"The Music of the 12th Century," showing tonight on WETA-TV's "Independent View" series (11 p.m., Channel 26), is a model of what educational television programming should be and seldom is in the United States.
This program, as its title indicates, deals with a fairly specialized interest, but it cultivates a light touch and does not go out of its way to display obscure erudition. Still, it respects the viewer's intelligence; it does not assume an audience attention span of 15 seconds or less, and it dramatizes its subject without cheapening it.
In brief, "The Music of the 12th Century" is the kind of thing we usually have to import from England, and it is a pleasure to report that it is the work of Washington musicians. The Folger Consort, which always performs in modern evening wear, was persuaded to put on medieval costumes during a trip to Europe and film an on-location performance of "Kalenda Maya," one of the top 10 medieval dance numbers, as well as accompaniment to a troubadour love song.
Other highlights in the hour-long educational film, which looks like a series of medieval music videos, are a segment of "The Play of Daniel," done more authentically than in the familiar New York Pro Musica version; a crusade song by Walther von der Vogelweide accompanying vivid scenes of young men being recruited for a crusade; and a lively tavern scene mimed to the tune of "Bacche bene venies," a drinking song from the "Carmina Burana," sung to the original melody, not the trumped-up modernism of Carl Orff.
There is a bit less color in the way the show traces the birth of polyphony, with different, increasingly elaborate pieces of church music being sung in a cathedral setting by singers in monks' robes. But the video staging of the music conveys a sense of "you are there," and there is a climactic feeling when the show, which had begun in utter simplicity, ends with the complex four-part "Viderunt omnes" of Pe'rotin, dating from 1198.
It is refreshing to see a television production that respects the intelligence of viewers, presents serious, substantial works of art and allows them essentially to speak for themselves. The narration by Fritz Weaver is more useful and less pretentious than one usually gets in this sort of effort, and the fun and reverence implicit in the music are well conveyed.