Bravo to the BBC on an enjoyable, educational programme
I watch very little television. The brash, braying frenzy of so much of what I have caught has long left me seeking sanctuary in the discipline of radio: there, all sound - or silence - must be meaningful. The BBC of course has a noble tradition of bucking the trend with its cultural offerings, and its latest is on a mainstream channel (BBC 2) on primetime television (Saturday evening). People had said good things about Howard Goodall's new series The Story of Music, and so I logged on to the iPlayer catch-up service and, indeed, caught up.
I was impressed with what I found. With a script both wise and witty, with nods to modernity, Goodall, in episode one, traced the history of music from a time before we know what it sounded like, to Monteverdi's ground-breaking opera L'Orfeo. We pass swiftly, but clearly, through the invention of notation and the history of harmony, complexity given clarity at every turn. Goodall delivers the programme almost entirely from a studio, explaining and enthusing. He sometimes sits down at his keyboard to demonstrate various points: I can’t imagine the concept of the imperfect third being explained more succinctly. When something needs illustrating, the camera cuts away to a painting or manuscript from the time - there's little resorting, as does many a factual programme, to the costume cupboard. There is a sometimes overenthusiastic use of a superimposed flickering flame to indicate eras of conflict and tension, but that's a small gripe. The one exception to the above is when Goodall visits a barber’s shop to illustrate the once ubiquity of popular ballads, but everyone needs their hair cut at some point, and if Goodall can get it done on the job, good luck to him.
I've often felt sad that while other disciplines and subjects have advocates among their own that the wider world welcomes into their living rooms, when it comes to classical music people have so often looked for an outside celebrity to bridge the perceived (and false) gap between them and us. Sometimes this works very well of course, but Goodall – best known as a choral, musical and television composer - offers another option. Those who know nothing, little or even a fair amount about the story of music would all have enjoyed this. I hope, and am sure it will, encourage many on new journeys of discovery.
Episode two of The Story of Music is broadcast on Saturday - or available soon after on the iPlayer.
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.