“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 🙂 ). 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 Dvorák’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 🙂 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.