Few things compare to the grandeur of classical music played through a great system, and you won’t find a better guide to its bountiful soundscapes than the infectiously enthusiastic Clemency Burton-Hill. Her persuasive power stems from the fact that while she lives and breathes classical, it’s far from the only music in her life. So, in her unique Marantz Amplified playlist she’s selected tracks that mix styles and cross genres to carefully usher you in.Words: Rhian Daly
If you’ve never really clicked with classical, if you’re yet to hear its full beauty, Clemency Burton-Hill is here to help. The London-born, New York-based broadcaster, author, journalist and violinist has made it her life’s work to open up the world of classical to everyone. From her BBC Radio 3 Breakfast show, to her many TV programs, or her best-selling Year Of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day books, Clemency has been a friendly guide, breaking down barriers and misconceptions, and creating a welcoming environment for us to listen and love.
Her mission was best expressed in the highly-lauded Open Ears Project she made for WYNC studios, which invited guests to share the classical track that means the most to them. The podcast saw everyone from actors to firefighters, dancers to teachers, open up about their own lives in the process. “Often, music is a portal for empathy and connection,” she says. Open Ears was driven by the idea that music has the power to connect people and transform lives. “I’ve learned so much from my guests – people bring their own stories and often how they connect with the music is a bit of a revelation. One of the superpowers of music is that even if I know a song inside out it can evolve and surprise me.”
“There are so many cultural reasons that people think ‘That’s not for me, I’m not allowed in that even if I wanted it’,” she says. “If you are curious, if you’d like to investigate or experience this sound world, you are welcome – come with me.”
“I really believe music is a supreme portal for empathy and connection,” she says. “Much of my work has been driven by the idea that music has the power to connect people and transform lives, and that is true for classical as any other genre. You don’t have to know all the language or customs, I promise!” Hearing other people’s stories around classical music can be particularly powerful, she argues. In her Webby-nominated Open Ears Project, for example, Clemency invited guests to share the classical track that means the most to them. The podcast saw everyone from actors to firefighters open up about their own lives in the process. And in her award-winning BBC Sounds podcast Classical Fix, she curates a bespoke classical playlist for her guests, some of whom are experiencing their first foray into the genre.
“I’ve learned so much from my guests over the years,” says Clemency. “Often how they connect with the track is a real revelation. So even if I knew a piece inside out, hearing their take on it can transform it for me. And that is one of the great superpowers of music: how it evolves, and transforms, and surprises us, always.” She smiles. “Even the oldest pieces are always new. I love that.”
For someone who spends so much of her time immersed in music, both professionally and personally, excellent sound is absolutely key to the experience. “To me, good sound is everything,” she says, noting that it was something she was turned on to in her youth. “One of my older brothers saved up for a Marantz hi-fi and amp. As music-obsessed teenagers, we would just listen to music on the speakers in his room all the time and that immersive experience was really seminal for me.”
While she’s a highly regarded broadcaster closely associated with classical music, it’s far from her only musical love. “I often say that really annoying thing of: ‘I love all music’", she laughs. "And although that’s actually not totally true,” she laughs, “there are very few genres that I don’t appreciate.” While Clemency grew up playing the violin from a young age, she also DJed at underground garage nights in London and shared the same love of Britpop, hip-hop, indie and rave music as the rest of her generation.
This all-encompassing passion lets Burton-Hill make illuminating comparisons between classical music and other styles. “For example, hip-hop and baroque classical music bear a lot more in common than people might assume. If you break it down into the rhythm, the melody and the ornamentation – which could be rap or could be singers in the baroque era improvising over a beat – there are real similarities there,” she explains. “Actually, lots of hip-hop DJs have sampled classical music too – hip-hop DJs can do anything! – and I absolutely adore that aural surprise.”
Although music has been at the centre of Burton-Hill’s life since childhood, her relationship with it was recently tested and transformed. In 2020 she suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage that left her unconscious for 17 days. Her family turned to music as a way of trying to reach her. “When I was in the coma and in intensive care, my husband and friends put a speaker on and it was playing all the time.”
// If you are curious, if you’d like to investigate or experience this sound world, you are welcome. Come with me.//- Clemency Burton-Hill
However, when she regained consciousness, music was somehow out of reach. “I woke up and I could hear things, but I couldn’t really compute,” she relates. “As the weeks went on, the fact that I couldn’t ground myself in the music that was so familiar to me was really difficult.” Despite this, Clemency trusted that she’d one day regain the ability to experience music in the same way as before her brain injury. “I feel like music had absolute faith in me,” she muses. “I feel like it was waiting for me to come back and was there for me. My neurosurgeon has a strong belief that the fact I have a life in music and my brain has been enveloped in music for so many years has probably helped my recovery in ways we won't ever understand.”
Thankfully, music is firmly back in Clemency’s life, and she’s been able to share a little of her boundless enthusiasm in her Marantz Amplified playlist. She’s chosen a series of tracks to bridge the divide between classical and other genres – her Classical Connectors.“ I want to always connect to people through music and make sure people know that classical music is there for them,” she says. “If you are curious, if you’d like to investigate or experience this sound world, you are welcome – come with me.”
“It’s been such an awful few years – the loneliness and the disconnection have been very acute for everyone” she says. Thankfully, music is firmly back in Clemency’s life, and she’s been able to share a little of her boundless enthusiasm in her Marantz Amplified playlist. She’s chosen a series of tracks to bridge the divide between classical and other genres – her Classical Connectors. “I want to always connect to people through music and make sure that people know that music is there for them – any kind of it, if you want it,” she says. “Music is just so powerful.”
One of the first identifiable composers in classical music history happens to be also one of the first female composers. Hildegard of Bingen was born at the close of the 11th-century. Leader of various monasteries, as well as a scientist, philosopher, linguist, playwright, healer, mystic, she composed spine-tingling monophonic songs for the human voice, likely for her monastic sisters, of which this modern instrumental version is just a taste. Close your eyes and marvel at this vibrant, unusual soundword, created by a woman almost a millennium ago, yet sounding by turns ethereal and boxfresh. Timeless.
Bach is one of those names you might think of if anyone said: ‘Classical Music: Go!’ Old, white, male, probably German, possibly bewigged, almost certainly donning a frock coat. But I promise that tired, clichéd image is absolutely exploded when you really listen to Bach’s music and understand his common humanity and uncommon genius. He was just like you or me: flawed, fallible, capable of huge love, facing many calamities and tragedies throughout his life, and through it all finding joy. Bach is to my mind the singular architect of what we come to know as music. This short, unaccompanied, close-harmony moment within his mighty St Matthew Passion moves me to tears – every time. The text is translated as:
Him who controls the heavens;
He who gives clouds, air, and winds their paths, course, and track,
He will also find ways
Where your feet can walk.’
Oof. I have no religious faith, no heavens. And yet, in short, with Bach, I can walk.
Clara – wife of the much more famous Robert Schumann, also a composer – is one of my musical heroines. She was a truly awe-inspiring pianist. She was muse to many of the leading musical lights of the day; a champion and mentor to others. She had to cope with traumatic mental illness in her beloved husband, who tried to drown himself before dying in an asylum. She was also a mother of eight and the chief breadwinner in her family: performing, teaching, making ends meet any which way she could. But not by selling her compositions, because in the 19th century women were not deemed worthy of being composers. Clara must have been fierce. And tender. And you can hear, I think, all that in her music.
// One of my older brothers saved up for a Marantz hi-fi and amp. As teenagers, we would just listen to music on the speakers in his room all the time. //- Clemency Burton-Hill
Listening to this, I am reminded of the eternal wonder of human inspiration and the exchange of ideas across space and time; the sheer miracle of aliveness; the promise of rebirth and further chances, that spring-like, tell us it’s not too late, in fact, maybe this is only the beginning. I am pretty much Max Richter’s ultimate super fan. I love his wide ranging musical references, his endless curiosity, the emotionality that never tips into sentimentality. He has a singular technical brilliance which allows him to compose music that seems simple on the surface, but is anything but. I love the surprises in his music, and those surprises that at the same time feel utterly familiar. And I particularly love the way he can synthesise the old and the new; as here, in his 2022 reworking of his own 2012 reworking of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, originally finished in 1720.
In 2013, at the tender age of thirty, the formidably gifted American composer Caroline Shaw became the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. A very hip multi-instrumentalist, performer, vocalist and record producer, the New York-based Shaw is also an idealist, firmly convinced – as am I – that music represents a sort of model of democracy; a way to collaborate and listen to each other from which we all could learn, regardless of our particular musical tastes or talents. The string quartet here was commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and its charter ‘promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.’
//I feel like music had absolute faith in me. I feel like it was waiting for me to come back and was there for me. //- Clemency Burton-Hill
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