Bach'n'roll high school

Music: This is not a book for the purists

Music: This is not a book for the purists. Seb Hunter is a self-confessed rock'n'roll addict who has decided to take a crash course in classical music, and explore the hitherto hidden world of preludes, fugues, concertos and etudes. Up to now, the only symphony he's ever listened to has been Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve, and the only cello movement he can identify is the one on Nirvana's Something in the Way.

Hunter's entire knowledge of classical music has been gleaned from watching TV ads, but now he's going to embark on a voyage of discovery that will take him all over Europe, into concert halls, opera houses, churches and museums, and lead him down some strange, psychedelic musical paths. Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news: this Def Leppard is changing his spots.

To help him on his quest for classical purity, and to help concentrate his mind, Hunter has determined to forego any music that features electric guitars or fellas screaming "Oh yeah, baby". He's going to swop Moz for Mozart, Blur for Bach and Franz Ferdinand for Franz Schubert. Not only has Hunter gone cold turkey, he's also decided to take the chronological route to classical enlightenment, which means starting off with early medieval religious music, and working his way meticulously through the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods until he arrives at the Modern age, reborn, musically realigned and no longer a rock dinosaur.

Did he get Bach? Could he handle Handel? Was he man enough for Rachmaninov? Or did he run screaming back into the warmth and comfort of Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Arctic Monkeys?


In the time-honoured rock tradition of "keeping it live", Hunter heads off on his own classical music tour, visiting such places as Leipzig, Vienna, Moscow and Rome in the company of assorted drinking buddies, often trying to reach the essence of classical music through a head-splitting hangover.

A philistine he may be, but he turns his ignorance into a blitzkrieg of witty observations and raucous rock'n'roll metaphors. His adventures read like a high-brow version of Loaded magazine, and his impressions of Beethoven's symphonies, Mozart's operas, Bach's fugues and Handel's oratorios read like extended rock reviews - not a bad thing when you're trying to convey a dizzying sense of discovery and revelation. Handel, he concludes, was the prototype for Elton John, Beethoven's Fifth was pure punk, and Mozart, well, apparently he was Prince, Brian Wilson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Rotten all rolled into one.

He sometimes gets a little carried away with the rock'n'roll metaphors, as when he juxtaposes the Romantic composers with members of 1960s British beat group the Yardbirds. Thus Liszt becomes Jimmy Page, Chopin becomes Jeff Beck and Schumann becomes Eric Clapton. Your average Classic FM listener won't have a clue what he's trying to get at here but, deep down in my rock'n'roll soul, I know exactly what he means.

He goes to the Proms dressed in a Black Sabbath T-shirt; he joins the Japanese tourists at Vienna's Palais Auersperg for a very un-rock'n'roll evening of light entertainment; he buys a lute on eBay, even though he knows he'll never actually play it; and he throws himself into the maelstrom of Wagner's Ring Cycle with all the abandon of a stage-diver at a Green Day gig. Composers are awarded points according to their quotient of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and sopranos are appraised according to their cleavage.

At the end of his odyssey, Hunter emerges with an ability to listen to classical music without (a) getting bored (b) falling asleep or (c) wondering when the guitar solo is going to kick in. But throughout his journey, he never loses his rock'n'roll edge, and this is what makes Rock Me Amadeus such an entertaining and irreverent read.

It's a laddish inquisition into a branch of music that many blokes are afraid to explore, and if it makes us buy just one classical music CD along with our usual Raconteurs, Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire purchases, then it will not have been an entirely wasted trip.

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist

Rock Me Amadeus . . . or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Handel By Seb Hunter Michael Joseph, 419pp. £12.99

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist