Sunday Times Review 27.1.13

This is a transcript of the review of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music by Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine on 27th January 2013:

Howard’s Way

Despite the social upheavals of the past 50 years, it is striking that the great teachers in our homes – those who have taken viewers and listeners by the hand and guided them through vast subjects – have all be white, male Oxbridge graduates.  In addition, they have all taken a coherent, chronological narrative approach in which one thing leads on to the next.

Kenneth Clark (Civilisation), Jacob Bronowsky (the Ascent of Man), Alistair Cooke (America), David Attenborough (Life on Earth) and Simon Schama (A History of Britain) presented the landmark series on television; Christopher Lee (This Sceptred Isle), Neil MacGregor (A History of the World in 100 Objects) and Paul Gambaccini (music in the Air: A History of Music Radio) created them on radio.  Lee, to be picky, when to London, but became a Cambridge don.

The latest in this tradition is the composer Howard Goodall, a product of Stowe and Christ Church.  True, he has been around for year, as the man who wrote the signature tune for Blackadder and many other comedies, as a keen and inspirational choirmaster, as the host of Classic FM’s weekly film-music show and much else.  But this weekend sees him emerge with a bang as British broadcasting’s latest chronicler – of western classical music.

Last night, he began his much-heralded The Story of Music on BBC2; tonight he begins The Composers Composers on Classic FM; tomorrow, he begins The Story of Music in 50 pices on Radio 3, complementing the television series with a personal selection of 50 key works spanning 900 years.  These will go out over the next month at two points each weekday: 11am in Essential Classics (where Radio 3 gets its highest audience) and 5.30pm during In Tune.

The first, tomorrow morning, comes from the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingenl; the second, in the drivetime spot, was written by John Dunstable in the 15th century.  Each item last about five minutes and is a model of brevity and good editing.

On the basis of what I have heard so far, five out of the 50 pieces, it is the sort of thing many listeners will have been waiting years for, if not decades.  Those who have regarded Goodall as a bit lightweight, a public-school hearty, will be impressed by his scholarship and by the depth and breadth of his knowledge; those put off by what they regard as Radio 3’s austerity and sniffiness will encounter a man who practices what he preaches.  He not only explains fourths, fifths, octaves and thirds, but sing them to great effect.  (His musical life started in the choir.)  And, although he talks about lines, key, chords and melody, there is no refuge in jargon.  Listening is like watching flowers unfold their petals.  All 50 items will be available as downloads.

Radio is the ideal medium for this multipart format, and there are many other subjects it could tackle.  Theology and vivisection are both much neglected:  why not a history of the belief in God or the notion of animal rights?  or of mathematics, money or jokes?  So much to do, so much to learn, so much to listen to.