Daily Telegraph Review of Howard Goodall's Great Dates

  • Posted on 4 September 2002 at 4:01pm
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The Daily Telegraph (London)4.9.02
[Rupert Christiansen – The Arts Column (preview)]:

Over the past week, we’ve lapsed into one of our periodic flaps about the future of classical music. Surveys published by the Arts Council and Policy Studies Institute reveal that the proportion of concert-goers under 50 has plummeted, while Classic FM’s magazine informs us that 65% of 611 children between the ages of 6 and 14 could not name a classical composer, and 77% did not know a French horn from their elbow. Cue the doom-sayers and their jeremiads.

Now they’ve had their wail, let’s calm down and consider. I wouldn’t deny that there are genuine causes for concern, most of them connected to the Tories’ disgraceful cuts in state school music-teaching, but let’s not jump to hysterical conclusions. To misquote Disraeli, there are statistics, damned statistics and lies, so I prefer to trust the evidence of my own eyes. Late-night concerts at the Edinburgh Festival filled the Usher Hall with a palpably younger, different crowd. At the Proms last Sunday, I was amazed at the percentage of people in their teens and twenties queuing for Mendelssohn’s Elijah, of all things. The number of Friends of Covent Garden under 26 has increased from 524 to 802 over the past 12 months. These are observations and facts, not statistics, and they speak for themselves.

One can also turn the Classic FM figures around and end up being rather impressed: 40% of those questioned played an instrument, and 78% of them took music lessons at school; 77% identified a violin, 79% a trumpet. Those figures seem quite high. But sampling from an age group that stretches from a pre-literate 6 to bordering-on-GCSE 14 surely renders the whole exercise meaningless in any case. Another element that sends the doom-sayers apoplectic when such surveys are debated is the baneful influence of television and declining quality of its art coverage. Give us more classical concerts, opera and ballet they say, without pausing to reflect on the way that the flat, square proportions of the box drain so much of the excitement, atmosphere and spontaneity out of live performance.

There is, of course, some merit in broadcasting a great occasion such as the Last Night of the Proms, but it’s not enough just to plonk a camera in front of high culture and expect millions to kowtow. The problem is how to make better television out of the arts, not just to pump them into the schedule as a means of raising the tone.

At which point I want to recommend a tremendously good series starting on Channel 4 on September 15. Howard Goodall’s Great Dates presents a truly fresh, lively and intelligent use of the medium that combines the informative with the imaginative and stands as a subtle retort to the doom-sayers. Focusing on crucial years in four composers’ lives – 1564 for Palestrina, 1791 Mozart, 1894 Wagner and 1937 Shostakovich – Goodall vividly sketches social and historical contexts as well as making brilliant use of visual imagery to illustrate his lucid explanations of the technicalities of fugue, sonata form, chromaticism and letimotiv.

Despite an occasional lapse into Schama-esqure slickness (some landscaped gardens are meaninglessly described as “more Britney Spears and Bjork”), he is neither prompous, patronising nor faux-populist. He communicates easily with the camera and pitches his discourse at an amicable but stimulating level. “I imagine I’m at a dinner party, being questioned by friends who have curiosity but no expertise,” he told me. “There’s no point aiming at those who aren’t interested. If you don’t like gardens, nothing is going to make you enjoy Gardener’s World”.

What I like best about Goodall’s approach is that, without resorting to the embarrassed jokiness that infected Harry Enfield’s well-meaning television introduction to opera a few years back, he doesn’t let his subject send him po-faced. Instead, he sells Palestrina and Shostakovich to the viewer without apology or special pleading and happily suggests, for instance, that “at one level,The Magic Flute is ‘Harry Potter, The Musical’” (Note the important qualification.) That sort of remark makes the doom-sayers uncomfortable. For them, all “classical music” must be fetishised as good art, on a par with cod-liver oil, while “popular music” is bad art and as corrupting as cheap milk chocolate. Mozart and Harry Potter can’t mix. This leads to the idea that classical music is something to be preserved as a separate canon, rather than music composed in the past which lives on in the present, and that’s where the barriers come up. Whatever those surveys suggest, the real problem isn’t that kids don’t like Beethoven and Wagner any more – it’s that dreary and snobbish phrase “classical music”.