Music history teachers, at least in my experience, tend to be dry, humorless folk prone to over enunciating delectable phrases like "mensural notation" and "Guillaume Dufay." And, again from experience, the only thing worse than a music history teacher is a music theory teacher. You try to stay awake during a learned discussion of the many fascinating differences between a German and French augmented sixth chord (not much, it turns out). And yet owing to my own insatiable thirst for musical knowledge during my school years, these sorts of classes were always my favorite, which probably ends up saying as much about me as about my esteemed professors. Howard Goodall, pretty esteemed in his own right (and write, as it were, with several musicals and themes for such popular UK television fare as Blackadder to his credit), takes a more bombastic and at times bordering on loony approach to these worthy matters, and thereby makes them deliciously entertaining just about every step of the way. Goodall is a lovable goofus, dancing via green screen past various scores while making strange neck motions one can only compare to a rabid goose's (do geese get rabies?), whacking at various lengths of metal while joining in a deep discussion of the "Pythagorean comma," or simply sleeping in a rowboat, all of which made me wish repeatedly that he had been my personal music history and theory teacher. Well, in Big Bangs, he is, and the good news is, he can be yours, too.
This UK miniseries, which aired in the late 90s but is only now making it to DVD, deals with five epochal discoveries which transformed the canvas of music. The series includes the episodes:
Notation. It's hard to realize what a stunning invention writing down music actually was, but Goodall, as he is wont to do throughout this entire enterprise, comes up with the perfect, and in this case extremely humorous, example. After explaining that the bulk of music pre-notation was handed down from generation to generation via (literally) oral transmission--i.e., rote memorization--Goodall then enlists the aid of several young male choristers. He proposes a musical version of "Telephone" (evidently known in the UK as "Whispers"), and goes on to sing a Gregorian chant-like trope to the lead chorister. That child then runs across the courtyard, and, though he transposes it up to his countertenor range, does an admirable job of repeating it to the next child. Things then go horribly awry. As the melody is transferred from ear to lip to ear to lip, it quickly devolves into something not even remotely similar to what Goodall opened the exercise with. Thus the difficulties of accurate reproduction of a "set" score are admirably demonstrated. Goodall goes on to trace the evolution of written music from neumes (the little squiggles that started appearing above chant's liturgical texts, though their precise meaning is still a matter of some debate) until finally a genius by the name of Guido d'Arezzo worked out the foundation for what would ultimately become our modern staff and clef system. Goodall's nutty humor is on glorious display here, with little throwaway lines such as when he is explaining the "do-re-mi" system in a museum dedicated to Guido and asserts that pressing a button on a display (which actually activates a recording, not to state the obvious) will alert a cloistered group of monks who reside behind the wall to begin singing. (Goodall's delivery is so deadpan that my youngest son turned to me and said, "Are there really monks behind the wall, Dad?").
Equal Temperament. This episode, which deals largely with the mathematics behind what has become our modern chromatic scale, could easily have been the driest of the bunch. And yet Goodall's unfailing good nature pulls the viewer through with nary a puzzlement as he details the Greeks' fascination with ratios and how that interest ended up producing the beginnings of the nascent major scale we still play today. Though Goodall does shirk from a true in-depth analysis of rational versus irrational numbers, which might have shed a little more light on the Greeks' insistence on using "perfect" intervals (fourths, fifths and octaves) to the exclusion of the more colorful thirds and sixths, he more than makes up for it in a fascinatingly presented visual version of how the Greek scale was derived by constantly dividing a given tone by 2/3 in order to arrive at the next scalar degree (which, for you musically inclined folk, gives you a perfect fifth above whatever tone you started with). Unfortunately, this insistence on a 2/3 ratio also resulted in what is known as the "Pythagorean comma," a fancy term which means that by the time you go through 12 of these 2/3 permutations you should be back at your starting tone, and yet you aren't--you're off by a minute frequency which is this very "comma." That may not sound like a big deal (no pun intended), but it leads to a whole host of problems, not the least of which instruments can't play in tune with each other over more than seven notes. The Greeks had a handy way of dealing with that--they said anything over seven notes was excessive. As Goodall humorously points out, it wasn't until church musicians started getting "greedy" and wanted all 12 chromatic (i.e., half-step) notes available that things really got bad. Because scales were derived from a foundation note, and then parsed through the various 2/3 ratios from that fundamental, it meant that say a C fundamental would not be the same C as that derived from the first 2/3 transformation from a fundamental of F. Something needed to be done, and that something was equal temperament, where tiny amounts of each frequency are shaved off in order to make the distance between all notes (not just fifths) "equal." Goodall again does a masterful job in not only making this all understandable, but delightfully enjoyable.
Opera is up next and it is testament to Goodall's hosting charms that this genre, which is generally not my cup of tea, was made as interesting and funny as the other four outings. Opera had a fairly unsuccessful start, with two failed attempts to merge drama with song, before some enterprising gentlemen thought that the concept could be rescued. One of them, Duke Gonzaga, happened to have a court musician by the name of Monteverdi on his staff (in one of the more delectable jokes of this episode, Goodall pauses in front of a mammoth mural of Gonzaga and family and states that it was the basis of their Christmas card that year). Monteverdi of course went on to basically invent modern opera as we know it with his first take on the genre, "L'Orfeo," which literally personified music in the character of the hapless, yet musically inspired, man who attempts to rescue his bride from the underworld through the charms of his talent. Goodall does an admirable job tying Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" to the nascent revolutionary fervor that was beginning to percolate throughout Europe. That fervor, strangely, led to a new nationalistic zeal that spawned the likes of Verdi, and more sinisterly, Wagner. While some may argue with Goodall's assertion that minimalist composer John Adams is the current reigning "greatest genius" of classical music, let alone opera, Goodall nonetheless shows the operatic form growing into new and unexpected territory (perhaps figuratively as well as literally) with Adams' "Nixon in China."
Goodall starts off his episode on The Piano with a little tip o' the regent's hat to the film The Piano, suitably enough, with a grand perched somewhat precariously on a beach as look-alikes for Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin stare in disbelief as Goodall pounds out a music hall burlesque number. Goodall goes on to explain the four basic types of ancient instruments (plucked, hit, blown, bowed) and then goes on to a brief overview of how both the plucked and struck instruments merged ultimately to become the pianoforte (soft-loud in Italian, for its unique dynamic capabilities which its precursors the clavichord and harpsichord didn't share). Goodall shows the genius behind Bartolomeo Cristofori's vision in not only the idea of the instrument, but the engineering ingenuity that was necessary to bring it into being. Goodall then takes a quick historical stroll through various champions of the piano, including Franz Schubert and Beethoven, who wrote such commanding pieces of pianism that they weren't even capable of being played on the instruments of his time. A nice travelogue from glorious locale to locale culminates in the French Exposition which introduces Claude Debussy to the exotic sounds of the gamelan, helping him to imagine new sonic worlds which have too frequently been lumped under the catch-all generic title Impressionism.
The final episode Recorded Sound may have the most pertinent information for today's technology obsessed youth. Goodall of course starts with Edison's amazing (though by today's standards amazingly primitive) phonograph, and gives a charming demonstration of how its tin-foil recording surface did not exactly result in digital clarity. There is then a nice, and again subtly humorous, display of recording techniques in the early decades of the 20th century, showing how singers had to shout into a reverse megaphone which focused their vocal sound waves to the recording device. Utilizing these reverse megaphones made recording more than one or two instruments especially daunting, not to mention that softer stringed instruments often couldn't be aurally captured at all. This leads to a patently hilarious vintage recording of Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro played entirely by brass and winds. Goodall navigates the improving technology, highlighted by the appearance of the electric microphone in 1925, leading to a slew of recording advances which has led us to today's digital age. While some might question his thesis of world music's popularity spanning from the dearth of classical warhorses that haven't yet been recorded (and many times over), his analysis of the history of sampling (which goes back decades to at least the 50s and 60s, something that might surprise today's younger DJs) is fascinating, including some nice snippets of Steve Reich's pieces, with an interview with Reich as the icing on the cake.
Goodall's charm and humor carry this series extremely well and make these five "big bangs" of musical invention top-notch entertainment aside from their informative value. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention one small problem: Goodall, evidently following an unspoken requirement for music history and theory guides, does over-enunciate.
While the basic image of Big Bangs is sound (sorry, couldn't resist), it's unfortunately in an unenhanced 1.78:1 ratio. Colors, saturation and contrast are all excellent. There was some very minor and occasional aliasing on a couple of episodes.
The standard stereo soundtrack is a virtual compendium of beautiful musics from throughout history. Unfortunately, it's a bit on the boxy side, mixed with a peculiar brightness on the high end that makes some of the stratospheric string pieces a bit hard on the ears. It sounds great when compared to the wax cylinders you'll hear played on the "Recorded Sound" episode, though. No subtitles are available.
None are offered.
Big Bangs is a must-see and must-listen for all music fans, no matter what your particular stripe might be. So much wonderful information is presented in such a wonderfully imaginative way that I guarantee you'll be entranced. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet