individual. And in a sense it’s the dance of one, rather than the courtly minuet and the dance of many, it’s the fact that the music is suddenly… like you know, when I was a teenager and I did listen to what was laughingly called prog rock. And you would, you’d have the album on your legs, maybe someone was skinning up a joint, and you would listen to those long guitar breaks or huge drum solos, and that wasn’t dance music in any way, it was something else. Some of it was absurdly pretentious of course and silly, but it was about the same idea – we were a generation that were not going to be told. And for all that I’m kind of embedded in the establishment and my voice sounds, my vocal chords sound as if they’re made of tweed, I am someone who has the greatest admiration for people who won’t be told – won’t be told what to think, won’t be told how to eat, how to paint, how to draw – who reinvent and who stand up and who… and I kind of sometimes wish young people were more… Probably memories and vanities saying this, but it seems like earlier younger generations right up through the 70s with punk and everything were much more able to express that. And Beethoven had a punk sensibility, if you like, not obviously in the music but in just ‘damn you’ was his view, he shook a fist at fate. I mean, you know, the most famous tune in all classical music isn’t even a tune, it’s a rhythm. And it was first in his lifetime described as fate knocking on the door. And it is, and of course it happened to have this remarkable coincidence that it’s also the morse code sign for the letter V, so it was used for victory amongst the allies in the Second World War. And then Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy section, became the hymn of Europe and it still is to this day. So he’s always been connected with this idea of shaking your first at tyranny and absolutism, and being free.

CG: That was Stephen Fry ending this edition of the Art of Change on Nothing Concrete, with me Chris Gunness. Next time, the third of our four-part series with Stephen Fry, in which he’ll talk about his international advocacy for gay rights and men being more open about prostate cancer. You can subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help get the word out. Until next time from me Chris Gunness, goodbye.

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