Story-of-Music_3DA Book Review by John Eric Copeland, MusicHistoryMatters.org

So, it’s not often I read a whole music history book from cover to cover. To be honest, most I start, or skim, or read parts that interest me. But The Story of Music, by Howard Goodall, got my attention from the start and kept it until the very last page.

In fact, I don’t often write book reviews but felt this book would benefit the readers of this blog as well as any folks who may be interested in music history from a sociological point of view like I am.

The subtitle for the book is “From Babylon to the Beatles, How Music has Shaped Civilization.” While this may be a tad hyperbolic, Goodall does a good job making sure this book clings tightly to what’s going on in the world and how each period relates to the people at that time. In fact, the book wastes no time getting to that very thing in its first paragraph.

“You may think that music is a luxury, a plug-in to make human life more enjoyable. That would be a fair supposition in the twenty-first century, but our hunter-gatherer ancestors wouldn’t have agreed. To them, music was much more than mere entertainment.” (pg 6)

And from here we are off. Starting with early civilizations of cavemen, Goodall begins The Story of Music. From there we traverse through time, eventually touching on the first known composer, “a spectacularly clever and imaginative German woman, Hildegard of Bingen, who was born in 1098.”

“Instead of handing on the tried and tested chants, as had been the norm in earlier centuries, Hildegard made up her own chant tunes. This seems to us an obvious thing to do, but in the twelfth century it was both daring and unexpected.” (pg 27)

One of the things I love about this book is how accessible it makes music history to us who are living and working in music now. This is something I think is crucial to keeping the history of music relatable and helpful in ours and students’ future professional music lives. Almost every important point is correlated to how we deal with music today and that makes this book relevant, even though many are stories we already have heard or know well.

“The distance in form, intention, mood and expression between Schubert’s songs for voice and piano and those of, say, Adele is remarkably short, considering they are separated by two hundred years. The only thing that would shock Schubert about ‘Someone like you’ is the fact that a young woman is the song’s creator, not its object.” (pg 221)

One important aspect this book brings up several times is how the advent and subsequent accessibility of recordings brought about something that continues to plague music to this day.

“At a concert in February 1814, for example, Beethoven presented the première of his eighth symphony alongside a performance of his seventh, which itself was only two months old. No one at the time thought this unusual. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the tables had been turned: old favourites became the bread and butter of live concerts, with new works squeezed in between them apologetically.” (pg 313)

Goodall speaks extensively in several different points in the book about the early glut of classical recordings and how audiences began to prefer to hear their old favorites in concert, rather than new music. This isn’t only a classical music problem, as pop music audiences often prefer the songs they know and love to new music at concerts. More on this in a future article.

The books ends with a very optimistic flair and, as is the case with the whole book, Goodall brings the history of music to a close with our current music situation.

“J. S. Bach was probably the cleverest composer who ever lived, but he gave his performers almost no detailed instructions as to how they might play his sublime music. He hastily scribbled down the notes and left them to it. It is as if he is saying, ‘trust me, and play’.

We, more than any previous generation, can readily identify with Bach’s request. We press ‘play’ and a million styles, sounds, aural colours, echoes and voices breeze in towards us as if through an opened window. We are like children with a thousand games at our fingertips. We have, at last, reached a point where there are no wrong or right decisions about what music we may or may not enjoy – just one gratifyingly simple instruction: ‘play’.”

Review by John Eric Copeland, MusicHistoryMatters.org

 

Excerpts From: Goodall, Howard. “The Story of Music.” Open Road Integrated Media, 2013-12-04T16:43-06:00. iBooks.

This material may be protected by copyright.

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