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 🙂 )

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 😉 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 🙂

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”.