That was the question answered by a few people, Alfie amongst them, in today’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music (click here to listen).
Bring Him Home is Alfie’s most famous song and also the most famous song to come out of the show for which it was written, Les Miserables. Unsurprisingly, it was voted as Alfie Boe’s Best Ever Song by fans in 2014 and is the one song which is always heard at an Alfie concert (short guest appearances excluded). Alfie himself says that he’d probably be lynched if he ever left it out and has been known to joke at concerts that “you can all go home now, that’s what you came for, isn’t it?” straight after singing the song.
Being an Alfie fan it’s all too easy to forget that Bring Him Home was actually written for someone, not simply for the show. Of course, I’m talking about Colm Wilkinson and one of the most interesting parts of the programme for me was an Oxford College music director talking about how the power of the tenor voice is contained in the song, producing such an emotional response in the listener; we are aware that the voice could soar into the rafters but doesn’t. The power is in the restraint and of course the words which perfectly capture the feeling of a prayer – the song is referred to as The Prayer in the show. The lyricist, Herbert Kretzmer, interviewed for the programme, said that on the face of it, it could be a difficult song to write as an atheist but wasn’t as he did not need to believe in God, just in Jean Valjean’s belief in God.
Alfie was one of several people interviewed for the programme and his contribution was short and right at the beginning. He talked movingly about how much the song means to him professionally and personally and how much he has gained by his association with it but the interesting thing was the challenge of getting the words right; get that right and the tune almost comes along by itself. Being vocally tired when singing such an emotionally charged song means that the song sounds different, “gives it a different colour”. I’ve heard Alfie sing this song many times in concert and each time has been different. Different but wonderful every time.
The other contributors were divided into two groups: music professionals (Rebecca Caine, Herbert Kretzmer and Jeremy Summer, music director at St. Peters, Oxford) and people who had turned to Bring Him Home in times of need and bereavement. Becky Douglas was one of the latter and listening to her talk about her daughter, Amber was painful but also, ultimately uplifting; out of the darkest time of her life had come joy and purpose and meaning. There was no doubt that Bring Him Home was a crucial part of Becky’s relationship to her daughter and also to her subsequent charity work. Maybe the fact that I’m also a parent meant that Becky’s story spoke to me so directly and I think that is also the reason that I found Rebecca Caine speaking about the song so moving as well. Specifically, hearing her talk about not being a parent was intensely moving. As may be expected with a song that is often associated with loss and funerals, the programme included someone who had sung Bring Him Home at a funeral. Frank Pearson, secretary of the Greater Manchester Police Male Voice Choir, spoke with grace and clarity about singing such an evocative and emotional song at the funeral of PC Dave Phillips, killed in Liverpool last year. PC Phillips was a Les Mis fan apparently and it was entirely fitting that he featured on Soul Music.
Lest you fear that the programme was unremittingly sad, let me put your mind as rest by saying that it was, as I said earlier, mainly uplifting. Listening to others talk about the power of music and the mechanics of the song itself felt like a spiritual process, whatever spiritual means to you.
So, listening to the programme inspired me to ask you what Bring Him Home means to you? Let me know below.
To help you along, here’s a playlist of Alfie singing Bring Him Home:
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