Howard Goodall’s Choir Works
South Africa; Oxford, England; Nashville USA; Eastern Europe
Bonus: Choirs Perform
Recorded 1997
Film Director: Anthony Palmer
Sound Format: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Picture Format: NTSC 4:3 LBX
Region Code: 2, 3, 4, 5
WARNER MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT 50-51865-3700-2 [145:00]

This DVD contains the series of four programmes, each lasting about 30 minutes, that Howard Goodall made for the UK television company, Channel 4, in 1997. There’s also a bonus in the shape of thirteen short pieces sung by some of the choirs seen in the films themselves. I’m sorry if any information as to the contents is missing from this review but my copy lacked a booklet.

Howard Goodall has established quite a reputation for himself in recent years as a composer - especially successful in his writing for TV series - and as a broadcaster about music. In the broadcast medium his light, approachable style and his boundless enthusiasm for the subject in hand make him a convincing and generally pleasing guide to music, although some may agree with me that sometimes his delivery style is a bit excessive - I wish he wouldn’t roll his Rs as much as he does!

In this series he explores some highly contrasting choral traditions and types of choirs. In the second programme he considers the very formal establishment that is a typical English cathedral choir. However, characteristically, Goodall brings out the less formal side of these choirs. We see him visiting his alma mater, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where he himself sang in the choir as a student and we get an enjoyable look behind the scenes at the life of the young choristers. Angelic they may look - and sound - when robed and in the choir stalls but these are lively, not to say precocious, young boys and an engaging portrait of these talented young singers emerges. I like the way also that in part of the programme Goodall engages with a new choral scholar, recalling his own initiation into the Christ Church choir. There’s also a glimpse of what was in 1997 a relatively recent innovation: girl choristers in an Anglican cathedral - in this case, Salisbury, the English cathedral that really innovated in this respect.

There’s something of a common thread in the programmes on the choirs of South Africa and the USA. The American programme focuses on the Afro-American Gospel choirs of the Deep South and in the South African programme he considers the Zulu singing tradition. In both programmes Goodall’s examples and narrative bring out the extent to which music was a powerful form of expression for oppressed people - the indigenous South Africans and the Afro-Americans, descended from the slave population. In both cases it’s remarkable - and rather moving - to witness the sheer vibrancy of much of the singing. It’s completely natural and you feel that the music really matters to these people.

In the South African programme there’s quite a focus on the small male ensemble, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which became famous particularly as collaborators with Paul Simon. The only quibble I have with their contribution is that they have been filmed in a recording studio and their performances, while impressive, lack the passion and sheer verve of some of the other Zulu choirs we see and hear.

The Gospel film, like the one devoted to the Zulus, takes us right to grass roots and once again the enthusiasm and commitment of the singers is plain to see and hear. Goodall demonstrates the fusion between the old Spirituals and the traditional Methodist hymns that produced the Gospel music of today. It results in a very powerful and sincere expression of faith on the part of ordinary people.

The last of the four films takes us to Eastern Europe and to what may be for some viewers the most revelatory examples of choral singing in Goodall’s mini-tour. First he goes to Bulgaria and looks at the folk music tradition. The singing we hear is very much based on work songs and it’s a rural tradition, all tied up with the back-breaking work done in the fields over the centuries. What is particularly striking is that this appears to be an entirely female vocal tradition. I don’t know what role, if any, male singers play in this tradition but they are entirely absent from Goodall’s film and one gets the impression that it’s always been the women who toil in the fields and who have sung these songs down the ages. One of the choirs Goodall shows us is a modern choir, Cosmic Voices. This again entirely comprises female singers, who combine traditional music with modern close harmonies.

And the distaff side is to the fore again when, in the second part of the film, Goodall moves on to Estonia. Once again, we find choral singing played an important part in a liberation struggle. Goodall relates how public demonstrations, involving singing, played an important role in the overthrow of Communism - the Singing Revolution. Again we hear only female choirs. One rather moving moment occurs during a concert by the Academic Female Choir of Tartu University. The choir begins to sing a song, Mu Isamaa (‘My Fatherland’) and silently the whole audience stands - the complete performance is included in the bonus programme.

The bonus programme, ‘Choirs Perform’ consists of thirteen short but complete items sung by the various choirs that are featured in the four films. Some of the items have been heard in part during the films but others can be heard only in the bonus programme. It’s a good selection and the performances are all very enjoyable and of a uniformly high standard.

The ‘Choir Works’ programmes are lively, entertaining and informative. Goodall is a bright and breezy guide but his light style should not be mistaken for superficiality: he knows what he’s talking about and his enthusiasm for the subject and his desire to communicate his enthusiasm to the viewer is refreshing. Sometimes his presentational style grates a little: in general he comes across much more naturally when he’s interviewing someone during the films than when he’s doing a voice-over commentary. These commentaries sometimes sound a little contrived. However, anyone interested in choral music will find much to interest and entertain in this collection of films.

John Quinn