Howard Goodall's Big Bangs

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs was originally transmitted on Channel 4 in the UK in the Autumn of 2000. It has since been seen all over the world and repeated countless times on terrestrial, satellite and cable TV. Five 50-minute programmes cover what Howard feels are the five most important, transforming, moments in Western music history. Rather than cataloguing every event in over a thousand years of music history, Big Bangs looks in detail at particular moments in time where one person’s ideas and actions have changed the course of Western music forever.

The series picked up many awards around the world:

In May 2001 it won a coveted BAFTA award. The series won the Huw Weldon Award for Specialised Series, fighting off stiff competition from Simon Schama’s landmark ‘History of Britain’ and David Starkey’s ‘Elizabeth I’. The BAFTA awards are the most prestigious and highly-prized in British TV. Howard was joined by Jan Younghusband, Channel 4 music commissioning editor, and Paul Sommers, the series’ producer from Tiger Aspect Productions on the stage to collect the heavy bronze statuette. It also won a prestigious PEABODY Award for Journalism & Mass Communication in the USA, the IMZ Vienna TV Award for Best Documentary (Program 2 ‘Opera’), was nominated for an International Emmy (Best Arts Documentary), a Royal Television Society Award (Best Arts Documentary), a Montreux International TV Festival ‘Rose d’Or’ (Best Arts Documentary) and a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award (TV & Radio category).

There was lots of press coverage when the programmes were broadcast – some of it can be read here.

Two comment pieces by Howard about the series etc can be found here and here.


The Programmes:

1.The Thin Red Line: Guido of Arezzo & the Invention of Notation
Howard’s first programme traces early forms of musical notation, where simple accents were placed above words to show whether the tune went up or down. This leads him on to investigate the work of Guido, whose idea to draw a fixed-pitch line around which to organise these accents led to the musical stave as we know it today.

2. The Inventing of Opera
In this programme Howard travels to Florence to explain the events of around 1600, where the operatic form was taking shape. He notices that opera might never have got off the ground at all, as the first couple of attempts were very unpopular. But when Claudio Monteverdi arrived in Mantua to work for the Gonzaga family, he put this new form to spectacular use, writing Orfeo, the masterpiece to which we owe the existence of opera today.

3. Accidentals will happen: The Invention of Equal Temperament
This was easily the most challenging subject for Howard to explain to his viewers… a subject of which even the more musical amongst them may not be aware. And yet he could not possibly have omitted it from the series, as Equal Temperament, the tuning system by which notes are organised in Western Music, has shaped its history in such a way that enormous amounts of the world’s most beautiful music would not have been written without it. This is, perhaps, the Biggest of the Bangs.

4. Bartolomeo Cristofori and his Amazing Loud and Soft Machine
Back to Florence, this time to look at the emergence of an instrument which quickly became the most popular, versatile, prevalent instrument the world has ever seen: the piano. But unlike the gradual way in which most other instruments came into being, one man in particular can be credited with giving us the piano as we know it today, with catapulting it forward from the also-rans: Bartolomeo Cristofori.

5. Mary and her Little Lamb: The Invention of Recorded Sound
In the final programme in the series, Howard examines the invention of recorded sound, and the impact this has had upon music as we know it. He explains the way in which Edison first happened upon a way of recording sound whilst working on a method to improve the speed of telegraphy, looks at the recording machines to which this discovery led, and the effect which the consequential easy availability of music has had on the history and development of Western classical music.