3 August 2001 | the red duchess
A guide to the modern state of the choir from the man who sang 'Blackadder...'
choirs are the most basic expression of any community, a coming together of classes, gender and races, a transcending of life's everyday conflicts through the artificial medium of song. Well, that's the theory anyway. So, in this era of high-capitalism, where Margaret Thatcher could plausibly claim that there was no longer any such thing as society, where communities are increasingly fragmented and displaced, where new media and popular art-forms have threatened the more 'artisan' modes, whither the choir?
In this four-part Channel 4 series, Howard Goodall, immortal composer of the Blackadder theme tune, attempts to find out. He visits four far-flung corners of the world - gospel in the American South, Zulu escatia (my phonetic rendering of a word never spelt!), folk/national singing in the post-Soviet countries of Bulgaria and Estonia, and traditional choirboy singing in England.
In these programmes, Goodall traces the social and historical context of these choral forms and their enduring visibility in their respective countries - slavery in the South; Communism in Eastern Europe. Frequently choral singing was a means of expressing communal spirit in conditions of great oppression - the fall of Bolshevism in Estonia, for instance, was precipitated by hundreds of thousands of people singing national songs in the streets. in South Africa, the choir's function of expressing tribal self-confidence has given way to economic necessity, as poor blacks perform in marathon song contests for money and status.
Goodall is an amiable guide, with a predilection for rolling his 'r's. there is some amusing pomposity-pricking, as when he eyebrow-raises an 'enthusiastic' American academic obsessed with Bulgarian singing. Every programme seems to centre on food and the kitchen. Nevertheless, the narrator's presence is frequently intrusive, interrupting the music for facile asides, resurrecting unwelcome spectres of 'Graceland' in South Africa.