The third episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music covered about a hundred years – from 1750 to 1850. This takes us from Haydn to Chopin via Mozart, Beethoven and more. Goodall’s two themes for the period were the changing social status of the composer, and the turn to simplicity in musical structure after the complexity of Bach etc.
At the start of the period composers were effectively servants – you found a rich patron and wrote him the music he wished. I’d guess it wasn’t that simple in reality, but that was the social status of the composer. Over this time period composers began to work freelance, and so their revenue stream also began to depend on the tastes of the paying audience. But it increased their social status, brought them above the salt so’s to speak.
The complexity of Bach’s fugues, and the moral uprightness of his & Handel’s work gave way in this era to the simpler forms of symphonies, and an emphasis on pleasant & entertaining music (having not much to do with the turbulent political times, that included the French & American Revolutions). Goodall talked about how the music became simpler both in overall structure and in harmonic structure. Simple is not being used as a value judgement here, incidentally. So in terms of overall structure he was saying that a lot of symphonies can be summed up as – take a short theme, repeat the same note pattern starting on a different note, finish with a phrase as long as the first two put together that brings us back to a satisfying conclusion. Then do it again. Which leaves a lot of room for different sorts of phrases and themes, and satisfying conclusions, but still gives an overall simple structure that the piece is constructed around.
In terms of harmonic structure he was saying that the numbers of different chords used in a single piece of music narrowed considerably – most of a piece of music now would be constructed on the first, third and fifth chords (for the key the music was in). He demonstrated with a couple of examples that this could be the sole chords used for about three quarters of a piece of music – all the other possibilities now only took up a relatively small proportion of the music. And then they had a short segment of a string quartet & singer all dressed up in 18th Century style playing what sounded like chamber music of the time, and then you realised the words the woman was singing were the words for Rockin’ All Over the World … which lead into a joke about how these three chords are “still the status quo in much music of today” *groan* 🙂
Goodall also talked about how Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony inspired other composers to use their music to paint pictures in sound (Mendelssohn was his example of one of these composers). And he talked about the single voice & piano songs of composers like Schubert – and compared them with the novels of Jane Austen with which they’re approximately contemporary, and pointed out that Schubert’s emotional maturity etc come off rather poorly compared to Austen. This was another point where the long-lasting nature of the music of this period was pointed out – we first had a man singing a Schubert love song, which was juxtaposed with a clip of Adele singing Someone Like You. Definitely felt like they were both a part of the same tradition.
And somehow I haven’t ended up with much to say about this one. I’m not sure why – I think I ended up approaching it as more “look at the pretty things” than anything else.
Januszczak visited several places where you find Islamic art (mostly but not all mosques), and discussed not just the beauty of the mosaics, buildings etc but also the religious symbolism behind some of it. (And hopefully got it right – a lot was stuff I hadn’t heard before). Throughout the programme he also placed quite a strong emphasis on how modern more fundamentalist traditions of Islamic art aren’t the only ones – there was figurative art from early on, not just “decadent princes” decorating palaces with things they shouldn’t, but also in art that was intended to represent paradise and to have religious worth.