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  Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats: Lennon and McCartney
Screened at the Barbican, London, 6 September 2007

Anca Dumitrescu
posted 25 September 2007

Lennon and McCartney dubbed two of the greatest musicians of the 20th century: this is how the Barbican celebrated both the 25th anniversary of Channel 4 and Howard Goodall's contribution to its music programming. The screening of Lennon and McCartney, the first part of Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats series screened in 2004, followed by a screentalk with Goodall himself, revealed Goodall's original and iconoclastic understanding of 20th century music.

The Beatles had a gift for melody. Their tunes have the power to stick in one's mind. A Beatles melody is immediately recognisable by its natural flow, as if it were driven by its own internal dynamic. Listening to a Beatles tune is like listening to our mothers’ whispers when we were babies. The melody is so natural and obvious that we have a strange feeling that it has always been here with us and it could not have been any different. No wonder Goodall draws a parallel between the Beatles and Mozart. The naturalness and simplicity of the Beatles' music is reminiscent of Mozart’s tunes, in the same way as their early success emulated the Europe-wide success of Mozart's early compositions.

Progressively though, the Beatles drifted away from the rock'n'roll style over-used and endlessly repeated by most of their counterparts and began exploring new musical avenues. Nothing was left aside in this exploration: harmony, orchestration and rhythm were all revived and transformed by the Beatles's genius. In 'Eleanor Rigby', they used a quasi-Baroque string orchestration. The construction of 'Penny Lane' is based on a systematic and very unusual change of keys. In their later albums, they sucessfully incorporated traditional Indian music harmony and Avant-garde techniques used by classical musicians, such as the use of distorted tapes in studios to create new sounds.

Using a variety of musical excerpts combined with its own analysis, Goodall shows how the Beatles developed a more complex and elaborated musical composition. Like great classical musicians, they tapped into the existing musical heritage (whether Western classical or popular music, or Asian traditional music) in order to create a unique and inimitable musical style. Not only did they rescue and renew the Western clasical canon, which had reached a stalemate with the Avant-garde movement, but they also reconciled classical music with popular music into the Beatles symbiosis.

Goodall argues that the Beatles’ music affected both contemporary and later generations of musicians world-wide, irrrespective of their musical background or allegiance to the canon. Not a single musician composing after the Beatles could ignore the deep changes brought by the Beatles to Western music, just as no classical composer after Bach or Mozart could have ignored the innovations they brought to the classical tradition. This is not to say that the pantheon of the 20th greatest musicians should be occupied solely by the Beatles; other names certainly deserve praise, but very few match the Beatles' special influence on Western music. Goodall's stance is certainly iconoclastic and it may shock some in more traditional classical music circles. Nonetheless, his argument is faultless and his examples are highly instructive. Compared with his later series How Music Works, this one makes greater use of natural landscapes and excerpts from historic performances, which greatly enhances the quality of the production. One can still deplore a few aspects, however, such as the tendency to place classical musicians in either obscure rooms or elegant castle ballrooms... as if classical music cannot be anything but obscure and antique.

While Goodall's interpretation of the Beatles's musical legacy is without any doubt valid, there remains an unanswered question, which what separates great music from average or bad music. The Monkees sang catchy tunes, but the quality of their music never matched that of the Beatles. Is it the use of the pentatonic scale? Is the mere combination of unexpected chords that make 'I Am the Walrus' an incredible song? Talented and less talented musical analysts alike can explain the technical tricks behind a musical composition. And Goodall is surely one of the more talented ones. But merely describing the pillars of a house does not account for the beauty of the whole house. Understanding the sercret cement that transforms a couple of technical tricks into beautiful music is essential. Why will future textbooks of musicology devote dozens of pages of analysis to the Beatles music, while the Monkees will get just a small paragraph if anything? This question is not only for academics locked in their ivory tower. If some maintain that Philip Glass' music is truly great music, how to account for those who do not see any beauty at all in his compositions? Are the latter uneducated or are the former snobbish? Can national curricula and music classes provide pupils with a set of objective and relevant criteria, enabling them to assess the music they listen to critically?

Goodall's contribution to reshaping the educational debate about music teaching is courageous. Experiencing and developing a musical sensitivity does not necessarily mean being immersed in the classical canon teaching of music academies. Pupils with interests in traditional Asian and African music, jazz or soul can also develop an adequate understanding of music through various techniques such as listening, singing, practising instruments and so on. But this greater freedom of choice should not mean that all music is to be considered good. Individuals should be given the intellectual tools to develop their judgement, so that they can answer why the the Beatles' music is better that that of the Monkees. Alas, neither Goodall nor today's education policy-makers seem able to answer this crucial problem, for fear that they will not sound politically correct enough...?

Anca Dumitrescu is part of the committee organising the Battle for Music strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October 2007.


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