Of the letters I’ve kept over the years, some of the most treasured are written in Peter Godfrey’s distinctive spidery hand. Three stand out: one congratulating me for assuming the chair of his beloved New Zealand Choral Federation, another saying nice things about my choir (always welcome) and the third asking for my advice on repertoire! All made me feel chuffed beyond belief. They still remind me of what it was like to receive approval or – on rare, giddy occasions – praise from Peter in person. I’ve never been one for hero-worship but even a nod or slight smile at a job well done or a phrase well sung was enough to make the heart leap. The first time he asked me to take a rehearsal for him, I felt as if I’d been made a knight.
Change the details and you’ll hear a host of similar stories, such was the sheer force of Peter’s personality, the quality of his leadership and the almost daunting brilliance of his musicianship. In the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to Peter since his death last Thursday, perhaps the word used most often to describe him is “inspirational”. He inspired thousands of choristers across many years and choirs and has had, from what I read and have been told, a lasting effect on many of their lives. He has certainly provided major inspiration to the careers of a great number of this country’s singers, conductors and composers, and through them his influence will continue be felt for many decades to come.
Peter was great to watch, listen to and sing for. He had a beautiful conducting style, a love of words and context, an unerring ear, an urbane wit and a fabulous rehearsal technique. He insisted on accurate tuning and shapely phrasing, and we were desperate to respond. He taught us to aim for the highest standards and yet singing with him was always, because of the discipline rather than in spite of it, huge fun. I came away from more than one Godfrey rehearsal feeling that this – making vocal harmony with others – was what I wanted to spend my life doing. That it has become a reality I owe in very great part to Peter’s inspiration. Many others will say the same.