Music on television: They just don't get it, do they?
Friday 12 December 1997
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.
Life & Style blogs
Who is Teresa Fidalgo? Debunking the fake ghost story that's got Instagram spooked
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
Hershey's angers US chocolate purists by forcing company to stop importing 'yummy' Cadbury bars
SAG Awards 2015: Best and worst gowns on the red carpet
Nike Back to the Future style self-lacing shoes 'will arrive in 2015'
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
Leaked documents show Ukip leaders approve NHS privatisation once it becomes more 'acceptable to the electorate'
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: An award-winning global multi-media...
£26017.21 - £32521.19 per annum + OTE $90,000: Sauce Recruitment: My client is...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of UK Magento hosting so...
£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen...