“Pure, straight sound”, Elizabeth Kerr  

Peter Godfrey: Father of New Zealand Choral Music
Elizabeth Salmon
Mākaro Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780994106582

On the book’s cover a young boy stands a little uncertainly before the camera. He’s wearing the Eton suit of a King’s College chorister, complete with top hat, and behind the Harry Potter glasses looks eager to please and enthusiastic, with perhaps a trace of mischief. Peter Godfrey may have been about 11 at the time; he’d passed the demanding audition to be a chorister, aged just nine, and left his family home in Bluntisham to board at King’s in Cambridge, staying till his voice broke five years later.

Reading about daily rehearsals of the choir under the fierce direction of Boris Ord, regular singing at services and schooling fitted around the music, I was struck by the contrast between his 1930s childhood and that of his New Zealand contemporaries. Seldom seeing his family, losing his “dreadful Huntingdonshire accent” in the company of boys from “more cultured” families who “spoke well”, Godfrey completely absorbed the social values and musical aesthetic of King’s College.

The story of how that English choirboy became one of the most influential figures in New Zealand’s choral scene in the second half of the 20th century is told by Elizabeth Salmon as an oral history. Her authorial role is sotto voce; the strongest voice in the story is Godfrey’s own, complemented by “recollections” from many former students, colleagues and friends. Does this work? An anecdote refers to “Godfrey worship”; I initially feared this phenomenon might produce an unbalanced and over-flattering account.  In the end, I was won over by Godfrey’s own modesty, the frankness of the many contributors, and Salmon’s skilful weaving of the threads into a coherent portrait of a man with enormous talents and many apparent contradictions.

In 1958, Godfrey, newly arrived from England, took up a lectureship at Auckland University alongside the position of music director at St Mary’s Cathedral. He was unashamed about his desire to reproduce the King’s College “pure, straight sound” with the cathedral choir, with sopranos sounding like boys. His approach was fairly ruthless; auditions were held, age limits imposed and many older members replaced by music students. The singers from the nearby Queen Victoria School for Māori Girls were also removed, “because their voices were very strong and they didn’t blend.”

This period demonstrates many characteristics of Godfrey that return consistently. His decision to leave England was part of a “restlessness [that] never left me” and an intrepid nature that allowed him to make many changes in his professional life. This, in turn, spread his influence widely. During many years in Auckland he established a formidable reputation with the cathedral choir, the university and the world-class Dorian Choir, including several successful international tours, always including music by New Zealand composers. Many were surprised when he moved suddenly to Wellington and broadened his impact with the acclaimed National Youth Choir, the Wellington Cathedral and Orpheus Choirs and through his role as a prime mover in the establishment in the 1980s of the active New Zealand Choral Federation.

Throughout, he showed the confidence to impose his English style – he was dismissive of our “agricultural” vowels – and demand high standards and discipline with, according to some, an almost obsessive interest in intonation. The choral conductors who followed him explain tactfully that, in time, his approach became dated. Some singers describe his manner as “intimidating”, but he always worked with all-comers community choirs as well, showing a more relaxed style and encouraging the love of singing.

His choirs were inspired by his commitment to quality, and his charisma is not in doubt. Singer Judy Berryman summed up the contradictions: “There’s something about Peter which makes you love him, in spite of the things that get on your nerves …. In a choral situation, he’s a leader, a commander …[but] there is a very soft core [to him].”

The book’s subtitle is Father of New Zealand Choral Music, perhaps somewhat overstating Godfrey’s role.  Our choral tradition was born a century before his arrival, as described by historian John Mansfield Thomson in his comprehensive Oxford History of New Zealand Music: “The colonial choral society was an awesome sight: tiers of ladies in billowing white, bearded gentlemen in black, beneath a panoply of organ pipes.”

For his 90th birthday, Salmon presented Godfrey with a draft of her book. He was pleased with the account, though in a poignant comment she notes that, suffering from dementia, “he had forgotten so much that a great deal of what he read was a revelation.”

There are many revelations about New Zealand’s musical history in this story of a remarkable man and musician for both the general reader and the many singers in New Zealand’s hugely active choral scene.  “The Prof”, as he is affectionately known, may not have fathered our choral tradition, but has left an indelible stamp upon it.

Elizabeth Kerr is a music commentator and arts consultant. While writing this review she was preparing to sing in the New Zealand Choral Federation’s annual workshop in Wellington.

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Posted in Music, Non-fiction and Review
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