WORKS: Five momentous discoveries that changed the course of Western music: Notation; Equal Temperament; Opera; Piano; Recorded Sound
PERFORMER: Howard Goodall; with John Mark Ainsley; Bournemouth Symphony Chorus; Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford; Salisbury Cathedral Choir etc
CATALOGUE NO: 0-51442-8820-2-5 (NTSC system; Dolby 2.0; 4:3 picture format) 249 mins (2 discs)
Anyone for a lengthy documentary on equal temperament, or the development of notation? Possibly not. Don’t be hasty though: Big Bangs promises ‘five momentous discoveries that changed the course of Western music’ and if anyone can bring the arcane delights of Werckmeister-111 or the nemesis of the neume to life on screen it’s Howard Goodall.
Ten years after the broadcasts, his Channel 4 series remains a model of how to engage with non-specialist audiences, convey difficult concepts and avoid the usual tosh such as ‘if Mozart were alive he’d be writing advertising jingles’. True, ‘Dunstable was the most influential English composer in Europe before the Beatles’ comes close, but there’s at least a case to argue!
Guido d’Arezzo rubs shoulders with Courtney Pine, the last castrato with Steve Reich, and, rolling his ‘Rs’ like an over-drilled head-chorister, Goodall breezes along, never stuck for the telling soundbite: ‘Bach and Vivaldi are the granary bread and butter of classic fare’ and, of French operetta, ‘kickers in knickers’.
If there’s sometimes a certain slickness it’s simply polish over-applied, and the illuminating, ingeniously inter-cut visuals complement Goodall’s knowledgeably enthusiastic, literally hands-on communicatory expertise.
Any man who can explain the Pythagorean comma one moment and in another reveal that Mahler’s composing hut at Attersee became the toilet block for a subsequent caravan park on the site deserves another series! Paul Riley