There is a type of musical impresario out there on primetime TV. He gets people to sing; people who hadn’t realised they had a voice in them. He reduces them to tears. He gets great performances out of them. He reduces the audience to tears. His acts have sung before the Queen. He is a household name. Of course, there is a bit of a downside, too, since he has a colossal ego.
Then, there’s Gareth Malone. He, too, gets people to sing. He also reduces them, and us, to tears – and he gets them singing before the Queen. He, too, is a household name. So does it follow that his ego is also the size of a bus?
Malone, who still looks like a boy despite the fact he’s 38 and has a slight salt and pepper thing going on in his hair, laughs at this notion. “Oh, yes, I have a colossal ego!” Then he shakes his head. For, as we all know, with this choirmaster it’s very much not all about him. With Malone, its about the refuse collectors, the airport customs officials, the healthcare workers and – most famously – the military wives, whom he cajoles, coaches and coaxes to stand in the spotlight, singing their hearts out while Malone beats time with his stick and urges them on.
“I’m a team player,” he says. “I am interested in my own career, but I learnt a long time ago that it’s much better to help others look good. That’s much more rewarding than making yourself look good. You do better that way as a musician. To support people, help them with the songs and do right by the music. It’s a humbling thing.”
In the bright light of TV entertainment, a world where relentless self-promotion stalks every game show, every talent show, every stand-up, cookery programme and quiz, and indeed in the wider world – where even the Queen falls prey to some child doing a selfie with her – this self disregard is positively disturbing.
Not that Malone is willing to hide his light under a bushel. It’s just that the light he wants to promote is about something else. This summer, he is about to take that light to unforeseen heights. “I am about to stand on stage at the Proms and that is a VERY humbling thing.”
Having hit the Christmas No 1 spot in 2011 with his Military Wives choir and Wherever You Are, a song whose lyrics were compiled from letters sent by women to their absent boyfriends and husbands, Malone is reaching a bit further. The Military Wives are to sing at the Proms.
There are now around 80 Military Wives choirs around the country, and in military bases abroad. Yes, 80. All within a new foundation, of which Malone is the patron. It seems that across the UK, wives and girlfriends of military men realised there was a wonderful community out there waiting for them. “It’s a lovely piece of evidence for anyone wondering about the value of the arts,” says Malone. “You can point to these choirs and show how singing helps people in dire circumstances, how it brings them together. It’s an important charitable, and pastoral, activity.” Plus, they all use the same songbook! How brilliant is that?
“A woman in Plymouth can be relocated with her partner to a base in Germany – well, there will be a Military Wives choir there singing the same songs. She can walk in and there is a ready-made group of friends. It’s a starting point.”
But you can’t put 80 choirs on in a Prom, can you? Of course not. This is why Malone has auditioned for his choir, this time. Because these women are not going to be singing a three-minute pop song. This 100-strong choir (which includes some members of the original one) is going to be up there for 30 minutes, negotiating its way around some very tricky classical works.
“I felt we needed the next challenge,” says Malone. “And the Proms seemed like the ideal thing.” Furthermore, an old friend from his Royal Academy of Music days (where he achieved Distinction in vocal studies) had unearthed some hymns, including a new war hymn, that Henry Wood, the Proms’ legendary founder, had set to music during the First World War. And since the Prom, which is inspired by the National Theatre’s War Horse production, marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the war on 4 August… well, it just seemed right.
Also on the programme is The Snow, a choral piece by Elgar, and some emotive pieces by Gustav Holst, an Ave Maria, set for eight parts, and one that won’t leave a dry eye in the Albert Hall. “It’s called Home They Brought a Warrior Dead,” says Malone. “It is a choral gem. Four parts, unaccompanied and quite challenging to sing… it’s about surviving the loss of a loved one.”
Given its provenance, does he feel that it’s fair to give his choir such material to sing? It’s not only fair, but imperative, suggests Malone. “They want to sing uplifting music, in order to get them through the hard times, but they also want to sing music that is cathartic. It helps them get through the tension of their position. It’s always pieces like the Holst that help them.”
Malone might help the Military Wives, but they have helped him. “Before all this, my view of the military was as a news story. That was all. Now, I see them as human beings. I am supporting the wives, and they are supporting their husbands. And now that the troops are coming home, well, they know that sooner or later, they will be off somewhere else. They don’t share their political feelings with me. They just knuckle down and get on with it. It’s immensely impressive, such a sense of duty.”
What about Military Husbands? Aren’t there any chaps out there with girlfriends or wives serving in the armed forces who would like to be up there, singing their hearts out on the podium? What with Malone being such a fair-minded, reasonable, decent chap…
“Well,” he says, “as a musician, and someone who has been involved in the pastoral care of these choirs, I have seen that it is a very female activity, and I think fitting men into it would change the nature of it entirely. Military Wives is a female activity, much like the Women’s Institute or Girl Guides. And there are so few men who would take part. The resultant choir would cease to become soprano, soprano, alto. It would become aoprano, aoprano, alto… and Terry. Which would be very difficult for Terry.”
Reasonable, self-effacing, decent. That’s Gareth Malone. Plus, he’s a great choirmaster – and a rare but welcome presence on TV.
The Military Wives Prom will be broadcast live on 3 August on Radio 3 at 4.30pm. The concert, and a documentary following the auditions, will be shown on BBC2 in November.