An 'OPINION' article for ClassicFM Magazine about the Big Bangs Series

  • Posted on 1 October 2000 at 5:09pm
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Travelling the world making a documentary about classical music over the past 14 months has been an amazing and fascinating privilege. But it has also been a sobering experience. Wherever we went, in the UK as well as anywhere else, people would express anything from astonishment to hilarity at the thought of 5 one-hour films (for Channel 4) on key moments in Western music history. What, you’re making a programme about the invention of musical notation? Are you serious?

It was a lonely trek- hardly anyone is making this sort of documentary for network TV these days- and it brought home to me the inescapable fact that European classical music, despite its staggering gift to the world, is becoming a marginal part of the music world, not its mainstream or core. This isn’t necessarily a catastrophe, I know, since it’s still a pretty influential and richly-endowed sector, and much of the music being made in the popular, jazz and ethnic fields is brilliant and beautiful too, infused by ideas, techniques and source material as it is from the classical past. But the thousand year wonder that is western classical music is nevertheless seen as a one-off, a never-to-be-repeated and colourful sideshow.

The BBC’s recent landmark ‘Renaissance’ series decided that music was not really part of the overall picture- a bit-part in the central drama starring the visual arts and architecture. Monteverdi, Gabrieli or Byrd might never have existed. This is an assessment very much in keeping with our time: a new Tracy Emin installation attracts media attention like flies to dung: a new piece by John Adams, the world’s greatest living composer, comes and goes in the press like an item about a lost puppy with three legs. It isn’t anyone’s fault but our own: we musicians have in the last 40 years of television and film failed to excite, stimulate and entertain on our subject. With some notable exceptions (on The South Bank Show and Arena) we have let modern TV techniques- particularly its wonderful, visual, story-telling energy- pass us by, as if a slow shot of some geezers in DJs ploughing through a 30-minuteย romantic workhorse of a piece or an egghead lecturing in a dusty concert hall foyer (and I am as guilty as anyone of this!) was enough to bring the viewers closer.

We have been guilty of making the music seem like it belonged in a private club whose passwords were “acciaccatura”, “hemiola” and “polytonality”. And yet the world is full of music lovers who with a little help and encouragement, are dying to be let in on the secret and told that this music is theirs as much as it is Herbert von Karajan’s. At every dinner-party I’ve ever been to I have been interrogated by such untrained music-lovers, eager to glimpse beneath the surface of the music they adore, or to be told where to look for more hidden gems.

My new series, ‘Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs’ will be judged by others, of course, but what we intended was this: to tell it like it is, to say ‘this musical heritage is fantastic and it belongs to everyone, it’s fun, special and entertaining, it’s full of quirky stories and humour and delight and we will never, ever apologise for it. It has been central to our cultural growth as a civilisation even if nowadays it sometimes feels merely like a pleasant bonus. Classical music is one of our greatest treasures and there’s no-one on earth who couldn’t be interested in it, especially given the magic toybox of TV to bring it to life.’ Well, that was the idea at least. You never know, it might start a trend…..