This series has been going for a week, but I only stumbled across it today. It’s a major joint undertaking between BBC Radios 3 and 4 that chronicles the history of western classical music over the last millennium. Written and narrated by Jim Naughtie, the shows have a somewhat weird scheduling format. At 3:45pm (UK time) on every weekday there is a fifteen minute documentary programme on Radio 4 dedicated to a particular period or aspect of music. This is followed at 4pm on Radio 3 by an hours worth of music that ties in to the programme. Thankfully, all the shows are available to listen again on the BBC’s website, which is pretty much what I’ve spent today doing!
The first five documentaries consisted of a general introduction to the series; the early polyphonic music that came out of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; Medieval troubadors; the Burgundian music of Dufay and Binchois and the early Renaissance music of Josquin Desprez. This week (June 11th-15th) continues the story into the Elizabethan period.
I’m far from being an expert on early music, nor indeed most classical music, so most of this is new to me. Naughtie’s illustrated lectures are interesting and informative (if a little too Radio 4 – did he really say that most of us nowadays listen to music in our drawing rooms?). For me, though, it is the accompanying shows on the Third Programme (ask your gran – olde worlde name for Radio 3) that are revelatory. Many of the early composers’ names are lost to us now, but much of their music remains. The first programme presents plainchant and simple polyphony up to the time of that amazing medieval force of nature that was abbess Hildegard von Bingen. In some ways this music is the most familiar from the New Age fad for Gregorian Chant that occurred around a decade back. Episode two introduces early polyphonic choral music composed by two masters at Notre Dame – Leonin and Perotin. This stuff seems to have an Arabic influence to my untrained ears. There is also an obvious influence on Dead Can Dance.
The third episode covers the medieval troubadors and their tales of dashing knights and fair maidens sung in Old French. To be honest, an hour of that was more than enough for me. The Burgundian music of Dufay was essentially a more sophisticated version of what Leonin and Perotin were doing, intersperesed with some fairly crude instrumental music. Somehow it lacked the charm of the earlier music. The fifth programme was dominated by the music of Josquin Desprez. He was completely unknown to me when I woke up this morning – now I’m a bit of a fan. His music runs the gamut from charming comic songs to startlingly beautiful choral music that reminds me of Palestrina, but predates the Italian by a century. There is also some surprisingly beefy and rousing instrumental music. Josquin didn’t seem to have a particular style, but was happy to turn his hand at anything with pretty impressive results.
I really like this series. It’s both informative and entertaining. I think there is a strong link between much of this early music and a lot of avant-garde stuff today. The drone was an important element, but also mood and feeling were held to be more important than virtuosity. I have a personal blind spot in classical music that lasts from about 1650 to 1800 when everything got all intricate, complicated, sugary and empty. Baroque is a by-word for overly decorative, flash and soul-less. Mozart may have been a genius, but to be honest, his stuff makes me want to flee from the room. It’s all too redolent of upper class drawing rooms and Jane Austen novels. All artifice and no passion. Good old Ludwig Van brought back the darkness and soul that had gone missing. Anyway, I digress. I’m curious, though, about how they will deal with the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. Will jazz, experimental rock, electronica and the avant-garde get a look in? We shall see.