The Making of Music (Part 1)

How do you go about exploring a millennium of music? In the first of a six-part series, James Naughtie reveals how he wrote his landmark history of classical music for Radio 4

I was on a down escalator in Waterloo Station when the controller of Radio 4 rang to ask if I wanted to write a narrative history for the network. I asked a cautious question as I disappeared into the depths: ‘Of what?’ When he said, ‘music, of course’, I was glad to have a moment to shout ‘yes’ before my phone died.

Then the trouble started.

How do you deal with the history of Western classical music in 60 15-minute episodes? You want some monks, some lutes, madrigals and masses, early opera, violins from Cremona and organs from Leipzig, Handel and Bach, Haydn and Mozart… and then you have only two centuries to go.

Oh dear. We needed a plan. The series isn’t musicological – I haven’t the expertise to talk convincingly about harmony and counterpoint and the rest – but something close to a social account.

Why was music written as it was, in a certain place and at a certain time; what influenced it; who paid for it; who heard it; what helped to shape it? We’d try to explain how composers were shaped or channelled by the world in which they lived. So we began.

This journey with music takes us from early monasteries to medieval courts and the haunts of the troubadours, to Renaissance churches and palaces, Luther’s Germany and the court of the Sun King, the first Italian opera houses. We travel (only in sound and in our heads: your licence fee is safe) to Bach’s Leipzig, Handel’s London, Haydn’s Vienna, Revolutionary France and on into the 19th century and the Romantic age.

By then we’ll be in Victorian London at the height of its confidence in – where else? – the Royal Albert Hall (pictured left), before travelling from the mid-19th century to the present day. It’s a thrilling ride, showing how vividly our musical tradition reflects our past and how it lives on today. It is the soundtrack to Europe’s history. I promise you both excitement and solace – and lots of music. Listen.


The Making of Music was broadcast on Radio 4 and is now available as a BBC Audiobook

Audio clip: The Making of Music – Introduction: Origins

Related links:
The Making of Music (Part 1)
The Making of Music (Part 2)
The Making of Music (Part 3)
The Making of Music (Part 4)

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