Born in the cathedral city of Lincoln, Reginald Goodall sang in the choir of Lincoln Cathedral before his family moved to North America in 1914. He left school aged fifteen, working in a bank at the same time as studying at the Hamilton Conservatory of Music in Ontario and becoming organist at the Anglican Cathedral in Toronto at the age of twenty-one. Returning to England in 1925, Goodall entered the Royal College of Music where he studied with Arthur Benjamin, Constant Lambert and Malcolm Sargent. In 1929 he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St Alban’s Church, Holborn, where he achieved a notable success, introducing to London choral music by Bruckner, Stravinsky and Szymanowski.
Goodall left St Alban’s in 1936 without clear future prospects: although in the same year he was a member of the music staff at Covent Garden and assisted Albert Coates, by the outbreak of World War II in 1939 he was unemployed. Help arrived in the person of Maisie Aldrich, the daughter of a solicitor living in Christchurch, Dorset. Following the decision of Bournemouth town council to disband its municipal orchestra, Miss Aldrich wanted to form a small orchestra to perform for the south coast town and the surrounding area. She installed Goodall as conductor of the Wessex Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave its first performance at the beginning of December 1939. Thereafter, he directed over three hundred concerts during the next three years and two months, in the process transforming a group of amateur and semi-professional musicians into a competent orchestra which often performed works by many modern British composers and frequently gave two concerts a day.
After leaving the orchestra in 1943 and spending six months as an army storeman, in 1944 Goodall joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera, where he conducted the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes on 7 June 1945. The following year he was co-conductor with Ernest Ansermet of the first performances at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera of Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia: excerpts from both this and Peter Grimes were recorded for EMI with Goodall conducting. He joined the music staff of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1946, and as an assistant conductor was allocated works such as Massenet’s Manon, with which he made his Covent Garden debut as conductor in 1947, and operas by Verdi including Il trovatore, La traviata and Aida. While these may not at first glance appear to be works with which Goodall might be expected to have much sympathy, musicians in the Covent Garden company would later refer to his performances as examples of unusually powerful conducting. As the representative of Covent Garden, in 1951 he attended the first post-war Bayreuth Festival, where the conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch, whom he had heard conduct before the war in Munich and at Covent Garden in 1936, made a deep impression. In 1954 Goodall conducted Die Walküre at the Davis Theatre in Croydon with the Covent Garden company, to significant critical acclaim. He continued to conduct a wide range of repertoire for the company, including Berg’s Wozzeck, Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Puccini’s Turandot, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
When Georg Solti arrived at the Royal Opera House as music director in 1961, Goodall effectively ceased to conduct for the company, although he remained active and highly respected as a répétiteur. Believing that his days as a conductor were over he moved to Kent, but in fact an extraordinary ‘Indian summer’ of achievement was about to take place. He was invited by the Sadler’s Wells Opera, soon to become the English National Opera, to conduct a new production of The Mastersingers in 1968. This was a triumphant success and marked Goodall’s entry into the pantheon of great Wagner conductors. Following the company’s move to the London Coliseum he was invited to conduct the individual operas of the Wagner’s Ring cycle from 1970 onwards, as well as the full cycle itself later. Captured in a series of recordings financed by the Peter Moores Foundation and taken from the actual performances at the London Coliseum, these were readings of a depth and grandeur which were completely new to many listeners. At the same time Goodall returned to Covent Garden, conducting Parsifal there in 1971, and from 1979 he established a close relationship with the Welsh National Opera (WNO), conducting Tristan und Isolde with the company in 1979 and recording this production in 1981; he then recorded Parsifal with the forces of WNO in 1984. His final performances were of Parsifal, at the English National Opera in 1986 and at the Promenade Concerts in 1987. He was made a CBE in 1975 and was knighted in 1985.
Goodall’s predilection for slow tempi tended to be treated as a weakness by some commentators, when in fact it was one of his great strengths. Like another conductor of the same period, Sergiu Celibidache, Goodall appreciated that at slower speeds it is possible to hear clearly the orchestral sonorities and textures that are so important, not least in Wagner’s music. Goodall highlighted this point in a comment to the critic Alan Blyth: ‘You see the faster you go the less bloom you get on the tone. One tempo must be related to another and that one must arise from yet another. Wagner’s specific markings are as much a matter of mood as of tempo.’ In addition Goodall’s years as a coach gave him an unparalleled insight into the phrasing of Wagner’s vocal and orchestral writing, and an understanding of how to realise this to maximum dramatic effect. All of the recordings of performances conducted by him are of the greatest interest. In addition to those of The Ring, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, concert performances of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, with Dame Janet Baker as soloist, and of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 have been published. Sir David Webster, the first intendant of the post-war Covent Garden Opera Company, summed up Goodall’s qualities succinctly when he remarked, ‘There’s no doubt that Reggie has a touch of genius.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).