BBC Music Magazine
Music that Changed Me
Writer, actor and comedian
Sir Lenny Henry
Sir Lenny Henry was born and brought up in Dudley. In 1975, he sprang to fame when his impersonation of Stevie Wonder won the New Faces talent show. His subsequent TV career included the programmes Tiswas, The Comic Strip Presents… and, from 1984, The Lenny Henry Show. As the co-founder of Comic Relief, he was knighted for services to drama and charity in 2015. This month, he co-presents the first instalment of Our Classical Century on BBC Four.
I grew up in in a working-class household – my mum had three jobs, my dad had one, and it was very tough. The music we had in our house was anything from Fats Domino to Chuck Berry, Slim Whitman, Elvis and Harry J Allstars, while my brother Seymour had serried ranks of Motown albums. My mum had one of those huge music players called a radiogram, so any classical music I heard was from twiddling the nobs on that. I remember that everything classical seemed to consist of strident chords in a minor key that made you think you were going to be eaten by a wolfman – it wasn’t until I heard it in context that I realised there were other sides of classical music that could cajole, persuade and soothe.
At school in Dudley, we had a teacher called Mr Baxter – a very good-looking man with leonine hair – who taught us all about music from scratch. One day he brought in a record of HOLST’S The Planets and got us to listen to it. The effect on the room was extraordinary. ‘Mars’, in particular, is incredible: it’s fantastically pugnacious and vibrates you from your innards to your external skin. I was recently re-introduced to it when working on Our Classical Century, and hearing the BBC Symphony Orchestra play it in the studio was thrilling.
The idea of introducing classical music to children is a winner, in fact – get kids in a room with an orchestra, and a connection happens. Several years ago I did a recording as the narrator of PROKOFIEV’S Peter and the Wolf, for which we used world instruments and I threw some silly voices in, including a Jamaican Grandfather. When I narrated it more recently at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, however, it was with the traditional instruments. I watched 300- or-so children become captivated by this piece. They were booing and hissing at the bassoon, they were cheering Peter, and they were getting the musical jokes. It’s such a clever use of the orchestra.
Talking of which, GERSHWIN’S Rhapsody in Blue is amazing. You’re led into the piece by this clarinet glissando which is almost like a bit of jazz improv, and then here and there you get a bit of ragtime, a bit of calypso, Jewish music, an Arabic scale and so on. All these influences from the New York music scene have got into Gershwin’s brain, swooshed together like in a washing machine… and suddenly Rhapsody in Blue comes out! It’s all brought together with a jazz musician’s wit but a classical musician’s attention to detail.
I first got to know PATRICK CASSIDY’S ‘Vide cor meum’ when I saw the film Hannibal – you hear it when Hannibal Lecter is going to the opera. I bought the original soundtrack but, although I’ve now had it for around 12 years, I never get past that track, sung by Danielle de Niese and Bruno Lazzaretti. Suddenly,
I’m transported to this gorgeous world of operatic singing that I want to hear again and again. It’s the way that the voices meld and complement the orchestra plus the spirituality of it that I find so beautiful.
As a stand-up comedian, you need energy, but you also need something peaceful before a performance. When
I’m about to do a show, I often put on music – it has to have no singing and no drums, or it would drive me mad. One of the pieces I’ve found myself repeatedly listening to is VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’S The Lark Ascending. I love the way that the lark hovers above the orchestra in such a beautiful way, and there’s a strange elegiac quality to the music that transports me to another place entirely. I often sit with music and think what the equivalent of it is in comedy, but there isn’t one. It’s a very unique thing.