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Bill Bailey on his relationship with classical music and how it has shaped his life

The comedian and winner of Strictly Come Dancing shares his favourite works of classical music with BBC Music Magazine

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 20: Bill Bailey attends the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019 press day at Chelsea Flower Show on May 20, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Born in Bath in 1964, Bill Bailey is best known to many as the musical polymath on Never Mind the Buzzcocks on BBC2. His other TV appearances have included the comedy Black Books, Have I Got News for You and, in 1998, his own show Is It Bill Bailey?, in which he combined sketches, monologues and musical parody.

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An accomplished pianist, he brings his keyboard skills to light in stage shows such as the acclaimed Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. In 2020, he was crowned the winner of Strictly Come Dancing with his partner Oti Mabuse. 

I like to keep my musical ideas fresh. So, in one evening I’ll gladly listen to some electronica, some Canadian prog folk perhaps, a bit of Icelandic humming, some Mongolian throat singing… and then round things off with Vladimir Ashkenazy playing piano music!

I was aware of music before I was even aware of it: my Mum and Dad played it in the house a lot, and I must have absorbed it subconsciously. Probably my earliest childhood memory of a piece of music is Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. I remember quite clearly being bounced on my mother’s knee to the rhythm of the music. She would bring it life by saying that it was horses running over a hill, and then you’d have the hunter calling the horses. I was rapt listening to it.

Recommended recording of Sibelius‘s Karelia Suite:
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Ondine ODE 8782

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I started learning the piano at the age of four. My piano teacher was quite strict and would tell me off quite crossly if I didn’t practise, which was actually a good way of giving me an early appreciation. When you start off, the music you are drawn to naturally is the stuff you can play. Then, as your ability increases, it starts to widen your interests.

I will always have an affinity for Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Piano Concerto, as it was the first piece I performed properly in public. I played the first movement at school with a small chamber orchestra, and wrote my own cadenza. That was actually one of the reasons for doing it – to show what a pianist can do when he is given free rein by the composer. That idea of taking a style of music or a theme and putting your own spin on it applies to a lot of what I do today. I also remember the sheer terror of playing something in front of people when there are other musicians involved – you can’t just stop and bail out…

Recommended recording of Mozart‘s Piano Concerto No. 26 ‘Coronation’:
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Warner Elatus 2564-60679-2

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Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier) have always intrigued me. You’ve got these incredibly well worked-out fugues, where all the lines interlink and intertwine but such beautiful music too.  That they should have started out as something as functional as a teaching aid I just found extraordinary. The idea is that, if you start at the first and work your way through, every element of your technique will be challenged – that’s amazing! I’ve never tried to play them in concert, though I did incorporate Prelude No. 21 in B flat major in my stand-up routine when I was discovering the cockney influences on composers – it does go a bit cockney in the middle.

Recommended recording of Bach‘s Well-Tempered Clavier:
Angela Hewitt (piano) 
Hyperion CDA 67741-4 (4 discs)

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We had a fantastic sheet music place in Bath and I used to go there and browse – at one minute I’d find myself straying towards, say, Kate Bush’s Greatest Hits and at another I’d be in the classical section. When I came across Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, the very name of it – ‘The Drowned Cathedral’ – really brought it to life. I liked the idea of music trying to describe something, rather than having an abstract name or number and you imposing your own thoughts. It was the first time I realised that music had this ability to take you to another place.

Recommended recording of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie:
Steven Osborne (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67530

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Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals always seemed to me to be that point where adult and children’s musical worlds cross over. You could imagine the animals from hearing them and, again, made me realise what a descriptive power there is in music. Not only is it fantastic music, but Saint-Saëns was having fun too. It had jokes in it, like the tortoises dancing the slowed down can-can! That’s always been my own aim in doing musical comedy: to make the music itself the joke.

Recommended recording of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals:
Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky & Isabelle van Keulen
Philips E4168412

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Interview by Jeremy Pound. This article first appeared in the Christmas 2009 issue of BBC Music Magazine.