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Alexander Goehr

Alexander Goehr is a key figure in contemporary British music: founder of the Manchester Group – including fellow composers Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies – and teacher of several of Britain’s leading composers, he talks to Daniel Jaffé êabout his career from socialist agitator to opera composer. A slightly shortened version of this article was published by Classic CD, February 1999.

Alexander Goehr

“I regard it as a personal defeat if people can’t follow my pieces.”

Alexander (“Sandy”) Goehr is that increasingly rare thing in British music – a politically conscious composer, determined to write music relevant to his age. In this, as in most things, he was profoundly influenced by his father, the eminent conductor Walter Goehr, who championed such left-wing composers as Michael Tippett (a regular visitor to the Goehr household) and Hanns Eisler. Walter had also been a pupil of Schoenberg’s and, as Goehr recalls, “everything was thought of through what Schoenberg said or didn’t say. He was such a strong personality that the ripples of his attitudes went far and wide, but among a very small number of people. And I had the good fortune – or the ill fortune depending on how you look at it – to come from that background. That will never change.”

From his father he inherited Schoenberg’s idea that music is a cultural legacy in a line that stretches from Bach through the Viennese classics to Brahms, and – as a concomitant to this – that composition is a serious business. This attitude has both inspired and at times hindered his composing career. For a time, Goehr single-mindedly championed 12-tone or serial composition above all other methods, even against the wishes of his father: “although he was a Schoenbergian through and through” says Goehr, “and loyal to the great man, his musical taste veered more towards Hindemith, Ravel, Kurt Weill – lower level stuff. He would say about Schoenberg, and it’s a remark worth recording, that you actually have to be very good to survive composing with the 12-tone technique because it puts terrible obstacles in the way of all sorts of musical considerations.”

It was a point of view that the young Goehr took some time to come around to, perhaps not least because of his father’s opposition to his ambition: “Why do you sit without money, doing these bogus, highbrow works, when you could be earning a good living?” Sandy has confessed to always feeling that his father is looking not altogether approvingly over his shoulder: possibly that’s why he often can’t allow himself to make the simplest statement without then qualifying it and ending up with some vague equivocation. Similar accusations have been levelled at some of his music, but at its best his work is immediate, expressive and – despite his own disclaimer about his aural imagination – colourful. For instance his concert aria Behold the Sun (1981) – with its ultra-high soprano part and gleaming instrumentation of vibraphone and woodwind – is not only beautiful and disturbing in almost equal measures, but above all is a rare instance of a piece that absolutely matches its title.

Goehr has also succeeded as a major mover and shaker in contemporary British music; he not only founded the so-called Manchester Group, galvanising Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies into becoming composers, but as professor of music at Cambridge University has subsequently taught several of England’s leading composers including Robin Holloway, George Benjamin and Thomas Ad?s. There is perhaps some irony in his having obtained such an august position, from which, now past his 66th birthday, he is about to retire: Goehr, after all, started his journey to Manchester not as a budding composer but as an anti-establishment political activist. As a schoolboy he flirted with the Communist Party, finally quitting “mainly because the people are arseholes”.

He was disqualified in any case for adopting, under Michael Tippett’s influence, the cause of pacifism – “not good Communist Party policy at all!” For a time Goehr worked in Schotts (Tippett’s and now his own publisher) and lived with his grandparents in Kilburn: “every morning I travelled to Schotts on this line. There was a very attractive girl on the train whom I developed a whole fantasy about, and ultimately began to talk to. She wasn’t what she seemed at all: she was an Israeli a political emissary here recruiting people, and she promptly recruited me for a left-wing Zionist party. And they suggested I went and became a farm worker in Essex on a training kibbutz. So aged 19 I became a sort of Socialist Zionist: I spent two years working on farms and in hospitals, and was sent to Manchester by these people to do political work. That’s how I got to Manchester – there was no musical reason. And there I wrote my first piece which was actually a sort of Zionist pageant with songs, which was done in Cheetham Town Hall in Manchester – it wasn’t very good!”

It was there, though, that he met Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle: “Max” was training to be a teacher, and “Harry” was a promising clarinettist – “he made a very nice sound, but he was not too hot on the counting” recalls Goehr. He persuaded them to take composing seriously – and the rest is history; poignantly so for Goehr. “I don’t particularly want to talk about that time because there’s a personal thing in that, because in fact we hardly see each other any more. We’ve developed very differently, and the intense friendship and collaboration of that time hasn’t lasted, and it’s better not commented upon all-in-all except to say that it didn’t last. I mean I’m not particularly sympathetic to the way they developed, and they surely aren’t individually to each other or to me. We’ve all gone our separate ways, although like with old lovers you will never forget that at one time it was very intense.”

Goehr went on to Paris to study under Messiaen, having been inspired by the British premi?re (conducted by Walter) of the Turangalîla-symphonie. Sadly he was disappointed by Messiaen’s teaching. Goehr has recalled being reduced to fits of giggles by Messiaen’s proposal that his students should go out into the woods and transcribe birdsong, and being utterly bemused by Messiaen’s attempt to analyse Berg’s Violin Concerto “as if each chord could be catalogued by the rules of the harmony book”. He not only found the master’s predilection for certain harmonies very narrow – “For me a moment of truth came when once I was actually able to identify a chord correctly before he had played it” – but also noticed that students who emulated Messiaen’s harmonic approach tended to end up sounding like their teacher. On the other hand, under Messiaen Goehr received a profound insight into not only the master’s works but of other great French composers – particularly Debussy and Ravel. Perhaps most importantly, Goehr recognised a great man who “had achieved a great deal at that time, but he had no defences. He had accepted no systems. As an artist he was stark naked and incredibly humble.”

Messiaen’s example of composing while maintaining “his new and open relationship to sound” seems to have influenced Goehr’s subsequent development. Previously a whole-hearted supporter of the Darmstadt School’s drive to find a “new musical language” to overthrow the “debased” tonal tradition, he now rejected their prescription of total serialism, and even the concept that there could be only one way forward in music. In this, he was also undoubtedly influenced by the left-wing composer Hanns Eisler, whom he first met in Paris. Eisler poured scorn on the aims of Darmstadt, insisting on the need to write music for non-specialist audiences to “Make people more intelligent”. He also suggested that the three great innovators of music in the twentieth century were Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Janácek – three composers which Goehr today instantly cites as his chief influences.

On returning to England, Goehr scored a success with a cantata The Deluge (1958), conducted by his father who then cussedly refused to touch it again. It’s a work Goehr still describes as “one of my favourites. It’s a cantata based on a text of Leonardo da Vinci – for two voices and eight instrumentalists. It gets done from time to time, but it’s never been recorded and I wish it were because it’s very dear to me.” Its success at the time was such that he was commissioned to write a choral work for the Leeds Triennial Festival, which had recently premi?red Britten’s Spring Symphony. The result, Sutter’s Gold (1960), was a debacle, leading The Times to run a leader suggesting that the mighty British choral tradition was drawing to a close. For Goehr it was a humbling experience: “my feelings were really those of shame, because the singers had met every day for a year to battle with this intractable material and hadn’t had a good time at all.”

From this, Goehr decided that “compositional imagination and technique have to be modified by social considerations” – a maxim that has directed most of his composition ever since. He has also mellowed with age: the Sinfonia (1980), for instance, is not only very “tonal” but strongly evokes his beloved Janacek. So where does this leave his Schoenbergian legacy? Has he given up serialism? Not entirely, suggests Goehr: “If serial music ever had any real basis in real life, it would have to become a language; after all people didn’t write tonal music by saying ‘now this is the subdominant, this is the dominant’, and so on. We just wrote. Helen Carter, Elliott Carter’s wife, said once ‘In Elliott’s music there’s a lot that one can take for granted as being there’ – and I thought that was a good remark, and I would say it about myself too. Having this rather intellectual structural serial kind of background and thinking in a certain way, I would say it is probable that is still there, because I don’t have to think about it in quite as formal a way. What I think about when I’m composing is the sensual quality of the material, particularly in the harmony, and not much the methodical thing. I suppose I believe I’ve transcended serial music, in the sense of writing out rules and making operations and the kind of things I used to do: I wouldn’t bother – I could probably improvise the material. But what I do with it probably is deeply affected by that and doesn’t in any sense, in my mind at least, represent a turning away from it; it’s just the next stage on.”

Goehr points out that Schoenberg himself, towards the end of his life, was showing signs of sublimating his 12-tone technique: “it’s very possible that Schoenberg might have transcended the serial system himself. In the end maybe serialism was a way of reconstructing tonality – so I would think because of what I’ve done!”

The result, in practice, is an ability to somehow blend clear-cut tonality with a more “serial”-based language, exemplified by Goehr’s most recent opera Arianna. Taking the libretto of a now lost opera by Monteverdi – another of Walter Goehr’s enthusiasms – Sandy reinterpreted the text in a style which might be described as Monteverdi dreamt or imagined by a twentieth-century composer. The work’s success seems to have taken Goehr by surprise: “Arianna you could say was a coup de folie” he says; “it was one of those things which could have been a disaster, but in fact it came off quite well: it had a few productions, people like it. But I wouldn’t rate it among my own important pieces if I were judging – although it was something that I enjoyed doing. It was just – it sounds awful to say so, but it was just fun.”

Certainly the critics rated it rather more highly. “It is a brilliant concept,” said The Times, “sumptuously fleshed out.” Paul Griffiths in the Times Literary Supplement called it “a delight”, claiming that at times the musical language of 1608 “sounds through freshly; more often it is patinated, or observed through layers of pearl”. Philip Hensher poetically – and with justice – described the opening: “A flurry of plucked and silvery notes, a tiny but stately piece of entrance music…”

“The idea of the orchestra has actually very mundane roots indeed,” says Goehr, referring to his time at Leeds during the early 1970s: “I did Orfeo with the students and we didn’t have any resource: we just had some not terribly good students, and didn’t have the right instruments or anything. We tried to substitute one instrument for another, so we got the idea of the soprano saxophone for the cornetti – it was a sort of practical rule-of-thumb.”

Goehr refined this orchestra further in his cantata The Death of Moses, the success of which gave him “the nerve” to do Arianna; “they both use, as it were, student orchestras pretending to be baroque orchestras.” Hence the use of inauthentic saxophones and a sampler, much to the disappointment of certain “authentic” performers: “When I told Jiggy [John Eliot] Gardiner about it first, he said, ‘Oh wonderful, we’ll have it with archlutes’ and so forth. And I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in writing an opera that is pretending to have been written in 1620 – I’m more interested in writing an opera that is written in 1990 and looks back.”

Finally a question both simple and difficult to answer – why does Sandy compose? What does music mean to him? He considers, then answers: “Kandinsky’s widow said that she had impression that Kandinsky preferred the vermilion in the tube to what he was painting; and that is a remark which echoes with me somewhat.” He breaks off, chuckling, then continues: “I just like the sound. I like hearing chords, and I also like – if you listen to a certain amount of Alceste, which I’ve listened to, that suddenly a melody… you know, most of them are bit dated and prosaic and don’t always retain one’s attention; and then suddenly a composer does a bit of magic, he does something that speaks, incredibly. And that’s what fascinates me in music, because I’d like to do it just once – just ordinary notes, and then it just happens.”


…a musical offering (J.S.B. 1985)…; Behold the Sun, Op. 44a; Lyric Pieces; Sinfonia
Jeanine Thames (soprano); London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen

Piano Concerto; Symphony in One Movement
Peter Serkin; London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen; BBC Scottish SO/Richard Bernas

Sing, Ariel; etc.
Lucy Shelton, Eileen Hulse, Sarah Leonard; Chi-Chi Nwanoko (double bass); dir. Knussen
Unicorn-Kanchana DKPCD9129 (OOP)

The Death of Moses
Michael Chance, Sarah Leonard; CUMS/Stephen Cleobury
Unicorn-Kanchana DKPCD9146 (OOP)

Article © Daniel Jaffé Daniel Jaffé’s Homepage

SheetMusic by Alexander Goehr