‘Howard Goodall’s Story of Music’ (BBC2)
‘The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Music’ (BBC4)
I really thought the BBC4 series was going to provide an antidote to the banality of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music. But it didn’t. The content of the Goodall series was probably fascinating, it’s not as if the composer doesn’t know his stuff. However, the presentation was so cheesy, gimmicky, tricksy and twee that it I found it utterly unwatchable.
So, on to the ‘The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Music’. This could have been an excellent series. It could have been a match for last year’s wonderful set of programmes on Twentieth Century British Painters. But it wasn’t. Here was an opportunity to unpack the myriad twists and turns of the last hundred years of music. There was good stuff in here – an iconic start with the dissonant chord that so shocked the first audiences at Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’ and the densely choreographed violence of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The ground-breaking work of Debussy was explained. But then everything began to be blanded out into a too-simplified, linear pattern with the story arc bumping along a well rutted track. There was a plot – musical experimentations break all boundaries, tunes disappear, dissonance rules, wars destroy all harmony, the cold war heightens tensions, but peace and love bring us back full circle to a new melody: minimalism, mixing the frenetic, scratchy angst of certain drug taking with the blissed out chilling of the loved up. However, to tell this story too many composers were left to rot. It was great to hear more about Schoenberg and the twelve tone system, however while one pupil, Webern, was given some attention, another, Berg was ignored. Bartok and Janacek were totally forgotten. That Schoenberg was an artist as well as a composer was attested to several times. Yet the links weren’t made between the rise of the abstract in music and the development of abstract theory and practise in contemporaneous European painting .
There was some contextual material, especially with reference to the world wars, the rise of Nazism, the hollow hope that some composers had that Fascist governments would support their art and the shock that came with the banning of ‘degenerate music’. Shostakovich was addressed from within the strictures of Stalin’s Russia and that was all appropriate. The compulsively neurotic work of Gyorgy Ligeti was thoughtfully linked to the destruction of his family by the Nazis and his own war-time privations. Then Eastern Europe and Russia faded out of the scene. Where was Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Witold Lutolslawski? Closer to home, what happened to Henri Dutilleux, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett? And, unforgivably, there was no space at all for Alfred Schnittke, who, while initially heavily influenced by Shostakovich, went on to develop his own poly-stylistic forms of music and in his opera ‘Historia von D. Johann Fausten’ produced an incredibly fierce and almost matchlessly frightening depiction of dark forces unleashed. His viola and cello concertos are beautifully edgy disquisitions on the plight of the soul in a post-modern world, untethered from the comforts of faith in the afterlife yet unable to settle in a culture of competing values. Hmmm, I think it might soon be time for a separate post on Schnittke’s work.
Go over to the States and, yes, Charles Ives, received reverent space. Everything seemed to be going well, with an interesting build-up from Terry Riley through to John Adams with a detour on the way to pay silent homage at the feet of John Cage. We had Philip Glass and Steve Reich talking, along with, Adams about their work. Wonderful. But no Elliott Carter. And we were drifting towards a damp and tame end. Which was a shame – sure there was Boulez hovering throughout the proceedings with his box of IRCAM tricks, Stockhausen was parachuted in (sans helicopters) and yes, Messiaen’s influence was acknowledged (I think a good case could be made for ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ being the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth century), however when it came to contemporary British composers the finish was limp. George Benjamin and John Tavener were allowed to talk, Harrison Birtwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were included as the grand old men of music. James Macmillan, Steve Martland, Michael Nyman, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Judith Weir were among many conspicuous by their absence.
This series was a lost opportunity. Perhaps its brief was just too wide to satisfy, perhaps it was never going to cover the full panoply of twentieth-century composing in three hours but it’s blinkered sticking to a pre-determined story lessened its impact, cheapened its authority and left me feeling rather hard done by.