HOWARD GOODALL'S STORY OF MUSIC (2013)

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1. The Age of Discovery

Today music is available everywhere, at the press of a button, but a thousand years ago it was an eerie whisper in a desert of silence. However music has always been a crucial part of human existence. Archaeological evidence shows us that music - although we have absolutely no idea what it sounded like - was just as important a component of life in the Upper Paleolithic Age as it is today.

Howard Goodall charts the development of the oldest music that has come down to us from the ancient world intact, the 'Gregorian' chant. It started with a handful of monks singing the same tune in unison, without rhythm, without harmony. Over several centuries, with developments coming at a snail's pace, medieval musicians painstakingly put together the basics of what we now call harmony and added rhythm. These are the building blocks of the music the whole planet enjoys today.

The arrival of a workable form of musical notation, around 1000 AD, gave music another shot in the arm. Now harmony could become ever more sophisticated. Not one, or two, but many voices. In Europe, at this point in history, music was something rarely heard outside church. Then, thanks in part to the development of more sophisticated musical instruments, folk music went from strength to strength. By 1600, secular music rivaled sacred music as the dominant form.

By the time Monteverdi wrote the first successful opera, in 1607, most of the kit of musical parts we still have today had been developed and honed - a process that took a thousand years. In Monteverdi's hands, using all the techniques then developed, music could express complex, conflicting, and even combustible political emotions. (00:58:58)

 

2. The Age of Invention

In the second program, composer Howard Goodall looks at the extraordinarily fertile musical period between 1650 and 1750, in which many of the musical innovations we take for granted today were invented. The orchestra; the overture, which led, ultimately, to the symphony; satisfying chord sequences, which gave music a forward momentum; modern tuning, which, for the first time, allowed composers to move from one key to any other they chose, and for different instruments to easily play together; the concerto, the oratorio, and, not least, the piano.

In an age when Newton put in place the basic laws of science, musicians did the same thing in music. No wonder, in an age that also saw great advances in clock-making, that much of the music of this period sounds like the whirring, clicking and ticking of an intricate, magical machine.

This was the age of Corelli, Vivaldi, and the Four Seasons, Bach, and Handel. Vivaldi developed a form of concerto where a charismatic solo violin was pitted against the rest of the orchestra. Bach was the master of counterpoint, the interweaving and layering of tunes. All Bach's music was composed to glorify God. To do so, not least in his monumental St John and St Matthew Passions, he wrote some of the most subtly complex, heartfelt music of all time. Handel, most famously in Messiah, brought all the techniques of the preceding hundred years to a brilliant pitch, in a work that was as crowd-pleasing - and patriotic - as it was sacred. The paying public had arrived on the scene, and music was to change profoundly.

Every popular song written today still draws on the techniques developed in this extraordinary age of invention. (00:58:36)

 

3. The Age of Elegance & Sensibility

Composer Howard Goodall looks at the age of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin. This was an era - from 1750 to 1850 - in which composers went from being the paid, liveried servants of princes and archbishops to working as freelancers, who, most of all, needed to appeal to a new, middle-class audience. Or starve.

This period saw tremendous social upheaval. The American, French, and Industrial revolutions. And yet, until 1800 or so, composers for the most part wrote music that seemed oblivious to the tumultuous social changes unfolding all around it.

In this era, the symphony was born. Initially, as a musical form that was purely abstract, an enjoyable and brain-teasing meander through variations of a simple tune. The music of Haydn and Mozart - with the exceptions of some of Mozart's operas - ignored the darker side of life, and concentrated on the upside.

In the hands of Beethoven, though, the template for the tormented composer-as-genius, music radically changed gear. Beethoven's music became deadly serious, rather than aimed at pleasing an after-dinner audience. His orchestras grew bigger and bigger. Nature itself became a metaphor for the composer's own psychology. Beethoven's near contemporary, Schubert, brought the melancholy voice-and-piano love song to the status of high art. In the hands of an artist like Adele, it's still with us today.

Beethoven's Ode to Joy announced that music could, as he believed, convert the whole world to the ideal of universal brotherhood. That music should henceforth be about reforming humanity was a challenge that younger composers eagerly accepted.

Following Beethoven's lead in his Pastoral Symphony, a whole musical movement began that painted pictures in sound. Brilliantly in the hands of Mendelssohn. The Age of Elegance & Sensibility closes with Chopin, whose delicate, deceptively complex piano music inspired a generation to learn to play the new factory-made instruments, for which vast swathes of piano music was written. The piano, at last, gave women a chance to compose music. (00:58:39)

 

4. The Age of Tragedy

In the fourth part, composer Howard Goodall examines the music of the middle to late 19th century, in which a craze for operas and music that dealt with death and destiny swept Europe. Inspired by Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique, music written about witches, ghouls, trolls and hellish torment became the norm. Even Italian opera succumbed to the death and destiny obsession, with Verdi's La Traviata. The tragic death of its heroine was also a comment on the hypocrisies of the wider society.

The composer who was the most influential figure of the mid 19th century was the cosmopolitan Hungarian-born Franz Liszt. Little wonder that he wrote pieces about two of the mythical figures that obsessed the composers of the period - Faust, the superior, brooding intellectual who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for esoteric knowledge and earthly pleasures, and Prometheus, who is punished for all eternity by Zeus for giving mankind the gift of fire. The age of the Superman was around the corner. And the image of the composer as a moody, misunderstood genius, apart from other men, was cemented in the public imagination.

One of Liszt's many innovations was music that seemingly 'sampled' the folk music of his native land. In the second half of the 19th century, this 'Ethnic Heritage' musical movement gathered pace. But what we hear, in Liszt, Brahms and Dvorak, is rarely genuine peasant forms. Although in Dvorak's New World Symphony, we do seem to hear a borrowed American-Indian tune, which caused great controversy. This was music for a middle class audience, with exotic flavorings.

The composer Liszt most influenced, though, not least in terms of musical nationalism, was his own son in law, Richard Wagner. Wagner reinvented opera, and introduced into it darker, more unstable harmonies, that were to change the music that followed him - derived, ultimately, from experiments already made by Liszt. Wagner's operas are a towering achievement. But they had a dark side. Wagner's operas - and his political writings - were later to act as an inspiration for Hitler. The swirling, nationalistic, romantic, nihilistic undercurrents of the music of this period is still troubling today. (00:59:17)

 

5. The Age of Rebellion

In the fifth episode, composer Howard Goodall looks at the period when modernism in music arrived, and when the birth of recorded sound changed the way music was heard, played, and sold, forever.

The death of Richard Wagner in 1883 led, not to a series of pseudo-Wagners, but to a series of developments that in many ways were in opposition to his monumental ambitions. In France the uncluttered and 'chillaxed' music of Gabriel Faure, Erik Satie and others was like a long hot lazy afternoon. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler invited all forms of music, including Jewish folk music into their generous embrace.

Elsewhere folk music was beginning to make an impact on musical form and texture. The self-taught Mussorgsky actually sounded Russian - unlike Tchaikovsky, the most famous Russian composer of the day! When Mussorgsky's music came to the Paris World Fair in 1889 it astonished non-Russian composers, especially Claude Debussy. He was also greatly influenced by the music of Java, also showcased at the World Fair. These influences from abroad were to change mainstream music and prefigure what we'd now call 'World Music'. And when Diaghilev and Stravinsky collaborated on a series of ballets, the results - also using Russian folk forms, with revolutionary rhythms attached - astonished, terrified and scandalized the audience in equal measure, in works like the ground-breaking Rite of Spring. So too the extraordinary dissonant and erotic operas of Richard Strauss, especially Salome. Modern music had begun.

But meanwhile another crucial building block of modern music was sliding into place. More than anything recording brought the music of America - particularly the folk idioms of African Americans, Chinese, and Irish and Scottish laborers into the mainstream as the blues, ragtime and then jazz developed, and then swept the planet. Classical music - for a time - retreated into a golden summer of nostalgia, exemplified by the enduring appeal of Elgar's Enigma Variations, written as the nineteenth century drew to a close. And before the First World War ripped Europe apart. (00:59:20)

 

6. The Popular Age

In the sixth and final episode, composer Howard Goodall looks at the popular age - the last hundred years in music. It has been a period when classical music, as it is now generically styled, seemed to many to be in retreat, crisis or even terminal decline. Howard Goodall believes that rumors of its death have been exaggerated. While some cutting edge works proved too challenging to win the hearts of a mainstream audience, the DNA of classical music, as it had been constituted since the time of Monteverdi in the 1600s, is alive and well in musical theatre, in the cinema and in much popular music. Beginning with Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, a jazz-classical hybrid first performed in 1924 that became a much-loved standard - despite its sniffy reception by highbrow critics at the time.

Indeed it was popular music, after the First World War, that was more likely to comment directly on the things that were on most people's minds - the rise of fascism, and the racism aimed at African-Americans in the USA. Works like The Threepenny Opera, Porgy and Bess and Billie Holiday's signature song Strange Fruit, and later, West Side Story, pushed the boundaries of the seriousness that popular styles could convey.

And it was popular song, after the Second World War, that was more likely to protest about racism and inequality, and the Vietnam War, in the hands of Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and others.

The Beatles, meanwhile, had utilized a bewildering variety of different styles and techniques, some rediscovered, some invented by themselves. With George Martin and the engineers at Abbey Road, they explored and instituted new possibilities offered by recording technology. And, thanks to albums by The Beatles and others, styles from other cultures began to become better known in the west. 'World music' had begun and is still going strong.

But classical music during the Second World War had connected with a mainstream audience, in works like Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony - written as his home city endured an apocalyptic siege - and Aaron Copland's optimistic ballet, Appalachian Spring. If some of the wilder shores of experiment had failed to carry the mainstream audience with them, these works once again connected leading composers and the public. The circle was complete with the arrival, in the 1960s and 70s, of minimalism - and composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. Reich, in particular, who was inspired by Balinese drumming music, and who also became the godfather of 'sampling', was enormously influential on cutting edge 'popular' music. A term that was fast becoming increasingly misleading and irrelevant. Philip Glass wrote a Low Symphony based on music by David Bowie - exchange was now a two-way street, and what's more it was an exchange between equal partners.

The damaging split between what had been seen as diametrically opposed opposites - classical and popular - has in our own time, finally begun to close. (00:59:05)

 

 


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