Classical On the Air: Too many notes, Mr Gold

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ONE OF the dominant images in Shekhar Kapur's recent feature film Elizabeth was the vast nave of Durham Cathedral - a puzzling choice of location, for all its splendour. Elizabeth never went further north than Stafford while she was queen, though that's merely an academic quibble. But Durham Cathedral suggested such an unlikely setting for the court that it was surreal. Elizabeth's main residence was the Palace of Whitehall, first inhabited by her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, in 1533.

In Radio 3's Spirit of the Age on Sunday afternoon, the historians Daniel Snowman and David Starkey tried to create an idea of what the vast Whitehall complex was like, and how it grew throughout the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. By the time it burnt down in 1698, it had something like 1,500 rooms and was described as the biggest and ugliest palace in the world.

Very little remains today apart from Cardinal Wolsey's wine cellar and Inigo Jones's Banqueting House, so Snowman and Starkey could only speculate on the activities surrounding the monarchs, in between examples of the music they might have heard. These were all by English composers, even though Starkey asserted that art at the Stuart court was a foreign commodity.

Snowman politely refrained from explaining that Giovanni Coprario was, in fact, English. He also failed to point out that Charles I esteemed William Lawes above all other composers. There was no mention of any of the great Tudor composers, or even of Purcell, though we did hear two bits of his music written for Queen Mary's funeral.

Purcell might, I suppose, have featured occasionally in Becky Sharp's repertoire of seductive songs, though it stretched the imagination when in the fifth episode of BBC1's Vanity Fair, Natasha Little had a group of ladies nonplussed with an acidulated, small-spirited rendition of Dido's lament, "When I am laid in earth". Perhaps this small surprise was intended as an ambiguous indicator of her impending fate, to yield to Lord Steyne and her own ruin. Or is that to overestimate the director, Marc Munden? After all, he may have an eye for grotesque caricature, but he has hardly ventured into the ironic world of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's films of Wagner, which represent mythical archetypes as wobbly puppets.

Earlier in the same episode, the jazzy vulgarity of Becky's knowing little number at the fortepiano was as embarrassing as it was unlikely. Yet Murray Gold's sardonic music, with its recurring leitmotif of three sinister chords, makes an effective contribution to the chill of this morality tale without attempting period pastiche. There's too much music, though as Becky sobbed her stony heart out at the end of last Sunday's episode, there was a devastating silence, more eloquent than any music.

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