Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

There’s a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii & Herculaneum that’s recently opened, so there’ve been a few programmes on the BBC recently on the same subject. Last night we watched Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time – which was billed as a “drama documentary” so I was a little concerned (I don’t generally like too much dramatisation in my documentary viewing) but it turned out to be really good. It was presented by Margaret Mountford, and the way this was presented was as if I should know who she was – having looked her up on wikipedia it turns out she’s known for having been on The Apprentice (as a judge not a competitor). She’s not the presenter here as a “personality” – she’s recently got a PhD in Papyrology with a focus on Roman & Bzyantine Egypt, so she’s an expert in a field related to the programme’s subject. And as I was telling J this, he pointed out he’d heard of her coz she’s a trustee of the EES. I guess I probably should’ve heard of her πŸ™‚

(I do tend to look up the presenters of programmes I watch on wikipedia if I don’t recognise them & even sometimes if I do – it’s interesting to see what else people’ve done.)

I do have some bits of criticism about the programme. Firstly, it suffered slightly from Discovery documentary syndrome in that it was constantly presented as “solving the mystery”. Also the script was oddly repetitive. Almost every time Mountford talked to an expert she’d ask a long detailed question, then the expert would repeat most of the question followed by their (short) answer, then Mountford would repeat most of the question prefaced with a phrase like “so now we know why …”. But those are just niggles, it was well worth watching.

Programmes we’ve watched before about Pompeii & Herculaneum (like Mary Beard’s one which I’ve got a brief write-up of on lj) have concentrated on what the towns tell us about how Romans lived. This programme concentrated on how they died, using what we now know about volcanoes and about the way that bodies react to different temperatures to build up a picture of the last day of these people’s lives. It was actually a fairly distressing programme – nothing gruesome shown, but they did a good job of bringing across the horror of the event and of making you empathise with the people. The “drama” side of this drama documentary was limited to some (really rather impressive) CGI of the eruption and some vignettes of people running through the streets or huddling in shelter – which was just about the right amount of drama for me.

Pliny the Younger had actually described the eruption from witnessing it across the Bay of Naples, but some elements of his description had been dismissed in more recent times as being the result of an overactive imagination. In particular he described a part of the column of smoke & ash as separating off and rolling down the mountain. “Obviously” this had to be wrong, surely only lava spills out over the land. This view was then completely overturned by footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – another way for a volcano to erupt involves a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas & bits of rock & ash that moves very very fast along the ground (at or over the speed of sound). Mountford talked to an expert who said that this happens when the magma has a lot of gas in it.

It was these pyroclastic flows that killed the people in both Herculaneum and Pompeii – the differences in the remains between the towns is caused by the different distances from Vesuvius. There were 5 pyroclastic flows in total, all of which reached Herculaneum. The people in the town had taken shelter in the boat sheds which would’ve been a safe place in the event of an earthquake (and the eruption was preceded by earthquakes). When the first pyroclastic flow reached Herculaneum it was still at a temperature of about 500°C. The people huddling in the boat sheds died instantly, and the temperature was sufficiently high to vaporise their flesh leaving only charred bones and cracked skulls from where their brains had boiled and exploded. As I said, gruesome.

Pompeii is about 5km further from Vesuvius than Herculaneum, and the first 3 pyroclastic flows didn’t reach that far. In fact it wasn’t until dawn the next day (about 18 hours after the initial eruption) that Pompeii was in true danger. This had been enough time that some people had even returned to their houses to grab their valuables & coin, which would be fatal. The fourth pyroclastic flow reached Pompeii, and the added distance it had travelled had reduced the heat to around 300°C. Mountford visited a lab in Edinburgh where they demonstrated what happens to a piece of pork wrapped in woollen cloth at that temperature. The outside edges of the meat were seared but the cloth was still intact & only slightly discoloured. And this is what happened to the inhabitants of Pompeii – they were instantaneously killed by the heat, but their clothing & flesh remained intact. They were then buried in ash which formed a solid shell around their bodies. Inside these shells the soft tissue & cloth gradually decomposed, and when they were discovered the archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster & then removed the ash. This left the casts around the bones that we see today – complete with impressions of the clothes the people were wearing.

The last part of the programme was about an artist doing facial reconstructions of two of the victims – a woman from Herculaneum and a man from Pompeii. These are always neat to see, and humanise the remains, but I do wonder how accurate they are. I mean, you can tell some stuff about facial structure from the bones, but would their mothers’ recognise them?

Glad we recorded it even though it said “drama documentary”, it was a good programme.

The sixth & last episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music talked about the last 100 years of music – the Popular Age. The biggest difference between this era and previous eras is that the advent of radio and of easily available recorded music changed how people could listen to music. It became more omnipresent and you could listen to what you wanted when you wanted to.

The main theme of the programme was that as classical music became increasingly remote and snobbish the vacuum was filled by popular music – starting with jazz. One example of this that Goodall presented was musicals. The same sorts of people who previously would’ve gone to operas in the 19th Century are those who go to the musicals performed on Broadway or the West End today. And popular music took over the role of commenting on current affairs as classical became increasingly abstract or irrelevant. He contrasted the Threepenny Opera* or Porgy and Bess with a surrealist ballet called Parade (score written by Satie; Cocteau & Picasso were involved). The former two were relevant (and well liked by audiences) whereas the latter was out of touch with the times and not accessible/interesting to a particularly wide audience either. Later, after the Second World War, popular music continued to provide social commentary – Vietnam protest songs, for instance, and Bob Dylan’s work.

*I had no idea that the song Mack the Knife was originally a German song in this musical! Odd & cool to hear it being sung in the original.

Classical music during this period moved towards things like Schoenberg’s abstract compositional style where the 12 notes of the western scale aren’t allowed to be repeated within a phrase, and where there’s no “home” chord. Basically we’re into the sort of thing that in my head I think of as “that modern classical stuff I don’t like”. But Goodall points out that this isn’t all that classical is doing during the last 100 years and people claiming that “classical is dead” clearly never go to the cinema! Most film scores are classical music and are written in a style that’s appreciated by a much wider audience than the more avant garde stuff.

Goodall talked us through some of the developments in popular music as well. Not just jazz, but also the rise of rock & roll and the way that was initially shaped by the new teenage market for music. He spent a while discussing The Beatles, and how they moved from their rock & roll beginnings. They not only innovated within their genre, inventing new styles & recording techniques, but also drew on the past of classical music (amongst other things). And this lead neatly into a discussion of how even though American rock & roll has spread throughout the world it has also started to incorporate music from other cultures (and there has also been a rise in people listening to the originals of this music). The Indian influences on The Beatles music were the first point in this segment of the programme, he also mentioned Paul Simon’s South African influenced album Graceland.

He also talked about how classical music was still the source of some innovations that were later taken up by popular music – he cited sampling, which originated with a classical piece but is now one of the foundational underpinnings of a lot of popular music. And he discussed how the cross-fertilisation between the two sorts of music is beginning to work both ways – some modern classical composers are taking ideas & inspiration from popular artists (he gave an example of a symphony that took inspiration from a Bowie album). So Goodall ended the series on a hopeful note for classical music – it’s not dead, and it’s even coming back to being relevant to a wider audience than music critics & composers.

I’ve enjoyed watching this series, it was both informative & interesting. It’s also pretty biased – very much it’s the story of Western classical music (even this last episode is more about the classical music of the era than the popular music). But then he does say right at the start of the first episode that “there are many ways to tell the story of music, this one is [his]” so that’s not a surprise.

A History of Syria with Dan Snow; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

Instead of starting TV night with our on-going series, we started with a documentary about Syria – watching it first because it was bound to be depressing viewing. A History of Syria with Dan Snow was a This World documentary that looked at the historical underpinnings of the current civil war, to put it into some sort of context. I’m sure I’m not going to manage to get everything right in my summary and being a current & politically charged subject I’m more conscious that errors may offend, I’ll still try & give some sort of feel for what Snow told us.

He started with a little bit of geography – showing us where Syria is on the map, and pointing out that it’s at the point of contact between Asia, Europe & Africa. So trade flows through the region, and empires butt heads across the region. In some ways the 5000 year history of the region could be summed up as “the Syrian people got screwed over by one big empire after another”. Snow only name checked the Egyptians & Assyrians, and got down to business properly with the Romans. Syria was a wealthy province under Roman rule, due to its location and the trade routes running through it. And the people converted to Christianity when the rest of the Empire did (if not before) – Syria was an important centre for Christianity until the Muslim conquest, and there is still a sizeable Christian minority in the region to this day. Snow visited a church service in Damascus, and talked briefly to a priest afterwards who was keen to stress his view that all Syrians were important regardless of religion, sect, ethnic background. Which was an optimistic way to start the programme.

Syria became part of the expanding Muslim empire very early on and then the capital of the (Sunni) Umayyad Caliphate was in Syria. The majority of the people living in Syria today are Sunni Muslims, and Snow said that the time of the Umayyads is looked back to as a kind of golden age for Syria by the Sunnis. He skipped lightly over the next few hundred years when Syria was first ruled over by an Egyptian centred Muslim empire, and then by the Ottoman Turks. The only key point from this era that he mentioned was the Crusades & the way they have shaped Arab feelings about Western intervention in the region. The next period he discussed in depth was the British Empire’s turn at screwing over the Syrians – this was during the First World War when the British allied with the native Syrians as a way of destabilising the Ottomans. This is the time of Lawrence of Arabia, and the war ends with the Arabs convinced that the British have promised them their own independent state – only the British had also promised most of the territory to the French & guess which promise gets kept? The French rule over Syria was imperialist & brutal, and there was a rebellion (which ultimately failed) in 1925. Snow talked to the daughter of the man who lead that rebellion & she talked about how she feels the current rebellion is the spiritual successor to her father’s rebellion.

Syria became independent in the 1930s, and the programme skipped lightly over the next period until we get to the seizing of power by Hafez al-Assad – but first it back-tracked to explain another bit of older history that is important to put this into context. Most of the Muslims (and indeed most of the people) in Syria are Sunnis, but the largest minority group is a Shia Muslim group of people called the Alawites who make up about 12% of the population of Syria. The division between Sunni & Shia Muslims goes back to immediately after the death of the Prophet, and has continued ever since. In Syria (and the region around Syria) the Alawites have been particularly persecuted – Snow was telling us that almost within living memory members of this group were unable to find work because of their religion. Assad was an Alawite, and rose to prominence via the military at a time when the Ba’athist political party were gaining in strength. Through two military coups (first that put the Ba’athists in power, then that put Assad himself in power) he took control of the country. Snow interviewed a Ba’athist political figure, a woman who is an advisor to the current government and was an advisor to Hafez al-Assad’s government. She emphasised the secular nature & policies of the Ba’athist party, dwelling on how Assad put schools into all the villages, and that women could get an education. What she didn’t mention was that the Assad regime was a tyrannical police state. Snow also interviewed a couple who had lived in Hama, a Syrian town, during the 1982 massacre that the government perpetrated there – theoretically to quell Muslim Brotherhood led insurrection, but actually tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Assad’s Russian connections were also important – during the 60s he’d been an army leader at a time when Israel was flexing her muscles. And he gained a reputation as an Arab strongman, who’d helped the Arab world to recover it’s pride after defeat by Israel. I’m fairly unclear on the details of this bit to be honest – but the take home message was that Assad’s regime had both the backing of parts of the Arab world, and the backing of the Soviets as a counterpoint to the US backing of Israel.

So that’s almost all the pieces of the situation lined up – the last bit that’s needed is that once Hafez al-Assad died, his son Bashar inherited the presidency. He seemed at first to be likely to reform the police state nature of the Syrian state, and hopes were high that he’d move the regime towards a more open & democratic (and Western-friendly) state. But this was not the case, and he continued with his father’s policies – and methods.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was then the spark that lit the tinderbox. Snow’s interview with the couple from Hama also talked about this – they and their sons had been involved in the first protests, but are now living as refugees away from the fighting in Syria. One of the sons was saying that at first the protests were about wanting democracy, then once people started being killed it was about overthrowing the regime. The programme then cut back to the woman in the government who was saying that they had reacted to armed insurrection the way any government would – that the rebels were preventing the normal business of the country so the army had to be sent in to protect the state. With interviews with people on both sides of the conflict Snow showed that however it started it’s fragmented down the fault lines that history has provided – Sunni vs Alawite, secular vs religious, to name a couple. With the ordinary people being caught in the middle of it.

Sobering to watch – it seems like a situation where there’s so much history and ill-will on both sides both recent and dating from centuries ago that it’s hard to see how it can be resolved.

To follow that up, we watched the fifth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music as something lighter weight to cheer us up before sleep! This was titled “The Age of Rebellions” and covered the period from the death of Wagner (in 1883) through to just before the First World War. Goodall opened by talking about how after the death of Wagner instead of several pseudo-Wagners continuing on with his style of music instead you have a movement away from a Wagnerian style – rebelling against it, if you like. Goodall seemed quite gleeful about this πŸ™‚ So we heard some bits from Satie, Faure and other French composers of that era. Goodall also talked about Mahler in this segment & discussed how his symphonies & songs were a move to a more personally emotional music. Rather than writing some abstractly sad piece & calling it something general like “Nocturne” Mahler wrote songs about specific subjects like the death of a child.

Another of Goodall’s themes for the programme was the influence that folk music had on the classical music of the time – Mahler, for instance, incorporated the sounds & rhythms of the Jewish folk music of his upbringing. It was in Russia where this was a really striking trend. Previously Russian music had looked to the West rather to its own traditions of music, but in the late 19th Century this was to change. One of the major players in this change was Mussorgsky – and his music was different because he was not formally trained, and so didn’t know the “rules” that he was busy breaking. Not all of the composers influenced by Mussorgsky were Russian – Debussy heard Mussorgsky’s music at the World Fair in Paris. Debussy was also influenced by other music he heard there, like the Javanese musicians, and he incorporated these non-Western rhythms & tonalities into his music.

This breaking of the previous rules for composing music encouraged others to experiment even further. The ballets of Stravinsky (like Firebird & the Rite of Spring) with their overlayed rhythms & polyrhythms were a result of this experimentation, as was the dissonance & emotionality of Strauss’s opera Salome. We were shown a little of Salome & I don’t think I’ve any desire to see the whole opera πŸ˜‰

The last segment of the programme was devoted to the new mainstream music that was beginning in this era – the blues and later ragtime and the beginnings of jazz. Goodall talked about how the blues and the spirituals grew out of the African-American’s musical traditions, both from the music that they remembered from their African origins & the Christianity they were converted to once in America. Goodall said it was controversial to suggest that there were any other influences on this music, but that he believed there were also traces of the music of European immigrants (in particular railroad workers) and also the Chinese railroad workers.

As this new music became more mainstream classical music began to decrease in popularity. Goodall told us that the reaction of classical composers was to write music that appealed to a sense of nostalgia. The music of Elgar is a part of this nostalgic music. And the programme ended with Goodall pointing out that this nostalgia was for the sort of elite lifestyle that was just about to end with the outbreak of World War I.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

“The Age of Tragedy” was the title of the fourth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music and it was all about music of death and destiny (and doom!). Even the more light-hearted stuff from the late 19th Century could have these sorts of themes. Goodall opened the programme with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which can be seen as the inspiration for these themes – and we got to hear some of while being shown the sorts of paintings of hell & tormented souls & demons that inspired this type of music.

He then moved on to Italian opera, including the stuff of Verdi, which at first seemed out of place for his primary theme but let him introduce one of the secondary themes of the programme. He talked about how this was the mainstream entertainment of the day – not just expensive seats & toffs in top hats, but the middle classes also went to the opera. And the tunes and songs were written in a lively, memorable style, they were picked up by barrel organ players & played in the streets for anyone passing by. These were the songs everyone knew the words to – just like pop music or a musical of today. Classical wasn’t yet something for “the serious people” – which is the theme he returned to at the end of this programme. Tying it back to the death and destiny theme he pointed out how these operas (like La Traviata) let good respectable Victorian-type people have their cake & eat it – you get to enjoy seeing the people in the story acting scandalously, and then they get their comeuppance by dying miserable, so the moral order was upheld.

We then returned to more Germanic music and the majority of the programme focussed on the music (primarily concerned with death and destiny) and innovations of Liszt – Goodall structured this section around a list of Liszt’s innovations (yes, the pun was clearly intentional, like all the puns Goodall has managed to get into this series πŸ™‚ ). It was quite a long list, fittingly as Liszt had a long & prolific career. He was also one of the first international superstars of music – Goodall told us that women frequently became hysterical at performances (implied tho not stated was the comparison with Beatlemania).

One of Liszt’s innovations was the symphonic poem – instead of a whole four movement, 40 minute symphony these were shorter one movement pieces. They were normally based on a particular non-musical artwork, so Goodall talked us through one piece that was about a particular painting (of the defeat of Attila the Hun in about the only battle where he was defeated) showing us how the musical motifs were related to the elements of the image. He then developed this further by relating it to a more modern form – this can be thought of as the origins of film scores.

Another innovation was the movement for “nationalistic” music – so for Liszt this was taking the Hungarian folk music tunes of his own country & writing music based on them. This became a important strand of classical composition, but didn’t bear much resemblance to the actual folk music of the countries concerned beyond tunes that were vaguely reminiscent. This leads to concerns about appropriation in cases where the composer isn’t relying on their own country’s tradition – for instance DvorΓ‘k’s New World Symphony uses themes that are inspired by African-American music or Native American music. Which is a debate that’s been relevant ever since – coming up again with blues & with jazz & with world music.

And this list of Liszt’s innovations moved onto the last section of the programme by listing Wagner. Wagner was clearly inspired by Liszt and Goodall went through many of the innovations that Wagner is credited with and pointed out how Liszt had in fact done it first. However he did point out that even if Wagner wasn’t as innovative as his devotees would like to think, he had better tunes! He also spent time talking about the way that Wagner changed the format of opera from the lighter more variety performance like Italian operas. Wagner was writing operas that were one coherent piece of music, rather than a selection of songs – and he made great use of leitmotifs for each character or concept in the story to bring the music together and to enhance the visual and storytelling aspects of the opera. And he used parts of the opera Parsifal to showcase this. Again you can see the comparisons with modern films.

And as Goodall was talking about Wagner and giving him credit for the good things in the music and operas he wrote I kept thinking “he’s not a Wagner fan”. And just before the programme got to the point, I remembered why one doesn’t like Wagner – he was appallingly anti-Semitic (and racist) and not in a “oh well, product of his time” sort of way. Even by the standards of his anti-Semitic culture he was regarded as an extremist, and he published things that suggested the best course of action to the newly unified Germany was to get rid of all the Jews. After his death his music was used by the Nazi regime as part of their national mythology and Hitler was a big fan of the music, the programme showed us footage of the surviving Wagner family welcoming Hitler to their house.

And after that sobering segment Goodall closed the programme by talking about how he feels that Liszt & Wagner’s devotees have had a long-lasting impact on the perception of classical music. Their music is held up as serious music for serious people, who think about things and understand the true meaning of art. Not like that popular frothy stuff written by people like Gilbert & Sullivan, or those Italian operas, or the music of Offenbach. So a split developed between highbrow “worthwhile” music, and the rest which was looked down on by those who approved of the highbrow stuff.

Waldemar Januszczak’s series about the Dark Ages finished up with an episode about the Men of the North – which in this case means not just the Vikings but also the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians. Discussion of the three cultures were woven together through the programme, but I think it’s easier for me to seperate them out when I’m writing about it.

The Carolingians were really only briefly mentioned – this is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Franks at a time when the Frankish empire grew to stretch across a large part of Europe. Charlemagne is one of the most famous Carolingians, and Janusczcak showed us the throne of marble and the chapel that he had built. It was designed as an answer to the Cordoba mosque, so has some similar motifs (like the stripey arches, in this case in black & white not red & white). But as a whole it’s very different – more heavy and more brutal. The more portable art of the period was very opulent with lots of gold, and encrusted with jewels. This was all a reflection of the mindset of the culture – God was on their side because they were just that special.

The segments on the Vikings showed us some of the same art work that we’d seen in the Neil Oliver series (post) – in particular a boat which had been part of a burial, and a stone that commemorates the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Unlike the Oliver series this series doesn’t do the high amounts of messing about with depth of field, so we actually got a proper look at carvings on the boat which are very impressive πŸ™‚ The themes were also somewhat similar to the Oliver programmes – the reputation the Vikings had wasn’t the whole story, they were also artisans as well as looters.

In the sections on the Anglo-Saxons Januszczak showed us the Lindisfarne Gospels, paying particular attention to the celtic influences in the art – the interweaving patterns in the borders & the illuminated capitals. He also showed us a grave-marker from this time – a cross with this interwoven patterns – and that lead to one of the giggle-out-loud moments of the programme. He said, as he was describing it, that it was his favourite because “it’s not quite right, a bit wonky, and you just want to hug it”! We also got the Sutton Hoo treasure – you really can’t miss it out if you’re talking about spectacular Anglo-Saxon art. And Januszczak also showed us a modern craftsman (who used to be a forger, but now makes original designs) making a silver brooch of a style akin to the Alfred jewel (which we also got shown).

I’ve enjoyed this series, and it’s a shame it’s finished now. I do have my doubts about the historical accuracy (see my post about the first episode for an example) but it was entertaining and nice to see all the various objects & buildings. Januszczak was a good presenter and his quirkiness grew on me.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

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* πŸ™‚

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.

Waldemar Januszczak moved on to discuss the art of Islam in the third episode of his series about the art of the Dark Ages.

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.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

In the second episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music he covered a couple of hundred years or so from just after Monteverdi’s first opera (early 1600s) through to Bach & Handel (mid-1700s). He categorised this as a time of innovation, comparing the various developments in music to the advances in science at the time – which came across a little oddly to me, but then when he was talking about Bach it almost made sense.

The first half of the programme was mostly about Italian composers, like Vivaldi, and their development of the symphony & the concerto. He told us how the original symphonies, and even the start of the modern orchestra, grew out of the instrumental overtures to ballets performed at the French court at this time. The violin was a new instrument at the time (developed out of the folk violin) and instead of having just one playing there would be several of them. And this is obviously the way orchestras are set up. He also talked about how concertos are about the contrast between a large group of players and another smaller one, which I don’t think I actually knew before.

He also talked about the chord changes & sequences in both the music of composers like Vivaldi & in modern pop music, and played some examples of contrasting pieces with the same chord sequence. And I was struck (again) by the realisation that this is not how I listen to music. One of the things I always found hardest about music exams (for flute) was the aural section where I had to do things like identify intervals, or later on identify chord sequences. When I listen to music I hear the melody line and lyrics & the rhythm, even after a lot of practice I still struggled to identify a particular chord sequence (it always felt like guessing, just my guesses got better with practice).

The programme then moved on to the German composers who came after those Italians – Bach & Handel being the featured examples. Goodall talked about (and demonstrated) the complexity of Bach’s fugues & how they’re made by taking a theme and then transforming it in strict ways (different tempo, different key, not just any different notes). And then playing these transformations at the same time as the original, or offset a bit (in some regular fashion, again). And then the whole thing weaves together into a coherent and beautiful whole. Bach could not just write these, but could improvise them as well, which is an astonishing feat. (This segment of the programme made me want to re-read “Gödel, Escher, Bach” again … which I think is the third time I’ve thought that in 6 months, I must bump it up the non-fiction list πŸ™‚ )

In talking about Handel Goodall discussed the oratorio form – which effectively was born because the Pope disapproved of opera. I’m writing this about 2 weeks after watching the programme (I have brief notes) so I may be confused, but obviously the Pope’s opinion didn’t hold much sway in Protestant England nor for the Protestant Handel but I think what Goodall was saying was that Handel still saw an opportunity to occupy a niche in the music production business & so brought it to England as a music form. And it went down well with the English because it was choral/vocal music without the melodramatic acting.

Something else the programme talked about was that during this time period the notes of the scale were standardised. I knew that how we (the Western World) subdivide the scale isn’t the only way to do it – after all we’re arbitrarily drawing lines on a continuous spectrum & saying this is one note, and this is another. But I hadn’t realised that it was so recent in terms of Western music that the scale was narrowed down to the 12 notes we use today – Goodall was saying that previously notes like C♯ and D♭ were actually different, which I suppose I’d always figured was true sometime but hadn’t thought through.

The second episode of Januszczak’s series about art in the Dark Ages was all about “the barbarians”. As I said in passing above – I’m finishing writing this nearly 2 weeks after we watched the programmes so I’ve undoubtedly forgotten stuff. In this programme he basically covered the art of the various Germanic/Slavic tribes that we lump together these days as “the barbarians that toppled the Roman Empire” and his point was that actually they had art and culture of their own, they weren’t just the stereotype of thuggish murderous brutes ripping down the pretty things from a better civilisation.

He started with the Huns, who actually had a fairly big empire to the north-east of the Roman Empire. They get a pretty bad press, and one of their leaders (Attila) gets even worse press, but Januszczak showed us a lot of beautiful golden objects made by these people. And also showed us the reconstruction someone is planning of the palace of Attila the Hun, which looks rather splendid (and probably highly inaccurate). And I had the somewhat belated realisation that Hun and Hungarian is likely not a coincidence. But how did the Huns get their gold to make their beautiful objects? By running protection rackets on other cultures! Effectively they’d show up with their pointy swords & arrows, and after a bit of striking fear into the hearts of the townsfolk they’d suggest sending tribute of gold & such would help peaceful relations.

And then we moved onto the Vandals – all the way through the programme Januszczak was making the points that the names of these tribes have picked up perjorative meanings that we use to this day. The Vandals were pushed out of the north east by the Huns, and moved into Spain … then pushed out of Spain by the Visigoths into Africa. Where they conquered Carthage from the Romans. And Januszcak’s point here was that from the art you can’t really tell when they did this. There’s mosaics of much the same styles before & after, for instance. And there are things like documentation that the Vandal rulers actually repaired the public baths after they’d fallen into disrepair under the last of the Roman rulers. So not at all the reputation that goes with the later use of the word.

And he also discussed the Goths … which provided a lot of (possibly unintended) amusement. For starters, wtf with all the references to modern goths & satanic symbols? Personally I guess I associate that more with metal, not with goths. And what’s with a man who dresses in black and wears a massive gold ring decorated with a skull doing talking dismissively of “camden town goths”? He doesn’t look a million miles from some edges of that scene πŸ˜‰ Mind you, I wasn’t quite sure if it was tongue in cheek here, or real dismissiveness – my amusement may’ve been the sort of reaction he was going for. He also made me giggle when he was talking about “barbarian bling” after all the artful shots of that skull ring of his, and I’m pretty sure that was intentional πŸ™‚

Anyway, the point he was making with his discussion of modern goths was to compare these back to the real Goths and say that actually the real ones were Christians and were rather cheerful. The Ostrogoths (the eastern ones) are the ones that sacked Rome in the end – they made beautiful mosaic art in their churches. And from the Roman point of view the problem wasn’t that they were pagan (they weren’t) it was that they were heretics – Arian Christians. The Visigoths (the western ones) drove the Vandals out of Spain, and you see beautiful horseshoe arches in their church architecture. And this gave him a neat segue into the subject of the next episode – the art of Islam – as you see these horseshoe type arches in mosques in Spain.

And overall this programme reminded me I don’t know much about these various “barbarians”.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

We started watching two new series this week – both picked from the selection we have recorded because they’re in HD and our PVR is filling up! So we began with the first episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music. The format of the show is just a little different from what I’m used to with documentaries – instead of Goodall going out on location somewhere he’s in a studio and the programme cuts between location footage, singers in a studio/on location and Goodall. Sometimes he has a keyboard to play, sometimes there’s other bits of graphics to illustrate what he’s saying, but a lot of the shots of him are him standing there. Which makes for quite a different feel – which I rather like, variety is good.

In the introductory segment he pointed out that there are many ways to tell the story of music, but this one is his – and I think it was a good idea for him to be so upfront about that, because his biases were very apparent in this particular episode. He opened with a brief trot through pre-history and ancient history – the theme for this segment was that there’s evidence of music throughout the time that there’s been people, but we don’t know what it sounded like because there was no musical notation. In some cases we have discovered instruments (like Lurs from Denmark – curly horns, hence Lurpak Butter and their logo of two curly horns), but this only tells us the sorts of noises they could use to make music not what the music was like. And then he was on to his main subject – which was really the development and styles of Western music. And possibly only some of that, I’m not sure I believe that there was no popular or secular music before the troubadours in the 12th Century.

So we started the story proper with Gregorian Chant – plainsong initially, which is just one vocal line and all the voices singing that in unison. Then he talked us through the adding of harmonies – first adding boys to the choirs got you two lines an octave apart, then they thought about 5ths & 4ths. Then more interesting intervals (like thirds), and more lines (so you can do triads of root-third-fifth, for instance). And the different lines not just singing the same thing in parallel always the same distance apart, so chord progressions were developed.

In parallel he also talked about the development of the system for writing music down from its beginnings as a mnemonic scribbled above the words to a developed system that lets you know which note, for how long etc. And discussed the addition and development of instruments (and this showed his biases as well, because some of these came from the Arabic world so clearly the rest of the world is doing its own musical development, he’s just not telling us about it). Other developments included the change of which line holds the melody (originally the tenor line did – hence “tenor” because that’s derived from the latin for “to hold”), and changing how the tunes went with the words. By that last I mean that it became more important for the words to be understood (he used an example of a Savonarola prayer set to music where the words were a political statement, and also of hymns for the congregation or opera where the words tell you the story) – so the composers made them have fewer notes per syllable so you could more easily hear what’s going on.

And we finished up with Monteverdi’s first opera being performed in 1607 – which Goodall held up as the point at which all the pieces of the Western musical tradition were in place. The general rules of harmony, the instrumental accompaniment and so on.

While I enjoyed watching this programme I am not sure he’s always on the right side of the line between clear jargon-free explanations & patronising explanations – for instance calling the note representations for early music writing “squiggles” didn’t quite sit right with me (he did say they were properly called “neumes” but then continued to say “squiggles” instead). But maybe I’m being over-sensitive here πŸ™‚

Next we started watching The Dark Ages: An Age of Light which is a recent series about the art of the Early Medieval period – from the latter part of the Roman Empire up through to the time of the Norman Conquest. (He started with orientation dates! I approve πŸ˜‰ ). This period has been characterised in the past as a time when civilisation ceased & people reverted to being barbarians – I don’t think anyone really thinks that any more but just in case you do this series aims to demonstrate that it’s a false idea. Over the series Januszczak is going to look at the art of various different groups of peoples, this first episode looks at the Christians – with an emphasis on the third & fourth centuries AD. I guess to partly start us with the familiar.

So first we looked at very early Christian art – the stuff you find in the early burials in the catacombs under Rome and (possibly) in Pompeii. This is mostly symbols rather than representations of Christ or other people. The fish, the anchor, the ☧ (Chi-Rho, from which we derive “xmas” for Christmas). Jonah being swallowed by the whale (or regurgitated by) as a symbol for Christ’s resurrection. The sort of thing that doesn’t jump up and shout “I’m a Christian” while waving its arms around, but does let other Christians know that & keeps it all more low key. Januszczak did make the point that the persecution of Christians wasn’t as complete as later tales suggest, but this use of symbolic art does suggest people were keeping it hidden as a matter of course.

I said “(possibly) in Pompeii” above – and I said this because there’s a reasonably long segment of the programme where he discusses the ROTAS squares found in Pompeii (so dating from AD79 or earlier) as a Christian symbol. A ROTAS square is inscribed like this:


And if you take all the letters and re-organise them you can make them into a cross constructed of two PATERNOSTER (crossing at the N) with A & O spare (twice). So that’s a cross, two Our Father’s and two lots of Α & Ω (or the beginning and the end). Which all sounds pretty Christian, and that’s how he was presenting it on the programme – a secret Christian symbol. But as Mary Beard discussed on her blog shortly after this programme aired, these days it’s thought not to be a Christian symbol – the argument is that it’s too early for the cross & the Α and Ω to be Christian symbols, they aren’t seen as such till the 3rd Century by which time Pompeii’s been under ash for over a hundred years. Also early Christians were much more likely to be using Greek letters rather than Latin ones. There’s no other evidence for Christians in Pompeii so it’s more likely that this is a Jewish symbol, as there’s plenty of evidence for Jews in Pompeii – and Our Father and Α and Ω show up in Jewish prayers & Jewish cultural contexts at this time.

So that’s a bit of a shame. J and I were also wincing at some of the description of the Egyptian goddess Isis later on in the programme, which taken together makes me concerned in general that whenever Januszczak says something I didn’t know before that perhaps that’s because it’s wrong. A programme to watch for the broad sweep of things & to look at the art, but not to learn the details.

Moving on, he started to talk about the earliest representations of Christ – these are not much like the later art, Christ is a boyish almost feminine figure with curly blonde hair & carries a staff or wand (with which he performs his miracles). Januszczak seemed to be both arguing that this was more likely to be realistic than the later bearded Jesus figures (being earlier, and showing the Turin Shroud to be fake as it has a typical medieval style Jesus face), and that it was based on the god Apollo. Obviously both are unlikely to be true – and actually I think I’d like to’ve seen him look at some of the Eastern Christian art of the same time period. Do they have Apollo-like Jesus figures? Or if not, what?

The later depictions of Jesus (by which I mean 4th Century here, after Constantine) shift to a more mature-looking man – one that wouldn’t be out of place as a senior member of Roman society. Which mirrors the shift from a small hidden cult to the imperial religion. The femininity of his form is also lost because that role has been taken on by Mary – her cult within Christianity starts up later than Christianity itself. This segment included the bit that we were wincing at – he discussed the Egyptian goddess Isis and was wrong in most of the details. However he might’ve been talking about the Isis cult within the Roman Empire (and neither of us know much about the details of that, or how it differs from the parent religion in Egypt). Anyway, the imagery of the Madonna and Child is so similar to that of Isis suckling Horus that it’s suggested that the one was modelled on the other as a way of bringing in a feminine side to the religion where there wasn’t before.

In parallel to looking at the paintings Januszczak also discussed the architecture of Christianity – the first churches were converted from rooms in people’s houses, and you wouldn’t know they were there from the outside. But as Christianity became the imperial religion it needed imperial style buildings both to show how important it was and to hold the larger numbers of worshippers. These were based on Roman basilicas, which were large halls in which public meetings were held. Christian basilicas moved the entrance to one of the narrow ends so that you walked in to face the altar in the apse at the other end (re-purposed from the place where a magistrate would sit). This left a large hall for the worshippers to congregate in and the priests to process through. Other Christian architecture of the time was smaller round buildings, built around a tomb. These were places for contemplation, as opposed to the larger & noisier basilicas. But over time the two forms were merged – the apse that the altar sat in in a basilica became larger and domed like a mausoleum at the end of the basilica. These grand buildings were decorated with fine art – including the more mature and senator-like Jesus images.

As with most programmes about art it’s worth watching just to see the various artworks, but I do wish I was more convinced that he was always getting the details right.