Music in the Air : A History of Classical Music on Television
A Film by Reiner E. Moritz
Sound Format, PCM Stereo. Subtitles, GB, D, F, E, I. Picture Format 16:9. Region Code 0. DVD9, NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 640 [85:00]
The history of Music on Television is certainly a subject worthy of documentary analysis. This German-made Arthaus DVD lasts nearly an hour and a half and attempts an overview in chapters of broad brush, and not perhaps the refined workmanship that purists might want. Perhaps this is partly explained by the fact that Reiner E. Moritz’s film is published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of IMZ (International Music and Media Centre, Vienna).
A brief rundown of the ground covered would help to focus on what’s in the documentary: I’m condensing. The Beginnings (1936), Toscanini, The Proms, Bernstein, French TV, Tortelier Masterclasses, Karajan, Britten, Popular Music, Contemporary music, Boulez, Gould, Celibidache in rehearsal. That’s really the core of it.
We start with a New Year Concert montage, helpfully showing us an (uncaptioned) Willi Boskovsky back in 1963. We hear here and later from Brian Large, and thankfully so, as he’s a widely admired and experienced director. Then we go back in time to the BBC in 1936 and have the corporation to thank for surviving 1936 footage of a documentary marking the earliest days of TV broadcasting. We see Margot Fonteyn and Sadler’s Wells in Façade, but even more interestingly we see the short-lived Anglo-Jewish Hyam ‘Bumps’ Greenbaum, husband of harpist Sidonie Goossens, in action, conducting the again uncaptioned (this aspect is rather sloppy) BBC Television Orchestra. Greenbaum was a most interesting and cutting-edge figure in the propagation of music on the BBC, both wireless and television: would that there was more surviving footage.
Then we pick up post-war in New York. David Sarnoff, big cheese extraordinaire, is seen introducing Toscanini in that sycophantic way so prevalent in that era. This first NBC televised concert is a historic document, certainly. We see passages from The Ride of the Valkyries. For the Proms, out comes controller Roger Wright to talk about ‘widening remits’ and all that jazz. We see Sargent in 1957. Is that Constance Shacklock with him? That’s the problem with unhelpfully non-captioned things like that. One also invariably wants to hear fewer platitudes and see longer clips. Anyway, Sargent is on typically spruce form, and you can’t help wholly disliking a man for whom fornication was an act of social climbing.
Bernstein is shown at a New York Children’s Concert in 1958. The sheer investment in children’s musical education in those years is remarkable; then, too, Bernstein was the perfect conduit: unstuffy, protean, cool, cosmopolitan. Then we see part of the William Tell overture. We catch up with France, 1961 and the first stereo TV broadcast. There’s a pleasing interview with Poulenc in black and white that I assume has been published in full elsewhere. He plays Satie just a few weeks before his death. It’s good to be reminded of another galvanic Frenchman, this time the Don Quixote of the cello, Paul Tortelier. His masterclasses were superb, but they are part of a tributary of educational programmes on television that are now almost extinct. If you want to watch great musicians in masterclasses, or explaining, by and large you’ll need to buy a DVD.
There’s a long disquisition on Herbert von Karajan. His life, we are told, was ‘governed by the camera’. The subject of the falsity of multiple-shot footage is addressed in relation to his filmed performances, but then no one ever really suspected that they were an analogue to concert performance. They are an assertion of will, an act of art, and thus very Germanic.
One thing that did interest me is the art of ‘singback’ about which I didn’t really know much. One always thinks: they’re miming, but are they miming to a track? Or are they really singing, but not singing out, to a backing track, or whatever. In a scene from Britten’s Owen Wingrave we see two different Dinner scenes in TV productions from different eras. The older one is in black and white, whilst the fairly recent production (with Gerald Finley) is in colour. The director of the latter very deliberately ensures that you watch the faces of the listening dinner guests whilst, unseen by the camera, the other guests sing in turn. This is the quintessence of contemporary frustration, as doubtless intended, but provides another reason to switch off your TV and either go to the opera house, or - more realistically - put on your CD. The problem with some classical music on TV, let’s remember, is not that it’s bad music, but that it’s bad art.
Beware the need for inclusiveness. There is a brief foray to include a token jazz musician, the shambolic pianist Thelonious Monk of whom it’s said here hardly any footage survives, which is completely untrue. When I first fell in love with the music I read a sleeve-note that advised me that Charlie Parker was ‘the faceless man of jazz’ because there were so few photographs of him. I’ve now spent thirty years seeing little else but photographs of Charlie Parker, the faceless man of jazz. Then there’s token prog-rock, the woeful Pink Floyd ‘live in Pompeii’, as the original credits put it, without any obvious sense of irony.
We hear from Christopher Nupen on the informality to be gained from portable cameras; we hear from the articulate Herbert Kloiber, not a man to have the wool pulled over his eyes, from David Attenborough, who makes measured points about the medium and we also hear (rather too much, as usual) from Pierre Boulez. We take in Glenn Gould and Celibidache at work, these last being famous footage. The Three Tenors turn up, though mercifully briefly. But by now things have become too unfocused. I know that some people contain multitudes but this documentary fragments into unrelated paragraphs. Maybe that’s inevitable now that cinemas are showing opera: who’d have thought that would happen? TV was supposed to be the death of opera and now look: HD movie houses are showing Carmen from The Met for thousands. Guerrilla opera is taking place on railway station platforms and being broadcast on TV. Tosca was filmed on location, in real time - 27 cameras and three locations. Brian Large, who directed, called it a ‘wonderful circus’. But will anyone ever do it again? Isn’t it a dead end?
These are the questions one is faced with. Things were much simpler in 1948. Point the camera and go. Genuflect to Toscanini and turn on the Wagner. Now it’s multimedia, digital channels, subscription stations, Arts Plus, live streaming, in-house filming (in-house real-time recording: whatever happened to that?). The money is with the subscription. So maybe Music on Television in its simplest sense is dead. Maybe television in its simplest sense will soon be dead. Still, you can relive some of the glory days in this partially successful documentary.
Relive some of the glory days.
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