It’s not often that a book on music makes you rush to the fridge, not to grab a beer but to look at butter packaging. But that was the effect of Howard Goodall’s book The Story of Music, written to accompany his six part BBC Two series (beginning 26 January, 9.30pm, BBC Two). Goodall describes how the Danes were so excited by the discovery in Zealand of a set of six Bronze Age lurs (a fingerhole-free brass horn), that when it came to naming one of their most famous exports, they called it Lurpak. Two lurs also feature as part of the pack’s design.
The format of Goodall’s latest television venture follows one he has used successfully in series like Big Bangs or Great Dates. He does not tell the history of music in the traditional, chronological manner, by recounting the lives of the great composers, but settles on those important events without which music could never have progressed, the most significant being the invention of notation.
Goodall got the idea for his new series from his previous television work. ‘Over the years I’ve made programmes about individual bits and pieces of musical history,’ he says. ‘It occurred to me to try and bring it all together into one series, to make a through line. The more I got thinking about this, the more I realised how unnecessarily complicated the way we tell the story of music has always been.’ In particular, Goodall is highly suspicious of the jargon that surrounds music. ‘I’ve always, pretty much from when I started making programmes, worried about terminology and categories of music which seemed more unhelpful than they were helpful. You don’t need a history degree to read a book about the fall of Stalingrad. But often when describing music, which is after all an aural sensation, quite a lot of the words begin to get in the way and become more of a hindrance. And so I thought if there is a point in having another go at telling the story of music as it developed over the years, one nice benefit would be to try and clarify that and avoid the complications of bad terminology. That became my mission.’
The film opens with Goodall exploring music’s place – both instrumental and vocal – in early societies proving that we may know quite a lot about prehistoric musicians and their instruments, but we know nothing about the music they produced. That really only came hundreds of years later when Guido of Arezzo invented notation, a story Goodall first covered in his Big Bangs series 12 years ago. ‘I did quite a big thing on Guido of Arezzo, the monk who achieved that. In all my years of having been taught music at O level, A level, then undergraduate level, I had never heard his name or really thought about his invention. As a result of that programme, Guido of Arezzo found himself put into the music curriculum and now people do know there was a man who invented notation and who he was.’
Most musicians, particularly in the modern era, grasp that there are all sorts of things to be learnt across sometimes rather artificial boundaries
Goodall goes on to examine the waves of discovery, the breakthroughs and the inventions that helped change the face of music. He demonstrates how the musical world reacted to the intolerance and bigotry of the 15th and 16th centuries, to the rise of the right wing in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the impact of popular song and dance on what we now term classical music.
He makes a strong case for popular and classical music not being strange bedfellows. ‘I do believe that – partly because of the interplay there’s always been between the two worlds, whether you’re talking about Josquin using a popular song to make a mass out of it, or whether you’re talking about something much more contemporary. Most musicians, particularly in the modern era, grasp that there are all sorts of things to be learnt across sometimes rather artificial boundaries. In the modern era, we have probably got more acutely aware of different genres than at any other point in history.’
The series and the book are, says Goodall, aimed at people interested in culture, who read books and are educated but may not feel musically expert. ‘There are a lot of intelligent people out there who find even simple musical terminology baffling. People listen to an enormous amount of music and have quite a lot of knowledge but are baffled by the terminology and where it all fits into an overall jigsaw. That’s why this book is aimed at those people who haven’t studied music at A level and who glaze over at the words opus number, andante, allegretto and things like that.’
Much of the demonstration in the series comes from Goodall himself at the piano. Otherwise he is aided by an orchestra, choir, singers and instrumentalists. The lur even gets to be played. ‘On the whole it is not a series of performances like a lot of music programmes on tv. You hear something because a point is being made about it rather than to luxuriate in a four minute aria. In order to get through such a huge span of time in six one hour programmes we have to go at quite a canter.’
In earlier centuries, if a person liked a piece of music, they might, if they were lucky, hear it three or four times in their lifetime. ‘It’s an odd thought for us because we take it for granted that you can hear anything as many times as you like. But a lot of the opinions that were formed about pieces of music were informed by a relatively small amount of access to it. After the introduction of the piano into people’s homes, people had greater access to music; they could learn music, they could play lots on the piano. But that still didn’t mean you could hear a symphony the way an orchestra would play it. And while you could play the highlights from an opera and perhaps singalong, it still wasn’t the same as going to an opera.’
The sheer volume of music now available is bewildering. ‘I’m always struck by the fact that I’ve been listening to music all my life and there are still whole oeuvres of composers I’ve never even come across,’ says Goodall. ‘And they’ve got all these pieces which in recent years have been dusted down and recorded, and you think how can I not have known about this music or come across it? Or some new artist comes along and writes something that is fresh and unusual and you think well where did that come from?
‘This project has taken about three years of my life and I’ve learnt an enormous amount. In fact, I was slightly horrified about how much I didn’t know. Most people, even professional musicians, don’t really stop to read lots and lots of books. They pick up what they pick up along the way. If your profession is being a conductor of orchestral symphonic music, you might not come across a lot of Lassus or Victoria, choral composers of a period you don’t perform. The abundance of music that is out there, and the different attitudes to it, have been an extraordinary revelation. I’m totally aware that because it’s a summary and a route through, everybody will wonder why their favourite composer is not more important to this particular summary. I met someone the other day who said “What are you doing?” I said I was doing the story of music. They said, “How much is there on the Rolling Stones?” I said, “Well probably not as much as you want there to be.”
‘One of the things I hope The Story of Music will do is that people who are lovers of one particular kind of popular music may feel it is more connected to other forms of music than they thought, and people in the classical field may discover there is not such a huge distance in intention and skills between one field and another. That would be a nice outcome because I don’t know any musicians now who don’t consider themselves to be part of a general stream of music rather than in some cloistered niche as may once have been the case.
‘I would like to think that the general reader will find this a series about music that doesn’t scare them witless, that will allow them to have some insight and context for the music that they love.’
The Story of Music is scheduled to begin on BBC Two, 25 January
The book The Story of Music is published by Chatto and Windus