What the press said about Episode 1 of 20th Century Greats

The Times (The Eye) 27.11.04 
Watercooler Channel 4’s new series is music to the ears, says Paul Hoggart

How high is your brow, do you reckon? Do you go for Aida, Evita or Eminem? Are you an elitist, a populist or an ironic postmodern cultural relativist? No medium is more plagued by debates about elitism and “dumbing down” than television. Enter Howard Goodall, the composer and natural educator, to cut through these cultural Gordian knots with his new series on music: Howard Goodall’s 20th-Century Greats. Goodall’s thesis, though he puts it rather more elegantly, is that in the mid-20th century classical composers disappeared up their own semi-quavers. Bored with the great traditions of Western music, they started producing discordant, atonal avant-gardery that nobody actually wanted to hear. It was the popular musicians who took on the mantle of the past, and it is they who will be remembered in 200 years when Stockhausen and co are but footnotes in life’s online infopaedia. Of course, he’s not talking about Boyzone. Goodall means the exceptional few who were brilliantly inventive and influenced everything that followed, including newer forms of classical music. Kicking off with the Beatles, the series includes Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and the film score composer Bernard Herrmann. But what makes this series so wonderful is Goodall himself. He is like an inspired evening-class lecturer who is able to communicate the most complex musical concepts with clarity and immediacy. Eleanor Rigby, Night and Day, and West Side Story all borrow techniques from a host of sources, but use them in new and wondrous ways. It will make you hear the works anew.

Evening Standard 26.11.04
Saturday Choice Imogen Ridgway ‘Hitting the right note’Howard Goodall’s 20th Century Greats

If you have ever studied for music exams, you may remember an imposing book entitled Rudiments and Theory of Music, a soulless, red-jacketed, black-and-white tome that contained all you ever wanted to know (and plenty more that you really didn’t) about harmonies, keys and cadences. Working your way through its dull pages was enough to put you off music for life. Howard Goodall, on the other hand, can explain musical forms entertainingly, informatively and using examples based on songs with which we are all familiar, i.e. the work of The Beatles. Where were you when I needed you 15 years ago, eh, Goodall? (Actually, he was hanging around with Richard Curtis and writing the music for Blackadder, so he is almost forgiven). In this new series, Goodall applies his musical-appreciation talents to those he believes stood out during the last century. After all, your Bachs and your Beethovens are familiar names, but whose music is going to make it into the history books for the years 1900-1999?

Goodall begins with The Beatles, and he’s clearly a fan. Either that or an incredibly good actor; when he suggests the Scouse quartet had “a stunning roll call of sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history”, he sounds as though he really believes it. He explains the notes and keys of established Western musical form, before whizzing through a potted history of classical music, ending up in the experimental “let’s record the sound of rubbing sandpaper together” period of the Fifties. But as soon as you are thinking “yeah, yeah …. had enough of this” he zooms to the early Sixties and the formulaic nature of pop at the time. No wonder The Beatles’ innovative take on familiar Western styles catapulted them to stardom. The rest of the programme looks at the evolution of The Beatles’ work, from the four chords of I Saw Her Standing There to the 16 that make up I am the Walrus, while analysing the construction of some of their most memorable songs and examining their musical heritage. Immensely watchable, and really giving a kick up the bottom of the notion that music theory is solely the stuff of impenetrable textbooks.

Sunday Times – Culture 
Pick of the day Victoria Segal: Howard Goodall’s 20th Century Greats (C4 7pm)

Hundreds of books about the Beatles are printed every year, covering every detail of their career and their music in far-from-exciting detail. In the face of this mountain of information, finding a new angle from which to tell the Lennon-McCartney story is almost impossible, so it is to the composer Howard Goodall’s credit that he makes this documentary so fresh. For Goodall, the work of the Fab Four appeared at a time when the western classical tradition was at its lowest ebb. The public was not ready to listen to the sound of sandpaper blocks or tennis balls being thrown at piano strings, and clung to the old note patterns. So, too, did Lennon and McCartney, reinvigorating the classical traditions by using them in an entirely new context.

Goodall is clearly committed to this argument, unabashed about making grand claims for the writers of Strawberry Fields Forever and Hey Jude. He calls their music “a stunning roll-call of sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history”, which is a pretty excitable billing. Yet Goodall not only explains this theory with a charming erudition, explaining keys, chords and cadences, he also conveys a donnish enthusiasm, breaking into song with nothing but a Bontempi-style organ for accompaniment. Forcing viewers to look at a well-worn subject with a fresh gaze, this is an exemplary documentary.

The Daily Telegraph 29.11.04

….. And at this point I could have continued with children’s classics by reviewing BBC 2’s opera of The Little Prince on Saturday. Unfortunately, it clashed with Howard Goodall’s 20th-Century Greats: Lennon and McCartney (C4). As it turns out, though, choosing the Beatles makes me a person of taste and discrimination. When A Hard Day’s Night came out, the music critic of the Times annoyed the establishment by calling Lennon and McCartney the best songwriters since Schubert. On Saturday, Goodall went much further. For him, the Beatles had “a stunning roll call of sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history”. Not only that, but they “almost single-handedly rescued the Western musical system”.

Goodall’s central argument was that by the 1960s, the avant-garde, with their love of random noises, had virtually destroyed classical music as a popular art form. The Beatles then led a counter revolution which showed musicians of all kinds how many possibilities remained in the supposedly exhausted basics of rhythm, tune and harmony. Within this framework, Goodall supplied richly illuminating analyses of individual songs. Heroically unafraid of getting too technical, he explained – among much else – how Penny Lane manages to sound wistful and celebratory at the same time (because of the chord modulations in the chorus) and why Eleanor Rigby works so well as “an urban version of a tragic ballad in the Dorian mode”. (Like many musicians, Goodall seemed slightly more admiring of McCartney than of Lennon). The result was a gripping hour of television which by the end had surely justified its own extravagant claims – even the one about the Beatles being innovators to rank with Beethoven and Wagner.

The Guardian 29.11.04
TV review – Sam Wollaston: Absolutely fabulous

Three music programmes today, one very good, the others less so. The good one was Howard Goodall’s 20th Century Greats (Channel 4, Saturday). Goodall, a composer himself, starts this series not with Stravinsky or Shostakovich, but with a couple of Scousers who, in the 1960s, were, he argues, easily the most important composers in the world – John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their stunning roll-call of sublime melodies is perhaps only matched by Mozart in European history, he says. Blimey. I love the Beatles, but I didn’t realise they were that good. This is not just an argument though, it’s a demonstration. Goodall shows us why they’re so important. First he does a little crash course in western music. He demonstrates harmony, how chords can push a melody along and give it purpose. The obvious place to do this would be a studio, but that would be dull, so Goodall takes his keyboard, his slightly ropey singing voice and his cojones along to theLiverpool waterfront, where he gives his masterclass not just to the camera, but also to the gulls, the passing tankers and theMersey ferry. It’s wonderful.

Goodall accuses classical music’s modernists of abandoning harmony, then credits the Fab Four with rescuing it. First they played the same three chords as everyone else, then they got better, using harmony to create different moods. Goodall demonstrates the chord sequence at the beginning of “I am the Walrus“, which creates a shifting unstable landscape, while, as he says, the tune is doing nothing, like a police siren: “I am he is you are he is you are me, and we are all together.” That’s brilliant. And it’s all brilliant. He explains modulation, how it adds power and depth, how Penny Lane‘s key changes give the feeling of a journey into McCartney’s past. He shows us the pentatonic scale, and how Eleanor Rigby borrows from ancient folk music.

He looks at how the Beatles were influenced by Indian music, and even by the modernists that Goodall seems to disapprove of so strongly. This could have felt like a school music class, but Goodall’s bounding enthusiasm is totally infectious. The soundtrack isn’t bad either. In fact, he’s now convinced me it’s the most important music in the world, ever.

…….Elton John: An Ivor Novello Tribute (BBC1, Sunday) took place [on the other hand] ..inside the subject’s arse. Which is fine, I suppose, as this was supposed to be a celebration of his career. I’m sure Elton deserves his award and everything – though obviously I’d like to have this confirmed by Howard Goodall.

The Independent Review 29.11.04
Thomas Sutcliffe – The weekend’s television: Take a pop song and make it better

Arts programmes have conventionally been a timid genre, reluctant to make a statement without a protective qualification at hand. Think how often you hear people introduce a film about “perhaps the greatest” or “arguably the most influential”.

So it a pleasant surprise to find that Howard Goodall’s 20th Century Greats had slammed the escape hatch shut and thrown away the key. Introducing his first programme, about Lennon and McCartney, Goodall declared that in a period when classical music had been at its lowest ebb, “the most important composers in the world were, without doubt, the Beatles”. No get-out clause? Nope.

Where qualifications occurred, they only amplified the claim being made. Take his praise of Lennon and McCartney’s way with a tune. He talked of “sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history”. And who does that “perhaps” belong to? Mozart, that’s who – grudgingly admitted as a potential melodic competitor for theMerseymop tops. Goodall was settling scores here, of course. “Who will be our equivalents of Bach and Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner?” he asked at the beginning, and this series, which includes programmes about the film composer Bernard Herrmann and the songwriter Cole Porter, offers his answer. Fans of Stockhausen and John Cage won’t be setting their videos.

In this first episode, Goodall argued that it was Lennon and McCartney who nursed the tonal tradition in Western music through what he saw as the plague years of the avant-garde, when a new concert might well consist of a man throwing tennis balls into an open grand piano. For Goodall, the rift this created between the audience and composers was a disaster, and he suggested that it was Lennon and McCartney who effectively healed it by smuggling classical techniques into the three-minute pop song. So, “Penny Lane” was unpicked as a textbook use of modulation, “Eleanor Rigby” turned out to be an exercise in the Dorian mode, and “And I Love Her” illustrated Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for plagal cadences.

For a musical illiterate, having the songs’ workings exposed like this was a double win: you found out what “modulation” is and why “Penny Lane” puts the hair up on the back of your neck when it goes into the bridge, though even an illiterate might have noticed a logical catch. If these things were part of the stock toolbox for classical composers for centuries, then how could Lennon and McCartney be described as “musical innovators on a global scale”? Surely they should have been more accurately described as musical conservatives, preserving the basic components of composition in a place where the enemy would never bother to look. More intriguingly, when Goodall talked of a technique being “hard-wired” into a musical culture, did he really mean it? Do Beatles’ songs have the effect they do because we’ve unconsciously absorbed the tradition, or does the effect create the tradition? You couldn’t tell from this, but it didn’t matter, because the programme was – literally – an unqualified pleasure. It even survived Goodall’s singing – not the finest interpretations of Lennon and McCartney every recorded. Arguably.

Sunday Telegraph (TV Choice) 21.11.04
Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats

Almost everyone loves the Beatles. But why? Because they wrote a lot of catchy songs? That’s not good enough. Why were their songs so catchy? Quiet at the back for the composer Howard Goodall’s explanation.

From the title of this series one might guess it’s an I Love 20th-Century Music – style countdown programme (such as tonight’s The Ultimate Film, also on Channel 4). But this is basically about music theory; it contains the line ‘the raising of the sixth semitone’ and expressions such as ‘plagal cadence’ and ‘distinctly pentatonic feel’. Don’t be put off by the fact that, unless you have studied a musical instrument, much of Goodall’s analysis may go over your head. What does make it in is interesting enough. His argument is that the composers of the 1950s abandoned the classic techniques of western music, and so made classical music obscure and unpopular. It took the Beatles to reclaim the harmonies of Bach and Mozart, and in doing so, to bring about ‘the dramatic comeback of the western musical system. They began the process of healing the damaging rift between popular and classical music’, says Goodall. Certainly sounds better than ‘they wrote catchy songs’.