The role of choral music has taken on new significance in the light of recent tragedies in the UK, and for composer Howard Goodall it’s one more reason why access to music making is essential for everyone, not just those who can afford to pay. Karen Stretch catches up with him at his Burgundy bolt-hole.
In a scenario that has stayed unchanged for centuries, a celebrated composer is squirrelled away in the composing room at his French home, allowing the soundtrack of his thoughts to spill out onto manuscript paper.
So far, so traditional. But, unlike Deodat de Severac in Languedoc or Joseph Canteloube in the Auvergne, Howard Goodall is an incomer, escaping from the buzz of London to his Brionnais hideaway for two months of the year, and creating a setting of the Passion which is certain to blow away the cobwebs.
‘We know what a Passion setting meant to people in 16th century Germany when they took passages from Luke, John, Matthew and Mark and put together a narrative and recitative and chorale and arias, and I didn’t want to do that straightforward thing again,’ explains Goodall. ‘What are the issues that are thrown up by the Passion story? I found other texts to try and create a series of movements and reflections on these ideas, including texts that are not religious at all.’
The 50-minute piece has been commissioned by a choir in Houston, Texas. They’ve performed Goodall’s Requiem Eternal Light five times, and have a good idea of the kind of work that they will get to premiere. As Goodall says: ‘With Eternal Light, I was trying to rethink what the concept of a Requiem in the 21st century actually would be. I found new texts that I felt reflect on some of these ideas, especially now, where we don’t really think that the Requiem is about asking for intercession on behalf of the person who’s died to save their soul, but as something else.’
That Eternal Light received its 500th performance in June 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (it premiered in 2008) is proof that Goodall’s thinking chimes in with that of many others. Reworking age-old concepts and marrying classical standards with contemporary sentiments has seen him honoured for his choral music, stage musicals (from The Hired Man in 1984 to Bend it Like Beckham in 2015) and film scores.
In fact, it’s hard to think of an era of great telly which doesn’t feature a Goodall theme – Blackadder, Red Dwarf, Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley are all his musical creations, and his self-written and presented TV documentary series on music has won a BAFTA amongst other awards. His recent BBC2 documentary, Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ album, has been critically acclaimed, illustrating once again the breadth of Goodall’s musical expertise and his ability to communicate it with clarity and style.
This is a composer who undoubtedly has his finger on the rhythmic pulse of the nation. So responses to tragedies such as the terrorist bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May 2017 and the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June have struck him as completely natural expressions of shock and grief from a people unable to comprehend the enormity of what happened.
‘I think that we are, by many events, literally lost for words,’ he mulls. ‘We are so shocked but as a community want to react in some way that’s respectful, that binds us together and isn’t too gung-ho! We reach back to something that’s quite ancient in us – this desire to sing.
‘You almost could say that it’s a communal version of singing a lullaby to a child. What I think is true now, is that what people sing when they’re together is always changing and I don’t take the view that – because of the killing of innocent people – we would necessarily reach for something religious. Once you would automatically have sung a hymn or a prayer that everybody knew because everybody went to church or synagogue – but now there aren’t that many things we all know.’
Following a minute’s silence in honour of those who died at Manchester Arena in May, the community gathered together in the city centre and sang Don’t Look Back in Anger. ‘It was something they all knew and it was of their town and something they could do together,’ says Goodall. ‘Singing together has a tremendous healing power.’
Indeed, the first collective response to other recent incidents has also been musical. A cover version of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was released just a week after the Grenfell Tower disaster to raise funds for the victims of the fire, featuring more than 50 pop stars and, most importantly, a choir made up of residents and survivors of the tragedy.
It is this same instinctive need to join together and sing something familiar and appropriate that was at the heart of Goodall’s work as the UK’s first and only National Ambassador for Singing from 2007 to 2011. Launching and leading the Government-funded Sing Up initiative, the scheme was aimed at getting children singing again, following the disappearance of religious assembly from many schools, and, consequently, the eradication of a common songbook of hymns.
‘What other songs do children learn together that they get to know through their childhood and as teenagers?’ asks Goodall, who was made a CBE in 2011 for services to music education. ‘I am of an age that I remember having to sing hymns, whether I liked it or not, all the way through my schooling.
‘One of the things we did was create a database of songs that all children could get to know.’
Goodall is also mindful of the fact that society in 2017 is very different from 100, 50 or even 20 years ago. ‘We live in a very individualistic age, for better or worse,’ he muses. ‘We can’t put that clock back, and you have to find as many ways as you possibly can to remind people that we are part of a community and that we are bound together for all sorts of reasons.
‘Singing is one of the very few non-competitive activities that can happen where you feel like one community. Choirs are a good example of something that you don’t have to be individually brilliant to join. Nor do you have to be individually brilliant to be in a brilliant choir! So at an early stage before you have inhibitions and worry about making a fool of yourself, you should be singing in a choir.’
It is this ultimate aim, being a part of society and singing as an adult, that Goodall feels the Government has lost sight of in its single-minded approach to raising literacy and numeracy standards, thus forcing drastic cuts to the arts in primary and secondary schools.
‘There’s the classic Govian view that we’ve got to match these Tiger economies whose school systems in China and Indonesia are racing ahead,’ he says. ‘With that came the thought that things you do creatively are only part of a luxury education.’
But, says Goodall, there is a double standard at play here, with those ministers recommending stripping out the arts happily putting their own children through private school, where it would be considered absurd not to have a good drama, music or art department.
‘They know that when you pay for education you want these facilities, and the opportunity for your child to be in a play or sing in a musical as a matter of course,’ he says, his voice shaking with passion.
‘The way to improve literacy and numeracy is to get children involved in music and only an idiot who had no knowledge of education, had never set foot in a school or done a minute’s teaching, would promulgate any theory like that!’
There is a need, adds Goodall, to bring back a conversation between those shaping the curriculum and what happens when we leave school.
‘Reducing education to literacy and numeracy is a terrible mistake – you can have that same argument in any country in the world – but it is doubly bizarre that we are having it because Britain’s creative industries are our second biggest export!’
With Sing Up funding lapsed (it is now a buy-in product) and investment in community choirs fading, Goodall knows that today’s amateur music-making lies in the care of enthusiasts. There, at least, there remains a glimmer of hope for the next generation.
‘A lot of my works are performed by amateur choirs around the world,’ he says. “The industries where brass bands and choirs were originally formed have gone, and they have realised that they have to engage younger singers to foster links and create the adult singers of the future.
‘It has required an inventiveness on their part that has been very inspiring.’
In search of his own inspiration, Goodall just has to pick up a trowel. ‘I garden a lot here so I think it’s very compatible,’ he smiles. ‘You can be working on something in your head and gardening allowing you to let the piece mature and ferment in your mind.
‘All day, every day, you can keep your head in the same zone. It’s a very creative place.’
About the author
After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.
Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.