He lays out his stall in the opening lines – “music … today is a massive global phenomenon, and so it’s hard for us to imagine a time when, in centuries gone by, people could go weeks without hearing any music at all. Even in the 19th century you might hear your favourite symphony four or five times in your whole lifetime…”
Weeks? Really? Without hearing music at all? I’m sorry, Mr Goodall, but that is utter nonsense. But also very telling nonsense. It reveals that to Mr Goodall, as with most classical musicians, only the music of the courts, the Art music played by professional musicians, written down by the musically educated, is worthy of mention or consideration. What about the bagpipers depicted regularly by Breugel? The church carvings of the 12th and 13th centuries portraying pipers, lutenists and fiddlers? Among the ordinary people depicted in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which describes a group of people meeting in a tavern on their pilgrimage to the shrine of Becket at Canterbury, the knight, squire, prioress, friar, miller, cook’s apprentice, pardoner, sumner, carpenter’s wife, Nicholas the poor scholar and Absalom the parish clerk are all performing musicians. By stating that people of the time spent weeks without hearing music at all is he suggesting that the folk music, the dances, the work songs and drinking songs, story songs that accompanied everyday life for the ordinary peasants, is not worthy of consideration as music? That he goes on to mention “your favourite symphony” makes it clear, as it was only the upper middle classes and aristocracy that went to symphonic concerts in the 19th century.
Of course this could just be an innocent error, albeit repeated at the opening of each programme, but alas I cannot give him that credit, as I have been through the Classical mill and seen this snobbery at first hand many times. What this programme is, is the story of Western Classical composition presented as if that is the only story of music, as if Western Classical music is the only music, and the evolution of Western music is the evolution of music itself.
Whilst that may be forgivable, the opening title sequence pulls a common trick. By including images of Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, a forty-thousand year old flute, cave paintings and ancient Greek ceramics he is implying that Western Classical music is the heir to the entire world’s musical history, and that journey will continue on into the future. He is also claiming Jazz, folk and world music as part of this journey, which it isn’t.
Certainly Western Classical music gave the world the concept of functional harmony, but in doing so it stole from music the wonderful colourings of expressive and natural tuning used to this day so richly in India and the Middle East. Certainly it created an accurate system for writing music down, thus enabling many instruments to play different notes together, but in doing so it regimented rhythm into neat little packets divisible by four, thus stripping it of all the subtleties of swung and complex rhythms found in Jazz and folk music around the world, which simply cannot be written down without great rhythmic compromises.
Goodall’s portrayal of the story of music is typical of the kind of 1970s Oxford graduate he is, steeped in conservatism, elitism, imperialism and the worst kind of blinkered classical snobbery, which is what makes his constant attempts to be popularist by playing Keane piano parts or using cheap synth sounds to play Bach so cynical and embarrassing.
Imperialist and patronising (“there’ll be no need for misleading jargon or fancy labels. Terms like Baroque, impressionism or nationalism are best put to one side.”) this was a missed opportunity by the BBC, and one that is at least forty years out of date.