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on 1 February 2012
This is a review of the original hardback edition. This is the book that accompanied the five-episode TV series, but the book has eight chapters, as well as a preface, overture, and epilogue. In his preface Goodall informs the reader, "This is not an old-fashioned History of Western Music ... And this is more than the usual `book of the series', too." He includes much detail that could not or did not make the TV final cut, but also some personal reflections on such issues as why music affects us the way that it does.
Goodall also explains the background to the TV series and how he tested his own five suggestions for discoveries that changed musical history with other musicians. Invariably they came up with their own (but agreed by-and-large with his). He writes, "I qualified my choice by saying that I was interested in changes to music that happened in one place at one time: one day the invention wasn't there, the next day it was." Therefore, we do not have the invention of the symphony or the concerto, or of the violin.
Goodall postulates that the development of music today and of all the last millennium relies on its being written down. Consequently, he sees the invention of musical notation by Guido of Arezzo, the subject of the first chapter, as the biggest bang of all. The other four big bangs are the invention of opera; the discovery of equal temperament; the invention of the piano; and the onset of recorded sound. As with all of the five bangs, not only does Goodall explain the build up to the explosion, the fuses of which have a greater or lesser length, he follows through with the subsequent results, their fallout.
The other chapters are no less interesting. In `Vatican Secrets' he gives a short personal view on the power of music, commencing with Allegri's `Miserere'. (I admit to being reduced to tears after reading about the boy and his drum at the workshop held by the Halle Orchestra's percussion section at a special needs school.)
Then, in `Je Suis Compositeur' he describes the process of composition. Describing himself as a Protestant Humanist, he nevertheless allows music a religious force, a bearer of echoes from earlier prehistoric times: "It may be our last remaining link, in our most concrete worlds, with a way of being that we once enjoyed and have long since left behind."
The third extra chapter is called `Chosen People', which comprises a short essay on the Jewish contributions to classical music. Here Goodall compares Mahler's to Bruckner's symphonies, but I do not recognise Goodall's uncomplimentary descriptions of the latter's: to me Bruckner's symphonies evince the very material that makes music such a powerful force.
It's not all plain sailing. I am not musically trained, and so, for me, Goodall failed to explain the theory of Pythagoras's comma clearly enough. The thirteenth note may be "dangerously, uncannily, teeth-gratingly close to the very first note", but WHY? And why THESE twelve notes? I was often frustrated by many assertions begging more questions that failed to be answered. For example, if a clavichord is "basically a hammer dulcimer", then why is it so quiet when played?
The book comes with plenty of illustrations, but alas they are all in black and white, which is a bit pointless when describing the red and yellow lines adopted by Guido of Arezzo for his F and C pitches, and we miss too the opportunity to admire the beauty that medieval illuminated manuscripts often possess. Moreover, many of the illustrations are of poor quality. And we are let down too when Goodall gets technical: for instance, when describing the internal workings of Bartolomeo Cristofori's pianoforte, there is no image provided of his innovation.
Finally, in his epilogue, Goodall looks to the future, remarking how "Moving from one century or millennium to another [the book was published in 2000] has put us in a mood of appraisal and prediction." He prognosticates on classical music concerts and cathedral choirs, admitting that his views on each of these traditions contradict the other, but in my opinion he fails to square the circle he has created. But it is this manner of Goodall including his personal opinions among the stories he has to tell - he is right, this book is indeed no "old-fashioned History of Western Music" - that enlivens its pages and engages the reader. That is this book's strength.
A list of further reading and an index bring the book to an end.