Music on television: They just don't get it, do they?

Some are born great, and some are picked by BBC2. Great Composers launched its preferred seven (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Puccini) on Sunday with a synthesised collage of juicy bits by them all. In case you hadn't got the message about supermen, it cut to a space shuttle lifting off. And if you stayed with it, the programme then sprang its surprise: a documentary about Johann Sebastian Bach so respectful and decent that it could have stopped Lord Reith turning in his grave.

Here was Kenneth Branagh telling the life story with modesty and directness. There between the chapters was a parade of reassuring Germanic types like descendants of the bourgeoisie Bach wrote for, and the English version in grey pullovers. They talked about the music and they played and sang soundbites, in varying states of quiet transcendence. This was a show of unity in worship to make the churches pine with envy.

The message of the wall-to-wall WASPs was strangely excluding. What were they all so certain about? Why wouldn't they say? You had to latch on to any sign of excitement. Ton Koopman went slightly crazy and transported, as is his way. Joanna MacGregor atoned for incipient waffle ("a very simple early harmonic style") by waxing urgent about the Preludes and Fugues. Jacques Loussier invented his own versions, and that was without playing jazz. Unexpectedly, John Eliot Gardiner let it all hang out over the B minor Mass and paid off a worrying deficit in the joyous side of Bach's music that had built up since the programme began.

Otherwise, viewers who didn't "get" the religion must have found it a puzzle. The trouble, on this showing, was that the question-begging premise of the series stood in the way. Hanging the story of classical music on seven composers would have looked dodgy even in the age of Civilisation, which at least respected the tides in the affairs of man. Now it looks like a late product of back-to-basics philosophy, mixed with a dose of Great Man theory.

We grow up in a complex musical environment that makes us hear much without taking it in. Ears have walls. Granting a few composers divine status doesn't suddenly bring them down. Focusing on the music has a better chance. At the end, a complete performance of Bach's Dona nobis pacem spoke, all right. Even continuity fell silent. But who else was still watching?

Half a night later on Channel 4, Yo Yo Ma took his cello into the Kalahari and played Bach to a crowd of villagers. They fell silent too. Ma was following an old fascination with some African music and wanted to search for common ground. It looked like a stunt, as he paraded this huge, loud, shiny instrument before his rural audience. Must be a missionary. But Ma seemed so good at meeting them, and so frankly aware of the cultural pitfalls, that it made a riveting experience. There were long shots of musicians just figuring each other out, slowly and happily. Anybody watching would have "got" both the African music and Bach, no trouble.

Shame about the final shot of him playing on his own in front of a fire, as though Africa had gone away, but it didn't erase what had taken place. To quote the late Sir Laurens van der Post in an on-camera conversation with Ma, the adventure was about crossing bridges that others treat as barriers. This time, no barriers.

`Great Composers' continues with Mozart this Sunday at 7.45pm on BBC2. The complete set of seven programmes is already available on video from Warner Vision.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

    £19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future