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 101 640
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
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.