Music series strikes the right note

  • Posted on 13 October 2002 at 4:03pm
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The Australian October 13th 2002:

I’ll have to admit that when it comes to culture, I take mine with a large glass of pop, especially if you’re talking music. Not that I have an anti-classical music agenda, mind you. It’s something I’ve always meant to get into and I have no doubt that if I put in the time and effort, I could appreciate the hell out of it, it’s just that gee, there’s this Get Smart marathon on right now and I have to see if they screen that one with Harry Hu in it.

My knowledge of classical music tends to come from what I’ve managed to pick up by attrition, especially in the case of Wagner. Play me The Ride of the Valkyries and I start talking about napalm, Mormons and Vietnam. Move on to Siegfried’s Horn Call, again from the Ring Cycle, and I can recite all six minutes of Chuck Jones’s classic 1957 Merrie Melodies cartoon, What’s Opera Doc?, in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd perform an opera set to Wagner’s work.

Given this, the fact that I think composer and presenter Howard Goodall absolutely rules is high praise indeed. For a start, he’s got the right pop culture cred – he wrote the theme songs to two of the greatest British comedies of the past two decades, Blackadder and Red Dwarf.

But, more importantly, he knows how to give viewers a lively introduction to a topic that is intriguing even to the most attention-span-challenged fan of the three-minute pop video (ie, me). He’s not at all highfalutin’, but at the same time he doesn’t simplify a topic to the point where in the end you are just as uninformed as you were at the start . Viewers familiar with Goodall will probably remember his previous series, Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, a five-part production in which he chronicled the five most significant events in the history of European music, starting from the development of writing notes down.

But those with longer memories may recall Howard Goodall’s Organ Works and Choir Works, the former delving into the mechanics of the organ and the latter looking at the relevance of the choir in the contemporary environment.

Which brings us to Great Dates. We’re not talking about people who take you to a fabulous little restaurant, have great conversation and are very attentive, but rather the years in which significant pieces of music were composed. This first episode deals with 1874, the year that Richard Wagner completed Gotterdammerung, the final work in his Ring Cycle.

In 50 minutes and quite a few location changes (the man likes to travel) Goodall takes us through Wagner’s influences and political beliefs and how a change in outlook that he underwent between writing the words and composing the music affected the end result. Goodall examines Wagner in terms that even someone like me – who learned two chords on the guitar in grade 3 and promptly forgot them – can appreciate why his work was so unique and therefore so influential.

Great Dates also looks at the composer in the context of his own time, and how Wagner was largely struggling until he found a dedicated fan in the form of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria who in the days before musicians had posters in Smash Hits magazine, painted the interior of his castle with scenes from the mythology that Wagner used as the basis of the Ring Cycle.

Then there’s the fact that Wagner was also that Nazi guy. Goodall is at pains to point out that Wagner’s music was not simply appropriated by the Nazi Party – he had a pretty good handle on the whole anti-Semitic thing himself.

This raises the question of whether we can separate the man from the music which, strangely enough, was a question I asked myself when trying to decide whether to buy an Eminem CD. Although after watching this, I’m fairly confident Wagner never wrote a song containing the lyrics “Bitch, I’m a kill you”.

Howard Goodall’s Great Dates 9.30pm, ABC

Kerrie Murphy