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The Genius of Valhalla:
The Life of Reginald Goodall

[1]832 words

John Lucas
The Genius of Valhalla: The Life of Reginald Goodall [2]
Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2009

A reissue of:
Reggie: The Life of Reginald Goodall
London: Julia MacRae Books, 1993

Today is the 110th birthday of the conductor Sir Reginald Goodall, who died in 1990 at the age of 88. In anticipation of Goodall’s birthday, I read through his only biography, John Lucas’ The Genius of Valhalla. (Previously, I had only cherry-picked the book for accounts of his Wagner recordings.)

Reginald Goodall was a highly talented yet not particularly versatile English conductor. He had no feel for Italian opera other than Puccini, for instance. In truth, Goodall could only conduct a work well if he loved it.

Goodall was from a lower middle class Methodist family. His father was an amateur musician and an affable drunk who was imprisoned for embezzlement, which was a major blow to his family’s standing and fortunes. Reginald had no formal musical or college education, but worked his way to the top of his profession nonetheless.

Goodall was famous for his meticulous rehearsals and sensitive coaching of singers, which yielded surprising results. He was also known for his attention to detail and transparency of orchestral texture. This does, however, mean that Goodall’s tempos are on the slow side, which can put intolerable strains on attention spans when dealing with operas as long as Wagner’s.

Lucas tells a rather depressing tale of a conductor who was repeatedly frustrated by bad luck, personal insecurities, office politics, and discrimination based on his political beliefs. He was an ardent follower of Sir Oswald Mosley, an unapologetic admirer of Adolf Hitler, and well-aware of Jewish cultural influence and ethnic networking–views he did not abandon or disavow when it became politic to do so. (I was a fan of Goodall long before learning of his politics.)

After the Second World War, Goodall looked like he would achieve some fame as an interpreter of Benjamin Britten’s operas. He conducted the premier of Britten’s masterpiece Peter Grimes, which was very well-received. This triumph pretty much guaranteed Goodall work as an interpreter of Britten, who was a celebrated and prolific composer. But Goodall did not particularly like Britten’s later works, and he was not cynical enough to pretend otherwise.

Still, Goodall’s talents as a rehearsal conductor and singing coach insured him a steady if obscure employment at Covent Garden and the Sadler’s Wells Opera (now the English National Opera), between mostly second-string conducting jobs, many of which he did not enjoy, since he seldom got to choose the works he conducted. (He detested Verdi, but was constantly stuck conducting him.)

Lucas’ book gives disappointingly scant coverage to Goodall’s political convictions. Apparently Lucas never sought out any of Goodall’s political contacts. Still, interesting details come through. Goodall toured Occupied Germany after the Second World War and was appalled at the conditions. He did his best to help Germans in need. He was also skeptical of the propaganda use of the concentration camps.

If people were repeating these stories in the 1980s, when Lucas began his research, then they were obviously being repeated in the late 1940s as well. This might go a long way toward explaining Goodall’s many career setbacks. In the 1960s, Goodall was fired from Covent Garden by Jewish conductor Georg Solti, who told Goodall years later that he had been “warned” about him. (The exact content of the warning was never made clear.) Later, at another juncture in his career, Goodall was opposed (this time unsuccessfully) by a member of the Rothschild clan. Apparently Goodall thought there were whispering campaigns and conspiracies against him. But Lucas repeatedly dismisses such thoughts as paranoia. (Goodall sincerely admired Jewish conductors like Bruno Walter, Daniel Barenboim, and Otto Klemperer. He even admired Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions. One wonders if Solti and Rothschild showed the same objectivity in judging Goodall.)

When Goodall was 65 years old and ready for retirement, forces aligned in his favor, and his career suddenly blossomed. Goodall enjoyed a 20+ year Indian Summer of renown conducting the works of his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, including the Ring Cycle [3], Parsifal [4], The Mastersingers of Nuremberg [5], and Tristan and Isolde. He also conducted magisterial performances of Bruckner’s last three symphonies [6]. Goodall made few recordings, virtually all of them dating from this period. His recordings of the Ring Cycle and The Mastersingers are in English. Parsifal and Tristan are in German. (I discuss Goodall’s recordings here [7], where I also reproduce an interesting biographical article on him.)

All told, in spite of a dry and overly-detailed style, Lucas’ book is an inspiring tale of a thwarted genius who, after a heartbreaking struggle, triumphed in the end in spite of his lack of paper credentials, his politically incorrect convictions, and the racial animosity of the culture distorters. But one cannot escape the impression that if Goodall had been born a generation earlier, he would be a household name. If and if he had been born a generation later, nobody on earth would be remembering his birthday today.