He has written and presented the most ambitious series ever to have been commissioned on the subject, Leaving Home, a seven-part series which was unveiled by Channel 4 yesterday.
The move is part of its bid to explore the arts in a more rigorous and intellectual way, an approach which goes hand in hand with Sir Simon's own championing of the challenging music of what he calls our "wonderful, infuriating century".
But the conductor who, over the last 16 years, has made the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into an international force, admitted that the series, starting on 29 September, would not be an easy ride, even for dedicated lovers of classical music.
Among the works featured are Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, Strauss's Elektra, Webern's Five Orchestral Pieces, Mahler's Symphony No 7, Shostakovich's Symphony No 4, and Birtwistle's Ritual Fragment.
"This stuff takes time," Sir Simon said. "There's no sense in which this music is easy. What I hope to do is give people a window into why it sounds as it does. It is very hard to move straight from Wagner to the most complicated music of our time."
The series starts with an exploration of the music of decaying, turn- of-the-century Vienna, and goes on to study how orchestral music shook itself free of rhythm, how the Eastern composers Shostakovich and Bartok evaded state control of their work, the influence of America and the post-war innovations of Stravinsky, Boulez and Stockhausen in building new music for a new Europe.
In the last programme, Sir Simon selects music by Berio, Henze and Birtwistle, as well as some of the emerging music from eastern Europe, as indicating trends for the future.
The series, costing more than pounds 2m, originated with Melvyn Bragg four years ago. "It presented real technical and moral problems," said Helen Sprott, Channel 4's commissioning editor for the performing arts. "Do you allow people to speak over the music? How much of a piece of music do you play? What images do you show?"
But the medium also offered a way of increasing the accessibility of the music through the use of contemporaneous artwork, photographs and news footage. "So many intelligent people say to me: 'I'm finding this music tough, what's the problem?'," said Sir Simon.
"People are not willing to take the amount of effort and listen. If you go through a gallery of modern art you can look at a painting or turn away immediately. Music takes time."
In his view, orchestral music is turning back to popular culture as the century ends. "There is a return to more communicative music but also to more spiritual music. This is a very, very interesting time."
The last 100 years had been a time of unparalleled and concerted violence and that was reflected in the music, he added. "There is no way a great composer can keep himself apart from the time. This is a century where things have moved faster and grown at a more extraordinary rate than ever."
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