The good life - Howard Goodall interview

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WHEN talking about his own compositions, Howard Goodall openly confesses to being a lover of melody. “It’s the key to what I do,” says the 50-year-old who gave us memorable television theme tunes for shows including Blackadder, Red Dwarf, Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley.

“If others see that as soft-centred, I don’t really care,” he adds. “I do what I do. If I woke up one morning hearing something different in my head, then I’d write something different.”

The truth is that Goodall’s creative output is considerably more varied than the string of TV signature tunes that have made him a household name, and which began through fruitful comedy-led collaborations at Oxford with fellow students Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis.

He is ubiquitous on television and radio these days as a presenter of programmes aimed at selling classical music as a truly exciting and living art form. And as a serious composer – his vast output extends from award-winning West End musicals to a bulging, sweet-scented catalogue of choral works – he pays a visit to Scotland in two weeks’ time when Ballet Rambert, with the help of London Musici and the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCoS), present his new ballet score, Eternal Light, at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

The intrinsic charm of these compositions is in their lack of pretentiousness. There is, Goodall would argue, a place for the tunesmith in serious music today. So it’s not surprising to hear in extracts from EMI’s recently released recording of Eternal Light – more information and downloads are on the website, – the same affectionate lyricism that colours his homely settings of The Lord is my Shepherd (aka The Vicar of Dibley’s theme) or the more extensive Missa Aedis Christi for double choir, strings and organ.

All of which seems to tie in neatly with a teenage background that saw Goodall equally at home as a serious-minded chorister and organist at Oxford as strumming his electric guitar – with a naturally wild explosion of hair – in rock bands on the university revue circuit.

Small wonder then, when it came to making his many upbeat and informative series on musical history for television, that he could so instinctively explain the principles of ground bass through such unlikely complementary examples as Purcell and Stevie Wonder.

The impulse to write and present these documentary series arose mainly out of a concern that programmes on classical music were “too clubby” and put most people off, while those on pop were little more than chart shows.

“It occurred to me that you could switch on the television and watch non-patronising documentaries on volcanoes, kings and queens, or anything else under the sun, but there was nothing about music that treated it simply as that, and in a way that represented the kind of eclectic music collections ordinary people might have in their own homes.”

His view of pop is that it came along at a time when classical music was groping in the dark, and in many ways forced the latter’s hand in defining the way forward for classical composers, not least in the way melody and tonality could still play a valid and dominant role. In other words, he sees pop as an intrinsic and vital force within the universal evolution of music.

It’s a view that has its ultimate manifestation in Goodall’s own simple, inoffensive musical style. Through every bar of Eternal Light – in essence a requiem setting that, like Britten in his War Requiem, juxtaposes elements of the original Latin text against secular verse – are sinewy melodic threads that occupy a cosy sound world somewhere between the 19th century church anthems of Stanford and the jingly contemporary carols of John Rutter.

“It’s not something I can define,” he admits. Nor, it seems, can others. When Goodall asked an Abbey Road Studios sound engineer during a recent recording session what it was that made his music sound the way it did, the answer was brutally inconclusive. “A bit of this and a bit of that – you do your own thing,” the engineer observed. For Goodall, the priority is simply for the performers to enjoy his music, particularly young and amateur singers.

That’s an area of music-making that really excites him, as seen through his involvement as presenter of such youth-based series as the BBC’s Choir of the Year and Young Musician of the Year competitions, though possibly less obviously through his government-appointed role as National Ambassador for Singing, in support of England’s Music Manifesto educational programme.

The latter pertains only to schools in England, with an objective “to have every primary school in England singing by 2011”. But Goodall has not been remiss in casting his eyes over the state of singing in Scotland. “Scotland is doing very well as it is, notably in the various collaborations involving NYCoS,” he says. Significantly, these words are uttered on the very week that NYCoS announced Goodall as its newly-appointed patron.

That’s a deal to be sealed the week after next when NYCoS performs Eternal Light in the Scottish premiere of the ballet. “I asked specifically if there was any chance they could do this when we came to Edinburgh,” says Goodall. “I really love their sound.” Clearly the feeling is mutual.

&#149 Eternal Light is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29-31 October