Howard Goodall's Story of Music

The Age of Tragedy

Series 1 - Episode 4 The Age of Tragedy



This programme is about Franz Liszt. Other composers do get a look-in as Goodall examines the back half of the 19th century — Verdi wrote some cracking operas, for example — but the Hungarian rockstar pianist was the master innovator.

Among his inventions were impressionist pictures painted with sound, torrents of dark portent that still profoundly influence film soundtracks, and the co-opting of indigenous music. This last one provokes a fascinating digression featuring Dvorak, before Goodall takes on Wagner. He’s lucid on Wagner’s awesome strengths but also judiciously critical. For a start, says Goodall, much that Wagner did had already been done. By Liszt.


The composer examines the middle to late 19th century, exploring the European craze for opera and music that dealt with death and destiny. He suggests that composers were inspired by Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique to write about witches, ghouls, trolls and hellish torment, and that the death of the heroine in Verdi's La Traviata was a comment on the hypocrisies of wider society. Howard also argues that the image of the composer as a misunderstood genius was cemented in the public imagination during this period.