Book review: The Story Of Music - Howard Goodall

Richard Wagner in a cartoon by Spy (Lesley Ward) from Vanity Fair, in 19th May 1877. Picture: Getty
Richard Wagner in a cartoon by Spy (Lesley Ward) from Vanity Fair, in 19th May 1877. Picture: Getty
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THE fate of classical music seems to be one of 2013’s emerging trends: anniversaries for Verdi, Wagner and Britten; a series inspired by Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise at London’s South Bank Centre, and already a steady stream of books is appearing, from Abbate and Parker’s fascinating history of opera and David Byrne’s How Music Works to a new biography of Lina Prokofiev and Alan Rusbridger’s attempt to learn Chopin’s Ballade No 1.

The Story Of Music

Howard Goodall

Chatto & Windus, £20

Howard Goodall, whose compositional work includes musicals, choral pieces (notably Eternal Light) and TV scores (The Vicar Of Dibley, Blackadder, QI etc), presents this TV tie-in; an accessible guide to roughly 42,000 years of music in just over 300 pages that manages neither to sacrifice precise detail nor pugnacious opinion.

This sweep is the book’s key strength, even if it means that some composers receive relatively short shrift. But it is in keeping with the title: this is about music, not a roll-call of the greats, and Goodall is unfailingly acute on how technology drives musical innovation, from the first ever, octave higher, boy choruses for plainchant masses lost in the mists of the first millennium AD (a necessary first step towards polyphony) to how recording democratised the musical experience.

He divides the history into neat but not discrete periods. The Age of Discovery (up to 1450, from the first rudimentary whistles carbon-dated to 40,000 BC) covers the invention of notation for both pitch and duration and leads into The Age of Penitence, up to 1650, taking in the refinement of musical instruments and the work of Josquin, Dowland and Monteverdi.

The next century is “Invention”, with Bach’s Equal Temperament at its centre; then “Elegance and Sentiment” covering Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven and Chopin. The chronology is compressed for the Age of Tragedy – 1850 to 1890 – discussing Berlioz, ­Verdi, Liszt and Wagner. Rebellion (1890-1918) may have Stravinsky as the ringmaster of Modernism, but also ushers in popular music; and the tension between “popular” and “classical” music takes up the final two chapters.

Goodall does not stint on explaining technical aspects – such as the Circle of Fifths, the fugue form or syncopation – but does, pleasingly, rail about how the language of music is often an impediment. This is not just a matter of not knowing your legato from your passacaglia, but the problematic way in which a term like ­“classical” or “Romantic” might be used; there being precious ­little connection between a David painting, a poem by Pope, a Wren church and a Mozart ­opera although all might be referred to as “classical”.

Although Goodall is admirably catholic in his tastes, he does have villains; notably Wagner and Schoenberg. His view of Wagner as a musical dead end comes at the price of discounting Bruckner, and I would disagree strongly that it is “not so far-fetched to suggest that, without his link to the Nazis, most people who were not hardcore opera fans would by now have lost interest in Wagner”.

Likewise, his denunciation of Schoenberg (“produced decades of scholarly hot air… and – in its purest, strictest form – not one piece of music, in 100 years’ worth of effort, that a normal person could understand or enjoy”) is intemperate. I think I’m fairly normal and think Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (and Webern’s String Quartet and Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck) are sublime works. They refresh what it means to listen.

In the pages on the 20th century, Goodall poses a number of provocative questions. Almost anyone can whistle Eleanor Rigby, a piece of West Side Story, or the theme from The Godfather or The Mission, but can anyone do the same for Stockhausen or Adès or Boulez? It’s a bit of a cheat – if he’d chosen Glass’s Powaqqatsi or Nyman’s Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds or Maxwell Davies’ Farewell To Stromness – he might well get a different answer. Goodall’s conclusion is that songwriters like Lennon and McCartney “were the most unlikely saviours of old-fashioned music, but that’s undoubtedly what they were”. A debate between Alex Ross and Howard Goodall would be a fine thing to stage on these points.

There is another undercurrent in the book. He quotes Sir Simon Rattle’s mordant joke that, “We British have every reason to be modest about our music,” and clearly feels differently. As well as the great Elizabethans, he notes Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, Purcell, John Field, and is perhaps slightly too enthusiastic about Arthur Sullivan, as well as duly citing Parry, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, and Delius. He does not dwell on Britten but rather startling says that Tippett’s A Child Of Our Time is “classical music’s most heartfelt answer… to the challenges of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.

It is a good corrective to see British music championed, and as such, it seems curious not to mention that most successful of recent operas, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, or the work of James Macmillan. Thankfully, despite being a keen proponent of the musical, the schmaltz of Andrew Lloyd Webber goes unmentioned.

The Story Of Music is a ­clever, engaging read. Once the TV series is out, it would be useful to have a CD or an app that takes the book out of ­silence. «