I recently finished watching the first season of a BBC television programme called Sacred Music. The show looked at the history of sacred music in the west, and I enjoyed it tremendously. The first season consisted of four hour-long episodes.
The first episode was on Gregorian chant and the origins of polyphony at the twelfth-century “school of Notre Dame” in Paris. The second looked at the flowering of polyphony in the music of Palestrina, with side glances at some of his eminent contemporaries. The third episode, which I though the best of them, was about the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in Elizabethan England. The final episode looked at the music of Bach.
The series is hosted by Simon Russell Beale, a former chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Musical examples and illustrations are provided by Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen, who happen to be one of the best choirs in the world. Without them the show would still be pretty good; with them it is outstanding.
There are a few irritants and problems. The historical background is sometimes over-simplified (they really play up the Council of Trent connection in the Palestrina episode), and the producers sometimes fall prey to that overly-dramatic underlining that seems to afflict British television. The episode on Bach, which ought to have been the best, was marred by an apparently irresistible and chronic desire to lionize Martin Luther. But those are, all told, fairly minor complaints. I recommend the show if you’ve an interest in this sort of thing.
I believe that the episodes still air from time to time on BBC TV. If you don’t have access, you’ll have to shift for yourself (remembering, perhaps, that even a television show can be abstracted to a torrent of bits). But it will be worth the effort.
Here is a clip from Episode 1, in which we learn about the first two polyphonists whose names have come down to us: Leonin and Perotin. This is great music, and the scenery is not bad either: