Acorn Media // 2013 // 234 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 28th, 2013
British royal history as told by its music.
I have been lucky enough to visit the British Crown jewels twice, once in 1995, and another in 2013. The first time I was overwhelmed by the sheer physical fact of the all the different ornaments -- they glitter, they sparkle, and they've been worn by some of the most (in)famous people in history. The second time, however, I was less interested in the shiny baubles than I was the other materials of office. In addition to the crown jewels, the Tower also houses all of the instruments used to crown a British king or queen. The oldest is pushing a thousand years old in a ceremony that has remained largely unchanged in that time. Looking at all that history -- how the different pieces have been lost, stolen, and recovered throughout the ages -- it finally struck me just how impossible it really is to master the history of a country like Britain. I could study for a lifetime and only get the barest of insights. Which is why we need shows like Music and Monarchy to take all of that history and break it into manageable chunks. In the case of this show, it's a history of the relationship between British kings and queens and the way they influenced music. It's sure to appeal to history buffs and fans of classic pieces of British music (think Handel, if you like).
Music & Monarchy, in four episodes spread across two discs, is hosted by eminent British historian (and media presenter) David Starkey. He's our guide through several hundred years of British music, from the reign of Henry VIII up to today. The show combines factual narration by Starkey, images from the archive, and (most importantly) performances of much of the music discussed in the places for which it was composed. For instance, we open on a choral performance in Westminster Abbey. The show provides a pretty decent balance between being a history of the monarchy (and its own musicians, like Henry VIII) and the musicians the monarchy often supported or commissioned.
The best thing about Music & Monarchy is its accessibility. Many of these history documentaries can be very dry or esoteric affairs. When talking about events hundreds of years in the past, there are only so many documents or artifacts to show viewers, and only so many ways to make Ethelred the Unready interesting. In contrast, Music & Monarchy has a lot going for it. Do you care about the British Monarchy? Then you'll get quite a bit of its history, filtered through the less-discussed angle of their patronage and production of music. Do you care about British music, especially the choral variety? Then you'll get a solid history of the last few hundred years of British music, with the added bonus that it's from the less-discussed angle of the works' relationship to the monarchy. Just like hearing pretty music? Music & Monarchy has got you covered. Sure we see manuscripts and ancient instruments, but more importantly we get to hear this music, often performed in the setting for which it was written. What about those people who don't care about music or history who just want to see pretty pictures? Music & Monarchy even has them covered, because many of the performances take place in the (usually royal) setting it was composed for. That means we go inside sumptuous places like Westminster Abbey to hear these performances. We get access to some of the more beautiful parts of the royal world, and even on mute, Music & Monarchy is wonderful to look at.
This DVD set does a fine job with the presentation. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer offer clean, bright images that make the royal interiors look excellent. Black levels are fine throughout, and no compression artifacts crop up. The stereo audio does a fine job supporting the dynamic range and clarity of the music being performed. Starkey's narration is always clear and audible as well. Extras start with 30 minutes of standalone musical performances from the show, as well as text biographies of Starkey and some of the composers discussed in the show. A booklet is also included that features a brief overview of the history in the show, and, more helpfully, a listing of all the music in each episode in order so you can look up a favorite later.
Like most of these kinds of shows, Music & Monarchy only provides one perspective on British history. Those with an in-depth knowledge who want to be persnickety can no doubt find errors of fact, or places the documentary could have said more, or something similar to complain about.
Music & Monarchy is an excellent overview of the last 500 years of the British monarchy as told through their music. It's also an excellent overview of the last 500 years of British music as told through the British monarchy. It's likely to appeal to history buffs, music fans, and those who appreciate the gorgeous interiors of Royal houses.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 234 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Performances