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Howard Goodall's Big Bangs

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

'In this series I'm going to look at five of the great breakthroughs that European music has experienced in its extraordinary history; five momentous discoveries. I also want to show what they mean to us today, at a time when so-called classical music is being absorbed into a much bigger mainstream and when its 1,000-year reign seems to be coming to a close.' HOWARD GOODALL

With intriguing anecdotes and witty humour, composer Howard Goodall presents five innovations in European musical history, which have overwhelmingly changed its course:

NOTATION: the journey from plain chant in medieval times to symphonic works and improvisation

EQUAL TEMPERAMENT (a universal tuning, scale and key system): from the discoveries of Pythagoras to J.S. Bach

OPERA: where music interfaces with real life with love, death and politics

THE PIANO: this versatile instrument is unique to European culture.

RECORDED SOUND: from Caruso to world music and sampling

'It's fascinating stuff, brilliantly presented.' THE AUSTRALIAN
'This is the very best thing on television. It is utterly brilliant.' THE SUNDAY TIMES

Written and Presented by Howard Goodall

Featuring:
Courtney Pine
John Mark Ainsley
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford
Salisbury Cathedral Choir
Students Of London College Of Music
Pupils Of Marlborough College
Julian Light Operatic Society
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus

NOTATION

Chapter 1: Plain chant
Chapter 2: Numes
Chapter 3: Guido Monaco
Chapter 4: Composers
Chapter 5: Improvisation
Chapter 6: Sibelius

EQUAL TEMPERAMENT

Chapter 1: Pythagoras, mathematician
Chapter 2: Pythagoras, mystic
Chapter 3: John Dunstable
Chapter 4: Renaissance
Chapter 5: J. S. Bach
Chapter 6: Accordion
Chapter 7: Chinese music

OPERA

Chapter 1: Camerata
Chapter 2: Orfeo ed Euridice
Chapter 3: The Marriage of Figaro
Chapter 4: Liberation
Chapter 5: Nationalistic pride
Chapter 6: Modern opera
Chapter 7: China

PIANO

Chapter 1: Early keyboards
Chapter 2: Bartolomeo Cristofori
Chapter 3: Johann Andreas Stein
Chapter 4: Franz Schubert
Chapter 5: Development
Chapter 6: Claude Debussy
Chapter 7: 20th century

RECORDED SOUND

Chapter 1: Early technology
Chapter 2: Enrico Caruso
Chapter 3: Recording techniques
Chapter 4: Live and recorded music
Chapter 5: World music
Chapter 6: Sampling

Review

Review Part One
Music history teachers, at least in my experience, tend to be dry, humorless folk. Howard Goodall, pretty esteemed in his own right (and write, as it were, with several musicals and themes for such popular UK television fare as Blackadder to his credit), takes a more bombastic and at times bordering on loony approach to these worthy matters, and thereby makes them deliciously entertaining just about every step of the way. Goodall is a lovable goofus, dancing via green screen past various scores while making strange neck motions one can only compare to a rabid goose's, whacking at various lengths of metal while joining in a deep discussion of the Pythagorean comma; or simply sleeping in a rowboat, all of which made me wish repeatedly that he had been my personal music history and theory teacher. Well, in Big Bangs, he is, and the good news is, he can be yours, too. This UK miniseries, which aired in the late 90s but is only now making it to DVD, deals with five epochal discoveries which transformed the canvas of music. The series includes the episodes:

Notation. It's hard to realize what a stunning invention writing down music actually was, but Goodall, as he is wont to do throughout this entire enterprise, comes up with the perfect, and in this case extremely humorous, example. After explaining that the bulk of music pre-notation was handed down from generation to generation via (literally) oral transmission--i.e., rote memorization--Goodall then enlists the aid of several young male choristers. He proposes a musical version of 'Telephone'; and goes on to sing a Gregorian chant-like trope to the lead chorister. That child then runs across the courtyard, and, though he transposes it up to his countertenor range, does an admirable job of repeating it to the next child. Things then go horribly awry. As the melody is transferred from ear to lip to ear to lip, it quickly devolves into something not even remotely similar to what Goodall opened the exercise with. Thus the difficulties of accurate reproduction of a score are admirably demonstrated. Goodall goes on to trace the evolution of written music from neumes (the little squiggles that started appearing above chant's liturgical texts, though their precise meaning is still a matter of some debate) until finally a genius by the name of Guido d'Arezzo worked out the foundation for what would ultimately become our modern staff and clef system. Goodall's nutty humor is on glorious display here, with little throwaway lines such as when he is explaining the do-re-mi system in a museum dedicated to Guido and asserts that pressing a button on a display (which actually activates a recording, not to state the obvious) will alert a cloistered group of monks who reside behind the wall to begin singing

Equal Temperament. This episode, which deals largely with the mathematics behind what has become our modern chromatic scale, could easily have been the driest of the bunch. And yet Goodall's unfailing good nature pulls the viewer through a fascinatingly presented visual version of how the Greek scale was derived by constantly dividing a given tone by 2/3 in order to arrive at the next scalar degree (Unfortunately, this insistence on a 2/3 ratio also resulted in what is known as the Pythagorean comma; a fancy term which means that by the time you go through 12 of these 2/3 permutations you should be back at your starting tone, and yet you aren't--you're off by a minute frequency which is this very comma. --DVD Talk

Review Part Two: The Greeks had a handy way of dealing with that--they said anything over seven notes was excessive. As Goodall humorously points out, it wasn't until church musicians started getting 'greedy' and wanted all 12 chromatic (i.e., half-step) notes available that things really got bad. Because scales were derived from a foundation note, and then parsed through the various 2/3 ratios from that fundamental, it meant that say a C fundamental would not be the same C as that derived from the first 2/3 transformation from a fundamental of F. Something needed to be done, and that something was equal temperament, where tiny amounts of each frequency are shaved off in order to make the distance between all notes (not just fifths) equal. Goodall again does a masterful job in not only making this all understandable, but delightfully enjoyable.

Opera is up next and it is testament to Goodall's hosting charms that this genre, which is generally not my cup of tea, was made as interesting and funny as the other four outings. Opera had a fairly unsuccessful start, with two failed attempts to merge drama with song, before some enterprising gentlemen thought that the concept could be rescued. One of them, Duke Gonzaga, happened to have a court musician by the name of Monteverdi on his staff (in one of the more delectable jokes of this episode, Goodall pauses in front of a mammoth mural of Gonzaga and family and states that it was the basis of their Christmas card that year). Monteverdi of course went on to basically invent modern opera as we know it with his first take on the genre, L'Orfeo; which literally personified music in the character of the hapless, yet musically inspired, man who attempts to rescue his bride from the underworld through the charms of his talent. Goodall does an admirable job tying Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro; to the nascent revolutionary fervor that was beginning to percolate throughout Europe

Goodall goes on to explain the four basic types of ancient instruments (plucked, hit, blown, bowed) and then goes on to a brief overview of how both the plucked and struck instruments merged ultimately to become the pianoforte (soft-loud in Italian, for its unique dynamic capabilities which its precursors the clavichord and harpsichord didn't share). Goodall shows the genius behind Bartolomeo Cristofori's vision in not only the idea of the instrument, but the engineering ingenuity that was necessary to bring it into being. Goodall then takes a quick historical stroll through various champions of the piano.

The final episode Recorded Sound may have the most pertinent information for today's technology obsessed youth. Goodall of course starts with Edison's phonograph, and gives a charming demonstration of how its tin-foil recording surface did not exactly result in digital clarity. There is then a nice, and again subtly humorous, display of recording techniques in the early decades of the 20th century, showing how singers had to shout into a reverse megaphone which focused their vocal sound waves to the recording device. Goodall navigates the improving technology, highlighted by the appearance of the electric microphone in 1925, leading to a slew of recording advances which has led us to today's digital age.

Goodall's charm and humor carry this series extremely well and make these five big bangs; of musical invention top-notch entertainment aside from their informative value.

Final Thoughts:
Big Bangs is a must-see and must-listen for all music fans, no matter what your particular stripe might be. So much wonderful information is presented in such a wonderfully imaginative way that I guarantee you'll be entranced. Highly recommended. --Jeffrey Kaufman DVD Talk


Special Features

None.

Product Details

  • Actors: Howard Goodall
  • Directors: David Jeffcock, Justin Kershaw
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Classical, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: KULTUR VIDEO
  • DVD Release Date: June 24, 2008
  • Run Time: 250 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0017HEY98
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #75,349 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Chronos467 on June 5, 2008
Format: DVD
Thanks for finally making this available on DVD. I recorded all of the episodes from Ovation TV earlier this year but the quality was poor, so I'll pick this up. This is a very witty and well researched series. The explanation of equal temperament is the best I've ever heard -- and I have a masters in music. I would've grasped the concept much quicker had I seen this presentation.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By John Yiannakopoulos on May 18, 2008
Format: DVD
If you have any interest in music that goes beyond
a childs level this is an essential purchase.
Excellent production values, witty, amusing and
superb fun.
Would make a superb gift to anyone with even a
cursory interest in 'art' music - especially as an
introduction - buy it for a friend, relative or
anyone you care for and it just might turn into a
musical epiphany for them, which is what the intent
of the entire series is about.
You will not be dissapointed with this dvd or
anything else that Howard Goodall is in, everything
that he is involved in is essential.
The fifth episode is my favourite.
Yours Sincerely
John
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin A. Opie on September 6, 2008
Format: DVD
I was lucky enough to see these broadcast on the Ovation network, and I'll be purchasing a copy shortly. This is absolutely some of the best music education I've ever seen. Like the Bernstein Young People's Concerts, these five shows can equally be enjoyed, understood, and appreciated by experienced musicians and non-musicians alike. All five subjects are approached with humor, and his examples cover a very wide range of musical expression.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By six string on August 16, 2008
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
A great review of seminal events/movements in music history. Goodall does a great job of mixing historical and biographical information with charm and wit--not to mention great music. It's too bad there's only five episodes! Very entertaining!
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Saw a few of these episodes a few years ago on Ovation TV and loved them. They air once in a blue moon but if your timing is off you might have to wait a while.

I ordered the DVD set to use in my high school choir classes, both as ways to introduce them to units of Music History and also as "emergency lesson plans" that a Sub could easily pull out at a moment's notice. For a music teacher worried about beginning groups' ability to hold sectionals in his/her absence or wary of putting their accompanist in charge of the choir, these are a perfect way to meet music history standards without losing a ton of rehearsal time.

The DVD menus are cleanly designed, easy to navigate, and the discs are clearly labeled. It would do fine in the hands of any substitute teacher or capable student.

Students might be overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information contained in some of these episodes, but playing them in order would be really beneficial; Notation should come before the Piano episode, etc. My students in particular loved the Piano episode because a lot didn't understand how the keys worked or the mechanics involved in actually playing the instrument. Fascinating.

For bonus points, Howard Goodall also released another series called "Great Dates" which is similar in scope to these "Big Bangs" but takes a bit different angle. The "Great Dates" episodes focus on a particular year or moment in time and cover many musical fields/trends/developments rather than the "Big Bangs" linear evolution of a single concept/genre/instrument.
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By Dan on April 4, 2015
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
I originally recorded this series on VHS from my TV when it was on public television. Every topic is a fascinating aspect of music history. He is entertaining and great at explaining concepts. The episodes are very well written and produced. I was very excited to see it was available as a DVD series because I wanted to use the first episode about the invention of musical notation in connection with a presentation I gave on Gregorian chant. It was the perfect introduction of the theory part of the presentation that allowed me to get into having people read and sing chant. The rest of the topics are also extremely interesting for anyone interested in music history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Trudy G. D'armond on August 24, 2009
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
The title says it all! We were very pleased with the product, transaction and delivery time.
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Format: DVD
Goodall does a terrific job exquisitely demonstrating the progression of music through the ages. It is a rather in depth look at different events that changed the evolution of music of through the centuries. It's been a few years since I watched this series. I bought it when it was only available in the UK. It was well worth the $45.

Goodall is a well rounded musician/educator. Indulge yourself!
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