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 🙂
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 😉 ). 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:
R O T A S
O P E R A
T E N E T
A R E P O
S A T O R
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.