The Making of Music: Volume One “From Plainchant to Paganini…”
Written and presented by James Naughtie
30 episodes: originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 between 4 June and 13 July 2007
“Because of the professionalism of the production and the clear, cultured voice of the presenter, this is an immensely listenable set from which it is possible to learn much.” (from Antony Hodgson’s review)
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2007
CD No: BBC AUDIO BOOKS
[ISBN: 978 1405 677783]
Duration: 6 hours 45 minutes
Where does one begin in presenting a virtually complete historical survey of music? Is it possible to present sufficient of the best-known great works to satisfy those who are less-knowledgeable yet keenly interested while still holding the attention of those who are familiar with the great classics and might prefer to be presented with interesting rarely-performed examples by neglected composers?
James Naughtie is firstly a very fine presenter, as his very frequent presence on BBC Radio 4’s daily “Today” programme proves. He has a fine, clear, confident voice (supporting the oft-quoted opinion that the Scots speak the best English). And not only is he the presenter of “The Making of Music”, he also wrote the script.
In general, this is a magnificent achievement; not until the last two programmes did I realise that I was becoming critical of an element of imbalance – but more of that later. Naughtie solves the problem of how to commence by plunging the listener into the sound of Plainchant in an ancient monastery. A little licence is then taken by immediately presenting an excerpt from a Bach cantata to show the influence of the ancient chant upon it before a brief summary is given of the overall pattern of this immense study. A slightly surprising forward reference to the genius of both Beethoven and Wagner is a rather strange departure but it is used to justify the contrast between today and ancient times – an important part of the underlying philosophy of these programmes. Cleverly, Naughtie uses Arvo Pärt’s music, which is full of ancient musical influences, in order comfortably to return the beginning of his exploration.
Firstly, church music and the subtle development of harmonies is explained in a most approachable way. The slow move towards the years of increased use of instrumental music – scarcely any of which would have been written down in early times – is propounded clearly. This is a scholarly dissertation, but one that every music-lover may easily understand.
As Naughtie proceeds, we encounter music with which most listeners will be familiar. It seems that careful consideration has been given as to what proportion of classical masterpieces should be used. In the end, this proportion is quite high but not to the extent of talking down to the more knowledgeable listeners. It seems reasonable that great composers should be represented by their greatest works, and to concentrate on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”, “Mass in B minor” and Brandenburg Concertos will surely upset no-one. Far less acceptable, however, is the presentation of Bach’s Prelude in B major played on a piano! Suddenly, in the context of historical authenticity, the use of a recording featuring an instrument that the composer would never have encountered seems a strange aberration. Did anyone tell Naughtie that the production team would use this version to reflect his comment immediately prior to the infiltration of this excerpt when he says “… in his hands, the keyboard took on remarkable power… “? This may be true, but that power never sounded remotely like the example we are given here.
For much of the time the sequence is strictly chronological but is influenced by what went on in particular countries at a particular time: for example Tudor period music is (quite suitably) represented by a study of English Tudor music. As the Baroque era is approached, the narration seems shaky in chronology: Vivaldi and Italian music of the time is considered before music of the English Renaissance. Only after that is Vivaldi’s contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, considered. Handel is linked into the English music of the late 18th-century. True, this gives the impression that he was later than Bach (he was born in the same year) but in terms of style the musical connection is valid. This is an important period and is gone into in some detail. During this sequence I was very pleased to encounter the delightful last movement of John Field’s Piano Sonata No.1 – maybe one of the producers had recalled the time when this now neglected piece was frequently broadcast. This gives an easy link into the explanation of the system of patronage in this period and hence Haydn’s long employment at the court of Eszterháza in Hungary.
In view of the amount of space given to the various composers, and bearing in mind that Haydn was of particular importance, the attribution to him of three tracks lasting a total of 13½ minutes is reasonable. Obviously Mozart must next be considered, but here the carefully prepared regular pattern of study set up on the previous four CDs is disrupted. Not only is this composer given six tracks lasting 27 minutes (surely even the greatest Mozart enthusiast would not claim Mozart to be twice as important as Haydn), but his operatic output is much over-represented. Excerpt after excerpt of music from the operas is provided together with details of the plots. There is even a tendency towards an assumption that listeners know who the characters are. This is not the way to encourage those with limited knowledge who are seeking to understand the overall pattern of musical progress.
After Mozart, three tracks are presented which have very dubious relevance. Here the French Revolution is discussed in detail together with the music it brought forth. Although I am sure it was not the intention, this sequence makes it quite clear how poor was the quality of politically-inspired music of the time. The “Marseillaise” may be a memorable enough tune but it is not great music. Gossec’s “Song for the 14th of July” is third-rate triumphalism and the excerpt from his “Te Deum” does little for his reputation. Even the respectable Cherubini provides nothing of quality in his popularist “Hymn to the Pantheon”. Méhul’s “Republican Hymn” is perhaps the worst example of the musical opportunism of the time. I really cannot understand why any of this sub-standard stuff was thought worthy of inclusion.
It was a relief to turn to Beethoven (and also refreshing, in the circumstances, to be reminded of his disillusion with Napoleon) and, after the questionable decision to commence representing his important output with an example from his one and only opera, the analysis becomes very accomplished. Because of the wealth of material available it was reasonable to take just one particular work – the ‘Eroica’ Symphony – and analyse it thoroughly as a representation of the composer’s importance. It works well and there are sufficient examples of other pieces to give a rounded view.
The sixth and final disc of this first volume, proceeds through Schubert and recognises the importance of Weber. This time concentration on operatic style is acceptable because Weber is enormously influential in this field. Regrettably, it is followed in later tracks by over-representation of Italian operas and Naughtie here makes a rare exception to his previous style of presentation by identifying the performers. There is a strong bias towards the remarkable voice of Maria Callas. Track after track makes enjoyable enough listening for opera enthusiasts but a great deal more than Italian Grand Opera was going on in the musical world at this period.
Many composers are thriving in the mid-19th-century, and virtuosi such as Paganini, Liszt and Chopin are used to represent the fashion of the times and the depiction is well done. I trust that exact contemporaries such as Mendelssohn and Schumann will in due course be given their due, but the rounding-off is achieved by reference to Victorian England, which gives the indulgent opportunity to move forward, via reference to the Royal Albert Hall, to the Promenade concerts and even to include Elgar, whose Cello Concerto is the final musical example.
Maybe Naughtie will have trouble straightening out chronology at the beginning of Volume Two but is there much music left for this volume? After all, many listeners were actually born while Elgar was still alive, so we are no longer in the realms of musical history.
Despite my reservations (which can by summarised as concern at the over-representation of opera and amazement at the importance attached to third-rate music of the French Revolution) this is a fine achievement – a triumph of good broadcasting. The way in which music is grafted in to the narration is admirable. Sometimes a piece will start and fade under the voice; sometimes it will subtly make its presence felt as the narrator builds up to an important point whereupon the music also magically arrives at that same point in order to illustrate the description. This is very skilled broadcasting technique.
The 6 CDs represent, the annotation advises, an abridged version of the actual programmes (although the playing-time is that above rather than either the 6 hours 25 or 6 hours 30 that is printed in the BBC’s accompanying leaflet). Although the documentation gives only a general guide to the contents, each disc is sensibly split up into 15 tracks for ease of navigation. Because of the professionalism of the production and the clear, cultured voice of the presenter, this is an immensely listenable set from which it is possible to learn much.
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