Envy is a nasty sin. Yet it is difficult not to be jealous of composer and musical TV programme presenter Howard Goodall. His TV series — Howard Goodall’s Organ Works, Choir Works, and How Music Works, among several others — exude warm enthusiasm, and attract the attention of awards committees. Exotic locations are sometimes involved as well.

As a composer, his works include the theme to the locally set Vicar of Dibley, not to mention Blackadder and Mr Bean. He is plainly a man who loves what he is paid to do.

“I am very lucky,” Howard confirmed when we met up. “But I don’t do many exotic locations these days, partly because juggling the different components of my life has become more and more difficult — also, I have a young family.

“Going away to San Diego, or wherever it may be, has become virtually impossible to fit into my schedule. But I know it’s all a great privilege — lots of people would love to write music, make programmes, or have a profile to promote the things they care about: in my case, musical education. I suppose all three of those is greedy!

“But I’m making it sound as if I get up in the morning, and suddenly all this happens. I was talking to a young composer the other day: he was very impatient, having left college but his career hadn’t taken off. I said to him, ‘no one comes out of college, and starts making a living from composing. They never have done, and they never will’. You have to be patient.

“From the moment I left university to the moment when I could support myself as a composer took eight years, and even then it was pretty touch and go.”

Howard Goodall’s connections with Oxfordshire are strong. Part of his childhood was spent in Thame, and once past his eighth birthday he became a chorister in New College Choir.

Was he already showing an interest in music, I asked, or was he just sent along by his parents for an audition on the off chance? Then, as now, if you get a choral scholarship, it’s a cheap way of getting a good education,” Howard laughed. “My Dad, being a teacher, probably had that in mind a bit. But my parents are great music lovers, and I think they thought that being in a choir school meant that we’d be surrounded by music. It was a very good call, because I did an audition and got accepted, as did both my brothers.

“I think at that point I knew music was my thing. Up until then, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot, like any self-respecting seven-year-old. By the time I was about ten, I got the fire in my belly, and decided I loved music: I wanted to learn more instruments, compose, and all those things. I got fascinated by the organ, but they told me you can’t play the organ until you’ve got to grade four on the piano, at which point I went into top gear. By then I also had a broad interest in music — I loved The Beatles, as well as being a chorister.”

Howard went on to Stowe, and Lord Williams’s School, Thame. Then he returned to Oxford itself, and gained a first in music at Christ Church. He has maintained a relationship with Christ Church Choir ever since, and has recently included it in Eternal Light – A Requiem, a multi-faceted work commissioned by London Musici, and also involving the Rambert Dance Company.

“London Musici wanted to celebrate their 20th anniversary,” Howard explained. “They have a regular arrangement to be the house band for Rambert Dance Company, and each year do a large-scale piece in Oxford with Christ Church Choir. They wanted a piece that would bring together these two arms of their life. I said a requiem was the thing I’d like to do.

“Obviously the dance company had to be happy with that, or it wouldn’t have gone ahead.”

Now orchestra, choir, and three soloists (Natasha Marsh, Woodstock resident Alfie Boe and Christopher Maltman) have recorded the work on CD — no sign of the dancers being added on DVD as yet. You only have to listen to the disc for 30 seconds to realise that Howard Goodall plainly believes that melodious music doesn’t automatically mean that no depth of feeling or emotion is involved.

“This has occasionally been a problem for writers of classical music,” Howard agreed. “There was definitely a time when you weren’t thought to be at the cutting edge if you wrote a melody. But I’m not subconscious about this: what I do is I hear music in my head, and then transcribe it. I write what comes naturally to me. I don’t sit down and say, ‘what would impress a music critic?’.”

The Eternal Light CD is conducted by Christ Church director of music Stephen Darlington, with Howard Goodall listed simply as ‘keyboard’. So how much temptation did Howard feel to leap up and tweak the music as the recording sessions progressed? I was able to leap up and tweak because I actually only played the keyboard a little bit, as back-up. Mostly I was co-producing in the control room — we recorded in St Michael’s, Summertown, which is a wonderful church to record in acoustically. Sitting in the freezing vestry — it was unseasonably cold in May — I did leap up quite a lot. But I’m very at home with Stephen Darlington, so there was less tweaking than would normally be the case, because he has a very instinctive feel for my music. But I did get up and interfere — you can’t avoid it!

“There are two things I’m always most concerned with. One, can you hear the words? The other is — is the speed right? In my view as a composer, there is a right speed for every piece. From Stephen’s point of view, I don’t know if it’s a help or a hindrance to have the composer endlessly saying, ‘It’s just a fraction too fast’, or ‘ it’s too slow’. But he’s too polite to say either way!”

  • Eternal Light is on EMI Classics, no 50999 2 15047 2 3.