The Story of Music 6: The Popular Age

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In the sixth and final episode, composer Howard Goodall looks at the popular age - the last hundred years in music.

It has been a period when classical music, as it is now generically styled, seemed to many to be in retreat, crisis or even terminal decline. Howard Goodall believes that rumours of its death have been exaggerated. While some cutting edge works proved too challenging to win the hearts of a mainstream audience, the DNA of classical music, as it had been constituted since the time of Monteverdi in the 1600s, is alive and well in musical theatre, in the cinema and in much popular music. Beginning with Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, a jazz-classical hybrid first performed in 1924 that became a much-loved standard - despite its sniffy reception by highbrow critics at the time.

Indeed it was popular music, after the First World War, that was more likely to comment directly on the things that were on most people's minds - the rise of fascism, and the racism aimed at African-Americans in the USA. Works like The Threepenny Opera, Porgy and Bess and Billie Holiday's signature song Strange Fruit, and later, West Side Story, pushed the boundaries of the seriousness that popular styles could convey.

And it was popular song, after the Second World War, that was more likely to protest about racism and inequality, and the Vietnam War, in the hands of Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and others.

The Beatles, meanwhile, had utilised a bewildering variety of different styles and techniques, some rediscovered, some invented by themselves. With George Martin and the engineers at Abbey Road, they explored and instituted new possibilities offered by recording technology. And, thanks to albums by The Beatles and others, styles from other cultures began to become better known in the west. 'World music' had begun and is still going strong.

But classical music during the Second World War had connected with a mainstream audience, in works like Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony - written as his home city endured an apocalyptic siege - and Aaron Copland's optimistic ballet, Appalachian Spring. If some of the wilder shores of experiment had failed to carry the mainstream audience with them, these works once again connected leading composers and the public.

The circle was complete with the arrival, in the 1960s and 70s, of minimalism - and composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. Reich, in particular, who was inspired by Balinese drumming music, and who also became the godfather of 'sampling', was enormously influential on cutting edge 'popular' music. A term that was fast becoming increasingly misleading and irrelevant. Philip Glass wrote a Low Symphony based on music by David Bowie - exchange was now a two-way street, and what's more it was an exchange between equal partners.

The damaging split between what had been seen as diametrically opposed opposites - classical and popular - has in our own time, finally begun to close.

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