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Darren Henley (writer); Aled Jones (narrator)
Produced by Nicolas Soames
Recorded by Ross Burman at RNIB Studios, London
Edited by Sarah Butcher
CD-ROM written by Genevieve Helsby and Nicolas Soames
CD-ROM designed by Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins. Cover designed by Steve Caplin
NAXOS AudioBooks NA331012FM [4:28:45 = 78:04 + 79:12 + 79:17 + 32:12 + CD-ROM features]

This musical narrative comes courtesy of the world’s largest classical music radio station, Classic FM, and is therefore crafted in the spirit of that crowd-pleasing enterprise.

Aled Jones narrates an entertaining script that paints vivid biographies of important compositional events from the Gregorian chants (600AD) to present-day film scores. Along the way it invites the listener to reflect on speculations ("Imagine a world without music") and on scientific contributions – the gramophone in the latter half of the 20th century, for instance. Modern day comparisons are also made including the late 19th century celebrity status of Paganini and Liszt contrasted with that of today’s celebrity singers and musicians.

Although the main thrust of this generous set of four compact discs with CD-ROM features is towards educating a ‘junior’ audience. Its breadth – albeit popularly delineated – and consummate presentational quality make a welcome companion for classical music novices and last-minute exam cramming! The CD booklet alone provides a lucid source of information, charting the composers with dates and works as well as a graph time-line pitting musicians against important historical, artistic and social events. This is not comprehensive but it is a clear and approachable scratch at the surface of a vast subject.

The trouble with the ‘The Story of Classical Music’ is the trouble with anything that pretends to reduce a complicated trajectory of subjective (musical) artefacts to a linear process of historical fact. Moreover, be suspicious that a commercial body – Classic FM – commands the selection process and delivers with absolute certainty the verdict that, excepting Hildegard of Bingen and Clara Schumann, "…every single composer in the development of classical music has been a man…".

With clear instruction comes a necessity for simplification: of language and of information. Classic FM’s world is a man’s world and it is an exclusive one that accepts and propagates the traditional canon of Austro-Germanic musical hegemony. "If the truth be told" says Aled Jones as he credits the Finnish legacy with a cue from 20th century composer Jean Sibelius "I haven’t [until now] had any reason to turn to Finland".

Surely I am not alone in regretting that both Medieval and Renaissance periods are represented each with a single composer. Nor will it be denied that this reviewer buys into the supremacy of German music through the Classical and Romantic periods. Preferences and predilections are inevitable, but it is only fair that biases are owned up to.

Nevertheless the benefits of ‘The Story of Classical Music’ outweigh these professional discrepancies. One cannot imagine a more exciting way for a child to be introduced to this rich topic. As if in a time machine, a whirlwind of sound carries us through the vividly recreated musical periods and the tale indulges in hysterical anecdotes and role-plays – a grumpy Haydn muttering German obscenities is definitely one to hear!

Interesting issues such as authentic performance practice, music dissemination and pop celebrities are raised in an engaging way by tying them to their present day manifestations. Musical forms are approached with practical illustrations, such as the chanting of Frère Jacques to explain the canon; the excerpts themselves are generally really good and often excellent. And finally, we have a colourful CD-ROM that provides games and quizzes to enhance the experience and amuse the visual senses.

This is an accessible and enjoyable script, bolstered by the perks of the glamorous accessories. It is perhaps unfair to condemn too harshly the chosen slant of the narrative since distortion is unavoidable given the particular circumstance of delivering to a youth audience as well as promoting popular tunes. Therefore, measured on its own terms, this compilation is a clear success.

Aline Nassif

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