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Howard Goodall's Story of Music

March 18, 2018

When I was at Wilbur Wright College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) around the turn of the millennium, I was fortunate to have several great instructors including Michael Holian. Professor Holian is the kind of brilliant and inspiring man you'd expect to be running the music department at community college - but only because of movies like Mr. Holland's Opus. His passion for the magnum opi of the great maestros was evident in the way he spoke of them as well as the way he conducted the Northwest Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I got to "sit in" on two performances with the NCSO - piano for Lieutenant Kijé by Prokofiev and a synthetic approximation for the celesta part in "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. What a joy and an honor. 

 

Dr. Holian also taught several classes at the school, including Music Literature, which was really just a music history course. I recall, quite fondly, that we spent the majority of that semester simply watching an amazing series about the history of harmony (in the western tradition) hosted by esteemed flute player, James Galway. Sitting and watching TV for an hour and a half might seem to some like wasted credit hours, but this series had at least as much of an impact on me as my music theory classes did, if not more so, as a composer, a music enthusiast, and as a teacher myself. 

 

When you sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as a toddler, you don't consider that the lyrics are from a 19th century English poem by Jane Taylor, which found their home in the French folk song melody of "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman" published in 1761. You don't  consider the fact that several composers, including Mozart himself, generated arrangements of this timeless piece. With James Galway's assistance, I began to really see the legacy of musical inheritance. Where would Mozart have been without Bach? Where would Bach have been without Monteverdi? How sore their shoulders must be, these giants bearing the weight of giants in this sky-scraping totem pole.

 

After just a few episodes of the James Galway hosted documentary, I was hooked. To learn of the brilliant and often painstaking journey humanity has undertaken to discover and develop the systems of western music that persist to this very day was an invaluable experience. Professor Holian obviously knew of the potential impact of this series and that there was nothing more that really needed doing other than to present it formally to eager minds such as mine. I am so grateful for that opportunity.

 

Some years later, well into my own tenure as a music teacher, I found myself wanting to revisit this documentary. Having ventured deeper into composition in the years following college, I wondered what I might now glean from such a review. Strangely, I have yet to find even a listing of this documentary. Possibly, it was only created for distribution in the academic realm. 

 

Fortunately, in my search, I discovered a series that is, perhaps, even more succinct and enriching than the Galway doc. The complete, 6-part BBC series of Howard Goodall's Story of Music is available for free on Youtube. I can't say enough about the joy of this series. I am on my third watching and it continues to inspire me. It has brought me into contact with the works of Kassia of Constantinople - a brilliant composer credited as the first known female composer of the western tradition. It has also brought me more evidence of the organic, fundamental elements of music - more evidence that harmony was as much discovered as it was invented. 

 

This documentary is for the layperson and the seasoned professional alike. Howard Goodall does a fantastic job keeping all of the information easily digestible, and almost all of the historical landmarks of the journey that music has taken are illustrated with magnificent performances by world-class singers and musicians, exquisitely recorded in beautiful acoustic environments. At some point, I'd like to get my hands on the Galway again, but I feel confident that I am getting at least as much, if not more so, from this brilliant series. 

 

Thank you for your shoulders, Howard, Michael, James, Jane, Sergei, Pyotr, Wolfgang, Johann, Gregory, Kassia...

 

 

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