Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Music History as Entertainment

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I recently came across some entertaining and captivating music history series produced by the BBC (and was reminded of a few others from the past).

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music.  Howard Goodall is a composer and a lively presenter (American PBS fans: he wrote the themes for the tv shows Red Dwarf, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Mr. Bean, as well as film scores, choral music, and musicals).  This six-part series covers music history from prehistory to modern times, with modern examples used in earlier periods to illustrate the timelessness of certain musical techniques.  Unfortunately, the only official venue to see the series is on the BBC site, which offers only clips.  A shorter version was also produced for use in schools.  I have an inquiry in to the BBC to find out if they will be releasing it on DVD, but have not yet received a reply.  The material of the series is also available in book form, available at the usual venues and possibly at your local library (The Story of Music, Howard Goodall, 780.9 G).  Here’s the BBC page with clips.  Sadly, this other BBC clip page doesn’t seem to be working at this time (or perhaps because I am not in the UK).  Here Howard Goodall talks about the making of the series.  One of his inspirations was Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts (more on that later).

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs is a more commercially accessible series.  The five-part series, instead of covering the panorama of musical history, focuses on key moments in music history:  the invention of notation, opera, equal temperament, the piano, and recording.  This is available on DVD and in book form.  No clips are available on the BBC website.

Goodall is not the first to use video to bring music history to the public.  Leonard Bernstein was a trailblazer here in his production of the Young People’s Concerts series and his Omnibus tv broadcasts.  Both series are available on DVD (and possibly at your library, 780.15L) at the usual venues and at the Leonard Bernstein website.  Here’s a trailer to give you a taste.

A slightly different and equally compelling approach was taken by Wynton Marsalis in his Marsalis on Music series.  This series focuses more on jazz, but also covers fundamental concepts like rhythm and meter.  My favorite title is Tackling the Monster-Practice.  The series has a companion book.  The DVD and book are available at your favorite seller and on his website.  If you’re a Marsalis fan, he has a lot of video clips on his website.   Here’s the trailer for the series.

One more BBC series and I promise I’ll stop, but this is the most musically beautiful of them all, though more narrowly focused.  It is Sacred Music with presenter Simon Russell Beale.  If you get a chance to see this, you’ll be blown away by the music of The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers.  Stunning, gorgeous choral music.  In the first series, the first program covers plainchant to Bach, the second Palestrina, the third Tallis and Byrd, and the fourth Bach.  A second series covers Brahms and Bruckner; Fauré and Poulenc; Gorecki and Pärt; and modern UK composers, including James MacMillan. Only the first series is available at present on DVD.  No clips are available on the BBC website for the seriesAn interview with Beale on the second series was published by The Guardian.  Here’s the trailer for the series Sacred Music.

I hope you’ll get a chance to take a look at these series.  You’re sure to enjoy them.

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