Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Story of Music in 50 Pieces, Radio 3

The Story of Music in 50 Pieces, Radio 3

I know everybody’s at it. Following on from Barry Norman’s 50 Greatest British Films we now get Radio 3’s Story of Music in 50 Pieces with the omnipresent Howard Goodall in conversation with Suzy Klein. And very good it is too. It is presented as a series of historical musical snapshots from the 12th century visionary Hildegard of Bingham to the present day – a conversation with the contemporary minimalist giant, Steve Reich.

Now we all have our own unique hit list that would, in all probability, be different each time we make one (is Dr No a truly great British film? Come off it Barry). But as a classical Top-of-the-Pops goes, this is a pretty fair-minded selection which includes the music of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill as well as the usual suspects of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Or is it?

Well there is no Brahms, that I can see anyway. No Mahler or Sibelius. OK, not all our favourite composers can make the cut, but no Brahms? What is striking, however, is the complete removal of the academic Holy Grail of modernist line springing from the musical loins of Richard Wagner: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Messaien, Boulez, Stockhausen and all that flowed from this musical aesthetic e.g. our featured Late Music composer Jonathan Harvey.

Now one may not be drawn to this musical aesthetic, in fact the majority of us aren’t, but to ignore this musical development, this radicalisation of contemporary music is extraordinary. Again, not all composers can make the cut, but three entries for Ludwig Van Beethoven - Symphony No 3, String Quartet No 14 and Symphony
No 7 (all great…) and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is left on the cutting room floor?

This is made all the more confusing when one reads the actual aims of this excellent series, which is to  choose 50 pieces of music that changed the course of music history’.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony out and the 7th in? What about the explosive 5th Symphony with its radical and influential use of  transforming and uniting themes?
What about Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire? What about Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet? OK, it is as dull as dishwater but it was also the first proper outing for 12-note serialism, a  controversial compositional process which definitely changed the course of music history.

Steve Reich along with others – Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Monte Young certainly did change the course of history with the creation of a radical minimalist music, a term first coined by Michael Nyman. But John Adams’ Nixon in China? I don’t think so.

I will be very interested to read your comments.


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