Music has always been important to Armando Iannucci. But as a teenager, while most of his peers were obsessed with the rock and pop heroes of the day, he was searching for something different.
“I grew up sharing a room with a brother who was into Lou Reed, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones and that was fine, but I kind of felt that was his noise and my father, who was from Naples, had very loud Italian opera on and I didn’t quite get that either,” he says. Then came his epiphany. “As soon as I heard a piece of orchestral music, it was The Planets by Gustav Holst, I was like ‘that’s it, that’s my noise, that moves me’.”
It began a passion for classical music that has remained with him ever since. “Luckily for me there were other kids at my school studying music which meant I wasn’t alone. But it’s odd, it shouldn’t feel as though you’re part of some sect that has to meet quietly away from everyone else. If you go to Italy they hum opera in the shops and it’s part of everyday culture, which is how it should be.”
Iannucci has written a book – Hear Me Out – that celebrates classical music which he’ll be discussing in Ilkley tomorrow evening as part of this year’s literature festival.
He sees himself as an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to music. “I’m a writer and the only way I can respond to music is by writing about it, so I thought why don’t I write from the point of view of someone who enjoys listening to music rather than someone who’s learning an instrument,” he says.
“I don’t play and I don’t read music but I’ve always responded to it as a listener and I thought other people possibly feel the same. It’s a way of saying to them that this is fulfilling music and don’t be put off by the fact you don’t have a technical grasp of it because in the end it’s not actually important.”
He likes the breadth that classical music offers. “It’s so wide a term, you can go from a 100-piece orchestra to a solo violinist and from pieces being composed now through to stuff composed in 1400, it’s not just about a particular period. When people talk about pop music they often identify with the musical period they grew up in, so they identify with the 70s or the 80s, and with classical music there isn’t that sense of being restricted to one time. You can listen to a piece from 300 years ago and the next minute listen to a piece written three years ago.”
People still turn to classical music for weddings and funerals and other big moments in their lives. “I think we want something that makes a bigger statement about those key events. But at the same time you can listen to it at any time; you don’t need to have a reason,” says Iannucci.
“There are pieces that I’ve been listening to now for nearly 40 years and I’m still getting new stuff from them… that’s what I find so satisfying. There’s Mahler’s long symphonies and I’m only just beginning to get into a composer like Haydn, so I’m still discovering new people and that’s what I love about it, it’s endless.”
However, the perception that classical music can be elitist still lingers. “I don’t think it’s helped when you go to a concert and nobody on stage speaks to you, they just walk on and start playing and you’re expected to know what’s going on,” he says. “It would be nice if someone stood up and explained the reason why a particular piece was written and certain orchestras and music groups are doing this now with late-night concerts where they mix a bit of rock music with a bit of classical music.
“It’s interesting that a lot of rock musicians gravitate towards classical music because what they’re doing is the same thing. They’re working in a band which is like a mini orchestra and they work on rhythm and phrases and the structure and climax of a song, and there’s guitar solos which are like a violin solo in a concerto. So they’re not these two completely separate worlds.”
Classical music has also played a memorable role in numerous films down the years, including Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra which featured in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which was utilised by Woody Allen to brilliant effect in Manhattan. Perhaps most famous of all is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from his opera Die Walküre which has become synonymous with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Iannucci uses music in his ghoulish black comedy The Death of Stalin, which deftly melds historical fact and fiction as over-inflated male egos collide in the wake of the Soviet leader’s demise.
Its superb music score was written by Chris Willis, who evokes the spirit of Shostakovich and Weinberg to capture the mood of the era.
The film itself is based on a graphic novel of the same name. “I read that and thought the stuff here is all true and it’s even more absurd than if we tried to invent it,” he says. “It’s a way of looking at the mechanics of power and what happens when power is corrupted or when power is with one person. It’s kind of a warning of how things can go if you’re not careful.”
It’s been said that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but are there any subjects deemed out of bounds? “Nothing’s off limits, it just depends how you do it. If it’s a sensitive subject you have to be very careful and we were careful with The Death of Stalin. We weren’t out to make the executions and the gulags funny, we were just out to portray them as they were.
“The comedy is a kind of comedy of hysteria that’s going on inside the Kremlin and the government buildings as they try and deal with what’s going on,” says Iannucci, who made his name through the success of TV shows such as The Thick of It and Veep. “I don’t think comedy belittles a subject, I think it allows you to come at something from an unexpected angle, which is what I like.”
But has satire had to change in the era of fake news and the rise to power of Donald Trump? “I think so. Donald Trump is so bizarre in himself that to try and do a fictionalised version of him would never capture the full horrific absurdity of him. But it’s interesting that comedians instead of doing that are almost behaving like journalists now. People like John Oliver analyse him and what he says and they get their comedy from laying out the facts, because it’s the facts unfortunately that are absurd at the moment.”
Rather than politics, perhaps there’s satire to be found in the world of classical music just as there was with the rock world in This Is Spinal Tap? “There’s a power structure in classical music with the reverence for the conductor and the authoritarianism of the conductor, so there’s something to work with... it would certainly be interesting.”
Armando Iannucci is appearing at Kings Hall, Ilkley, tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14. Go to www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk