BBC Four explores Western sacred music in groundbreaking series to begin on Good Friday
Renowned actor and former chorister Simon Russell Beale explores the flowering of Western sacred music in Sacred Music, the biggest BBC Four classical music series to date, and the first British television series to explore this period of music history in depth.
Janice Hadlow, Controller, BBC Four, says: "I'm delighted to have commissioned the first British television series to explore this period of music history in depth for the BBC Four audience.
"With sumptuous music, beautiful architecture and acclaimed actor Simon Russell Beale making his presenting debut on the network, Sacred Music looks set to be a real treat."
In a story spanning six centuries, this four-part documentary series – starting on Good Friday, 21 March 2008 – contains a rich mix of personal, political and musical stories and features some of the greatest music ever written, all performed by award-winning choir The Sixteen with its director Harry Christophers.
There is also an accompanying concert to Sacred Music, a 90-minute celebratory event with music from the series for Easter Sunday performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, recorded specially at LSO St Luke's in London.
Simon Russell Beale said: "I had a wonderful time making this series, travelling to extraordinary places, meeting fascinating people and above all listening to some of the most beautiful music ever written.
"The history of sacred music is an intriguing story and I hope the programmes will be a feast for both ear and eye."
Harry Christophers said: "This series was a fascinating journey of exploration for all of us. Focusing on four major turning points in the evolution of sacred music, we, as performers, were able not only to perform the music we love in ideal settings but also to delve more into the personalities of these exceptional composers."
In the opening programme, Simon begins his musical pilgrimage at St Paul's Cathedral in London, where he was a chorister.
He then journeys to Paris to look at how, in the 12th and 13th centuries, plainsong (chant) became polyphony (music of "many voices").
As the new vast edifice of Notre Dame began to tower over Paris, Simon discovers how the most famous of all medieval music manuscripts - the Magnus Liber or Great Book of Notre Dame – was also taking shape, providing us with intriguing clues to the early development of Western music.
The next stop in the series is Italy where Simon uncovers the links between the papal intrigues of Renaissance Rome and the music of the enigmatic Palestrina, "The Prince of Music".
Palestrina's work is considered by many to be unsurpassed in its spiritual perfection, but running underneath it is the turbulent story of the counter-reformation, which would have a dramatic impact on the composer's life and music.
The glorious architecture and art of the High Renaissance complete a compelling picture of this golden age of sacred music.
In the penultimate episode, back in England, Simon tells the story of Tallis and Byrd, the composers at the centre of England's own musical Renaissance in the Tudor Age.
He discovers the uncertainties of the life of a church musician in the 16th century, subject to numerous shifts of policy from one monarch to the next.
Later, the relative stability of the reign of Elizabeth I, an accomplished musician herself, brought its own problems as the two Catholic composers struggled to write for a Protestant queen.
Simon's travels end in Germany where Luther's Protestant Reformation led to a musical revolution and ultimately to the glorious works of JS Bach.
Martin Luther, himself a composer, had a profound effect on the development of sacred music, redefining the role of congregational singing and the use of the organ in services as well as developing the hugely important tradition of singing in the vernacular.
These reforms – and the century and a half of music that followed – would shape the world of JS Bach and inspire him to write some of the greatest works in the history of sacred music.
There is a website supporting the series with background information, programme summaries and a selection of music from the series along with expert commentary. The website, at http://open2.net/sacredmusic, will be live the week before Sacred Music is broadcast on BBC Four.
Sacred Music is a BBC Classical Music Television/Open University co-production.