The first impressive thing about Howard Goodall’s new history of music is its brevity. Most books about music history — even a sliver of that history, like jazz or hip-hop — are quite plump. Goodall — himself a composer and host of a BBC television series to which this book is a companion — covers everything in under 350 pages (not counting a playlist and index).
You can quibble about what’s left out (Charles Ives, free jazz, most of the world’s non-Western music), but what’s here is choice. If you want a primer on basic music theory — including harmony, the “Circle of Fifths,” fugues, shuffle rhythms — an explanation of Wagner’s leitmotifs, or how Schubert’s songs are related to those of Adele, Goodall is an adept guide. But what really makes the book sing is the author’s argumentative style, giving it narrative momentum from paragraph to paragraph. This really is the “story” of music, not just a chronological laundry list of important people and events.
What’s more, the book’s compression allows you to consider historical benchmarks in close proximity. Goodall organizes the story in large swaths of time (the opening chapter, “The Age of Discovery,” covers 40,000 BC to 1450 AD). He dispenses with misleading genre categories to describe certain periods, like “Classical” and “Romantic,” in favor of more historical terms: “The Age of Elegance and Sentiment,” “The Age of Tragedy.”
In fact, much of the book’s narrative drive comes from Goodall’s ear for the creation and breaking down of such musical categories — what he eventually calls “convergence.” In the early stages of music history, this has to do with the movement of ideas from specific communities into the mainstream, whether it’s the invention of equal temperament or the popularity of a particular instrument like the pipe organ or the violin or the adoption of folk music for all manner of sacred and secular “classical” music.
This approach allows Goodall plenty of time to present lively, incisive portraits of music’s major figures, often tagged with pithy summations: Monteverdi is the beginning of music as “the soundtrack to the affairs of our hearts”; Mozart’s “dignified compassion in the face of life’s challenges makes his music irresistible”; Beethoven launched the age of “the composer as agent provocateur” and the beginning of music as “religion, complete with gods and goddesses for worshiping”; Stevie Wonder is “surely one of the greatest of all twentieth century musicians in any field.”
Goodall’s critical assessments are acute, balanced, and, as you might gather, sometimes provocative — he spends seven pages (a relative eternity in this succinct book) arguing the case for Franz Liszt as the most important composer of the 19th century. He makes clear Richard Wagner’s explicit, hideous, and influential anti-Semitism while also effusing that the “Transformation” music in “Parsifal” is “one of the most awe-inspiring, heart-stopping moments in all of European orchestral music.”
Goodall also has his curious prejudices. He dismisses the 12-tone procedures of Arnold Schoenberg and, with it, essentially all of the so-called “Second Viennese School.” (Um, no “Moses und Aron,” no Berg Violin Concerto, or “Wozzeck”? Really? Oh well.) And when “The Popular Age” is upon us, he finds that the “lifesaver for classical music” is . . . movie music. Sorry, Howard, I love Nino Rota’s score for “The Godfather” too, but I only listen to it when I’m watching “The Godfather.”
As symphony concert halls have become museums for music of the 19th century, with “new music” presented only apologetically between the warhorses, Goodall seems to be arguing that in a popular age there’s no excuse for not going viral.
That said, his grasp of music’s place in popular culture is astute. And his belief in the current “convergence” of international pop, folk, and classical music is admirable. But I don’t think I’m as eager as Goodall to hear a classical composer’s symphony based on Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”