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Our Classical Century, BBC Four review - enthusiasm and delight | reviews, news & interviews

Our Classical Century, BBC Four review - enthusiasm and delight

Our Classical Century, BBC Four review - enthusiasm and delight

From the trenches to the jazz age, Sir Lenny embarks on an enthralling musical journey

Bewitched by the orchestra: Sir Lenny HenryImages: BBC/Lion TV


This fact-studded story of 20th century British music told us that the nation's unofficial national anthem, Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem, originated in 1916 as a commission from the “Fight for Right” movement. Officials wanted a grand piece of music to boost morale (following the law of unintended consequences, Parry saw to it that Jerusalem became a rallying song for the suffragettes, too). The work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams was also enlisted to boost the national spirit. Even bureaucracy recognised the potential of music to uplift, encourage, delight.

This first instalment in a four-part series was titled “A New Dawn” and took us from the trauma of World War I through the 1930s, full of surprises along the way. It provided what the BBC does so well – entertaining and painless learning about things you did not even realise you knew nothing about. Sir Lenny Henry was in the thick of it as the ideal audience, asking the questions, and emanating delighted enthusiasm for the music he was hearing.

Vaughan Williams never talked about the trauma of war; it is in the music

He had been turned onto music by a superb teacher, the handsome, twitchy Mr Baxter, when he was at Bluecoat Secondary Modern, and remembers to this day how the students were mesmerised by seven minutes of Gustav Holst’s Mars from The Planets, the whole class enthralled and terrified. Now in 2018, courtesy of television, we bounced into a rehearsal room with him and were confronted by a wall of sound and that same Mars, this time produced by 100 musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Sakari Oramo analysed the piece for us – it was all about the timing and the 5/4 rhythm which sets up an expectation of horror about to be unleashed.

A whole generation of gifted composers responded to the horror and pity of the disaster of war and its aftermath. Short-sighted Holst tried to join up for active service, but was refused. One of his pupils, Cecil Coles, volunteered successfully and actually wrote music whilst in the trenches. Poignantly, he sent Behind the Lines to Holst; Coles dedicated the manuscript, stained with blood and mud, to comrades who shared the pleasures and hardships in France. The composer-soldier was killed in November 1917 and buried on the Somme. Holst wrote a choral piece Ode to Death in his honour.

Henry’s co-presenter, Suzi Klein, herself a pianist, plunged in with equal verve, getting to the film's central premise that classical music is an inescapable factor in our history, embodying calamity, ambition and culture, bringing comfort, solace and joy. The unprecedented devastation of the first industrialised war shocked the country, and composers not only shared the experience of a shattered nation, but communicated beyond words.Our Classical CenturyThe serene myth of the countryside could captivate: Vaughan Williams had been an ambulance officer picking up bodies and fragments on the battlefield and in his music he created a mythical past, which cued beautiful scenes of green countryside. The Lark Ascending describes, we were shown, a quintessentially English scene, the music hinting at loss and grief underlying the beauty. Vaughan Williams never talked about the trauma of war; it is in the music. Klein sat at the piano at which he had composed and showed us how Vaughan Williams constructed The Lark Ascending, on a pentatonic scale, and the ways in which British folk music, which he collected, was in his musical DNA.

Moving along, there was a major surprise in the form of the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, nowadays little performed, but Elgar called him the most talented composer in Britain and persuaded the Three Choirs Festival to commission his Ballad in A Minor. In 1924 his three-part choral extravaganza Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and continued to be reprised there, two weeks every summer, for 30 years. Bouncy film clips showed us the cast of hundreds and a great family day out – everyone, performers and audience alike, dressed in fanciful costumes mimicking the myths of the Wild West.

Then it was on to John Christie, the beginnings of Glyndebourne, and anticipation of another war

We saw the coming of new technologies that brought music into the home (perhaps as startling then as the internet is now). The gramophone was championed by the septuagenarian Elgar, and by the mid-1920s 24 million records had been sold in Britain. Then came the microphone, and with it Abbey Road in North London, the largest purpose-built recording studio in the world: vintage Pathé News footage showed Elgar conducting Land of Hope and Glory at its opening in 1931.

George Gershwin turned up in London in 1925, and Rhapsody in Blue was performed at London’s leading centre for jazz, the Savoy Hotel (of all places!). Further revelations followed: it was the clarinet player in the Paul Whiteman orchestra who invented the Rhapsody’s clarinet melody, and Emma Johnson, sliding between the notes, smeared and blurred as she explained the amazing technique. Gershwin himself was on the piano for the premiere in London; here, we had Wayne Marshall sitting in (pictured above with Lenny Henry, Suzi Klein). Then it was on to John Christie, the beginnings of Glyndebourne, and anticipation of another war...

Ellen Hobson’s film was fascinating on the power and significance of classical music in Britain, as well as on how it has been seasoned by imports. It would not have been out of place on BBC One: in these vexed times for musical education in our schools, it certainly sounded relevant. Sobering to wonder what may be written to mark Brexit...

Ellen Hobson’s film was fascinating on the power and significance of classical music in Britain


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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