“YOU’RE not allowed to ask who my favourite composer is.” Andrew Gant is making a pretence of being offended. ”It’s like asking ‘who is your favourite child?’”

I’ve just enquired if, in his case, the answer is Mozart. Because anyone who reads Gant’s new history of western music, Five Straight Lines, can read between them and reckon the way he writes about Wolfgang Amadeus is a declaration of love. Well, isn’t it, Andrew?

“You are right. The coincidence of talent with the manner and style of his age has not been done more perfectly than this particular person with his combination of abilities and background and upbringing.”

Once he starts talking about Mozart it’s like turning a tap on. The enthusiasm pours forth

“And he’s just an amazingly wonderful, loveable, quixotic, childish, funny character,” Gant continues. “His letters are just amazing. They’re just so entertaining. I hope that this book, if it does anything, will inspire people to go and read Mozart’s letters. They’re so funny, but also so revealing.

“He moves very quickly from details of musical style. How he works and how other people work, which is fascinating. It’s him talking in real time about writing an aria and going off to rehearse it. And then he moves to smutty jokes with his latest girlfriend or talking about somebody’s piano practice and it’s just wonderful, really lively.”

Rather like Gant’s book, you might say. Five Straight Lines may be an epic of Wagnerian proportions (it’s the best part of 600 pages in length) that takes us from 40,000 BC (though Gant speculates on what might have been musically before even that) to the music of the 21st century, but it skips along like a scherzo, travelling from Bach to Bowie, medieval choirs to the Spice Girls and even finds time to mention the theme tune to 1970s sitcom Are You Being Served?

“Well, that’s another thing that I’ve tried to do in telling this story,” Gant explains when I bring the latter up, “to try and do away with artificial boundaries. The boundaries between pop and classical are much more fluid than you think. Are You Being Served? begins with the sound of an old-fashioned till. Now, using some extra musical sound like that in a piece of music was an idea that was explored by serious composers like John Cage at the same time. The whole thing about electronic music … The Beatles and Doctor Who and Stockhausen, they were all doing the same thing at the same time. So, when you start to look at it these boundaries seem to melt away.”

HeraldScotland: David BowieDavid Bowie

Gant, one-time professional tenor and former organist, choirmaster and composer at Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal and currently Lecturer in Music at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford, is the best kind of enthusiast. Open, engaged, willing to listen (particularly useful given his subject matter) and eloquent in sharing his knowledge.

Five Straight Lines has taken five years to write (“I’ve done other things in that time,” he points out) and is an attempt to tell the story of western music as, he says (quoting German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt), a “living whole” rather than a “dead aggregate”.

“One of the things I tried to do a bit differently is let the story be a story. So, you will find chapters in here about Beethoven and Mozart. But, also, you will find information about composers you’ve probably heard of but maybe don’t value enough because they tend to be a bit overshadowed.

“I think Antonio Salieri is a good example of that. He is known for being in Vienna at the same time as Mozart basically, which is a tough gig for anybody. But he was a tremendously influential person, very generous, very helpful, taught a huge range of people across the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a really big character.

“And, also, a very good composer. He wrote some fantastic operas and some very nice church music.”

One of the book’s strengths is Gant’s eye for the amusing and enlightening detail. At one point we find Casanova, no less, talking to Cardinal Richelieu during a regal hunting trip, discussing the comparative merits of French and Italian Recitative in relation to the opera company who the King has brought along. (The merits of the actresses’ legs were also appraised.)

“We make music because we have to,” Gant writes as he casts back and forth through musical history, spelling out the links between medieval composers and their 20th-century equivalents in their interest in mathematics and chance.

“Another advantage of trying to do the whole of musical history in one book is you can treat historical time as a continuum,” Gant explains. “You can find links and themes that run through and recur and one of those themes is history itself, how each age looks at its past.

“The idea that there is a correct version of history is just a myth. Each age uses its past and its inheritance in the way that suits it.

“When Bach was still alive his style was beginning to be thought of as old-fashioned and to be superseded by the new coming style represented by his own sons.

“And he would have expected that. That was the natural order of things. After his death it’s certainly wrong to say his music disappeared altogether. That’s not correct. But it did become more a specialist thing.

“But then into the 19th century people like Mendelssohn begin to resurrect his music.”

HeraldScotland: Andrew Gant Photograph Katie VandyckAndrew Gant Photograph Katie Vandyck

Musical reputations ebb and flow. Our tastes reflect the culture we live in. Mozart now feels a much more contemporary figure, for example, than, say, Wagner, I suggest.

“Gosh, when I got to the chapter about Wagner you have to take a deep breath,” Gant admits. “A genius of quite colossal proportion, but one who comes with so much baggage and you just can’t ignore it. You have to write about anti-Semitism and German supremacy and the pretty foul way he treated a lot of people to create these monumental works of art.

“And then you have the added complication that is the use that future ages put his music to; most of all, of course, the Nazis. And to what extent is he culpable? He certainly gave them a playbook. There’s no question about that.”

Music doesn’t float above the culture it comes from. It emerges from within. Gant writes vividly, for example, about William Byrd in the 16th century, a Catholic clandestinely writing Catholic songs in a repressively Protestant England.

“We can never fully understand what it was like to be Byrd in Queen Elizabeth’s England.”

The very first named composer in the book is the 12th-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. It is a reflection of the inequalities of society that until the 20th century she is one of the few women music-makers who appear in the book’s pages.

“At the same time in every age it is not true to say there were none,” Gant points out. “If you look, there they are. it’s often to do with particular local circumstances. In Venice, for example, in the 17th century there were a number of very successful female composers like Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, because Venice was always a bit different, a bit more democratic and also because they happened to be members of well-established families, both musically and politically.”

Reading the final chapters of the book it is clear that of all the 20th-century forms of music that have emerged, minimalism may not be Gant’s favourite. “I let my prejudices show there a little bit,” he admits.

“I think John Adams is an amazingly interesting and inventive composer, but minimalism … The whole point of the style is that it pares music back to its basic essentials and clearly if you do that there is a danger that what you end up with is repetitive by definition. And not all of its exponents have overcome that.

Inevitably the real story of 20th-century music is the interface between classical and popular. The obvious question to ask an Oxford scholar is did the Beatles knock down all the barriers between the two?

“There’s no question about how much progress has been made just in recent years. If you want to look at the curriculum right here in Oxford University, there are papers on jazz and pop music and women in pop which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago and that’s really good.

“But I think where the change really comes, actually, is if you talk to young people. I teach students and to them these barriers are just not there. I was talking about the music of Messiaen and his use of a particular kind of scale and a student said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a song by Radiohead that does that.’ And he got his phone out and he played it.

“It doesn’t help to think this is a serious piece of classical music and that’s a pop song or a musical. They’re all trying to do the same thing, which is use music to communicate something interesting.”

Which is just what he has done. We write music, or in Gant’s case musical history, because we have to.


Five Straight Lines by Andrew Gant is published by Profile Books on Thursday, £30


Andrew Gant on his favourite overlooked composers:

“The Baroque composer Wilhelmine of Prussia, Margarine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, a member of not one but two leading noble families, whose opera Argenore was a real eye-opener.

“ The French symphonist Etienne Méhul, who sits intriguingly between Mozart and Beethoven.

“And if you go back a little into my hinterland there’s an English composer by the name of Edmund Hooper, an early 17th-century composer. We hear a lot of the music of Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, who were his contemporaries and colleagues and friends, and not enough of him, so I’ll go for him too.”