|About this Recording
8.573052 - GOEHR, A.: Marching to Carcassonne / When Adam Fell / Pastorals (P. Serkin, BBC Symphony, London Sinfonietta, Knussen)
Alexander Goehr (b. 1932)
Alexander Goehr was born in Berlin in August 1932, son of the conductor Walter Goehr, and was brought to England three months later. He studied in Manchester at the Royal Manchester College of Music with Richard Hall—where together with Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies and John Ogdon he formed the New Music Manchester Group—and in Paris with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod. Goehr worked for the BBC in the 1960s during which time he formed the Music Theatre Ensemble, the first devoted to what has become an established musical form. He later taught at the New England Conservatory Boston, Yale, Leeds and was appointed to the chair of music of the University of Cambridge in 1975.
Goehr has written five operas and a substantial body of orchestral and chamber works. In recent years he has worked especially closely with Oliver Knussen and with Peter Serkin. His latest orchestral work, When Adam Fell, was presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its dedicatee, Knussen, in January 2012; and the Nash Ensemble premièred his horn trio, Largo Siciliano, at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2012. To These Dark Steps/The Fathers Are Watching for tenor, children’s choir and ensemble was written for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and premièred September 2012.
When Adam Fell, Op 89 (2011)
This composition for medium sized orchestra was written in the first months of 2011. It takes its title from the Chorale by Bach, Durch Adam’s Fall ist alles verderbt. The ancient chorale does not appear in my composition, which is based on the extraordinary chromatic bass which Bach invented for his setting. It is made up of a series of falling sevenths and sixths separated by silences and is unique in its effect.
I previously quoted from this bass in my Cantata, The Deluge (albeit not literally), and again in a setting of The Castaway by William Cowper for chorus and organ which I abandoned (or which abandoned me). Bach’s chorale setting was a favourite of Olivier Messiaen who performed it in our class.
My own composition might be described as a kind of Chorale Prelude consisting of a number of settings of Bach’s complete bass-line falling from high up at the opening to extreme depths at the end, with juxtaposed sections based on a contrasting rising melody. It was composed for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and is dedicated “to Ollie again”.
Pastorals, Op 19 (1965)
Pastorals was commissioned by the South West German Radio, Baden-Baden, and received its first performance at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in the autumn of 1965, played by the orchestra of the South West German Radio conducted by Ernest Bour.
Pastorals is scored for alto flute, clarinet in C (an instrument used in military bands and in some folk music); horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba; percussion, timpani; twenty-four violins and twelve celli (played in this performance by eight celli and four double basses).
Leaving aside the flute and clarinet, who only play in certain sections of the piece, the composition is written principally as a virtuoso work for brass. In the choice of instruments and in the final section of the composition, the inspiration of the brass music of Giovanni Gabrieli may be felt. The idea of a string orchestra is generally avoided and the instruments are used as collections of soloists in varying groups.
The title Pastorals does not refer to the English countryside: nor is this composition a Pastorale. At the time of its inception and composition, I was writing incidental music for stage productions of Oedipus Rex and Oedipus Coloneus. Traces of the music for the latter reappear in this composition and I felt that the mood of the work in some way reflected the play in which violent events take place in a pastoral landscape. The composition has, however, no specific programme.
The composition is in one movement but in two principal sections separated by a “lull”. The first is a set of variations on a duet stated near the beginning by the alto flute and clarinet. After the lull there is a kind of “choral fugue”. In this section, the brass is divided into three groups, the strings are divided into four, and there is an important part for four cymbals.
Marching to Carcassonne, Op 75 (2002)
In his essay Kafka and his Precursors, Jorge Luis Borges mentions a short story called Carcassonne, by Lord Dunsany, in which he writes:
In the same article reference is made to Zeno’s famous paradox against motion:
Marching to Carcassonne opens with a March composed for the Mozartean combination of two horns and string quartet and this March reappears as the fifth and eighth movements and six times in the course of the ninth movement. At each appearance it is precisely half as long as it had been in its previous version.
The second movement introduces the piano and leads to an Invention, at first for piano alone and later for piano with instruments. The fourth movement is a Chaconne and the sixth a free Passacaglia called Night, based on the harmonic progression of Schoenberg’s piece of the same name in Pierrot Lunaire. The seventh movement is a Burlesque.
The ninth and final movement, more or less the length of the previous eight, is entitled …marching to Carcassonne, Labyrinth. Interspersed by the March it is made up of five separate pieces (of parts of them), each with its own contrasted character and tempo. At first each breaks off after five steps in a particular direction, as if meeting a block. But gradually the fragments of several of the pieces (one of which is Two notes only for Ollie, which I wrote for a birthday concert in 2002) are lengthened.
Commissioned jointly by the London Sinfonietta and the Serge Koussevitsky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, it is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky.
Alexander Goehr at 80
Alexander Goehr’s music has been heard regularly at Cheltenham since his Four Songs from the Japanese in 1960 and Violin Concerto in 1962. Ivan Hewett assesses a long and productive compositional life.
When I interviewed Alexander Goehr some years back, he was working on what he admitted was bound to be his last opera. The text was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, done by his old friend Frank Kermode. Was there, I asked gingerly, a touch of fellowfeeling for the opera’s subject? “Of course,” he said, with that self-mocking smile that is one of his endearing traits. “It’s an old man’s folly.” He then said, “I’m trying to write it in a John Cage-like way, entirely without intention. Not thinking, just writing automatically.”
That is an extraordinary statement from a man who once sternly declared, “I write music so people can understand why some notes follow and others don’t.” And, even more sternly: “I believe certain values are universal and unalterable.” These pronouncements suggest that rather than embracing a Cage-like spontaneity, a composer’s inspiration should be subject to law; and of all the leading composers of post-war Britain, Alexander Goehr is the one who’s acquired the aura of a law-giver.
It’s not just the fact that he was Professor of Music at Cambridge for nearly a quarter of a century, where he reconfigured parts of the syllabus on severely traditional lines. It’s his consciously adopted status as an heir of that great law-giver of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg had a Moses-like anger against false gods, political and musical, and held out his own teaching as a bulwark against them. Goehr acknowledges the kinship of the prophet to Schoenberg to himself. “Schoenberg is my Moses, and I am one of his people too,” he declares.
The kinship was prefigured in Goehr’s biography. He was even born in the right place: Berlin, the city where Schoenberg taught for many years. His father Walter Goehr studied with Schoenberg, and later became known as a composer and conductor as well as a keen advocate of early music, above all Monteverdi (an enthusiasm he passed on to his son). When The Gramophone Company offered him a job in London in 1932, he moved there with his young family. The elder Goehr had an ironclad technique, an amazing compositional fluency and a ready scorn for his son’s first faltering efforts (“there hardly exists a more effective way of ridding oneself of one’s confidence than having a musician father,” Goehr wrote in his acute and revealing essay Finding the Key.
Distrustful of his own native talent, Goehr was determined to fortify himself with whatever tools, intellectual or purely technical, that he could find. This gave him a gravitas beyond his years, so that when he arrived at the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1952 the other young composers (among whom were Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle) tended to defer to his judgement. His air of continental sophistication was buffed still more by a period of study in Paris with Olivier Messiaen. Once back in England he began to make a name as a composer of subtly crafted, knottily intense pieces, made in his own personal brand of Schoenbergian serialism. After a spell at the BBC, Goehr landed his first academic post, in Boston, in 1968. Eighteen years later he became Professor at Cambridge.
All very establishment. But there are dissonances in the story. It’s astonishing to discover that the one-time Cambridge Professor doesn’t even have a first degree, let alone a doctorate, as composing students in the 1950 weren’t awarded such things. And Goehr is a long way from being an orthodox Schoenbergian. From the beginning he had an interest in things Schoenberg would have found simply beyond the pale: Japanese music, the highly flavoured modal music of Olivier Messiaen, Stockhausen’s visionary modernism. And his politics were a long way from Schoenberg’s aristocratic authoritarianism. He stoutly describes himself as a man of the left, and has a prickly dislike of rank and title.
Like the man, the music refuses to fit in any pigeonhole. There are pieces that have a kind of near-Eastern—could one almost say Jewish—plangency, such as the music-theatre piece Naboth’s Vineyard. There are early piano pieces of Messiaen-like brilliance, there are imitations of Baroque cantata forms (in the Deluge), and there are almost-tonal paraphrases of Psalm tunes. Goehr’s admiration for Brecht’s form of theatre, and Brecht’s musical collaborator Hans Eisler, are a constant presence in his music-theatre works—including the King Lear opera Promised End, which also shows the influence of Japanese theatre. There’s even an imagined reconstruction of an entire lost opera by Monteverdi (Arianna, premièred at the Royal Opera House in 1995). Underlying all this variety is a tension which manifests itself through the music’s tensile, hyperalert “body language”. Goehr has stated that he likes confronting a musical idea immediately with its opposite. A high dancing phrase for one instrument might be met with a silence, then an enigmatic chord, with the three held in precarious balance. Like the thesis at the beginning of a debate, these things mark out the valid space of the musical argument. No matter how varied the things that follow, closer inspection (or repeated listening) shows that they really are related at the bottom. Goehr, closet Marxist that he is, would probably describe the process as “dialectic”.
That’s one of the tensions that animates Goehr’s music. Another, just as important, is the tension between a purely rational way of constructing a piece—like Schoenberg’s row—and the use of a historical model. Just as Schubert modelled a sonata movement on a sonata by Beethoven, Goehr has often modelled the dimensions and structure of a piece on something that already exists. Beethoven, Mussorgsky and Bach have all been pressed into service.
It’s an old-fashioned idea, shared by almost no one else working today, and to many it would seem an intolerable shackle on creative freedom. But not Goehr. In an interview in a collection of essays on his music entitled Sing Ariel, Goehr put it like this: “The point of being a composer is to do something new—I can see no other point to it—but it doesn’t come about through imitating your contemporaries or the latest clichés. On the contrary, the new comes about through confrontation with the same old things.” One of those “same old things” is fugue, about which Goehr says, “I consider that writing fugues still has as much point today as at any previous time, not because we’re all going to write fugues in our compositions…but because I believe that in music, as in other fields of human activity, the way to the new is not necessarily via the new.”
Combine the use of a historical model with a clever quasi-serial manipulation, or a very personal use of Baroque figured bass—as Goehr sometimes does—and the act of composition becomes fraught with complication. So fraught, you wonder how Goehr has ever managed to write a single note without endless second thoughts.
Which brings us back to the conversation about the opera Promised End, and Goehr’s implausible declaration that he composed it “without thinking, purely spontaneously”. My hunch is that Goehr would deny there’s any real contradiction between this and his insistence on “law”. The creative self that acts “without thinking” is more likely to produce something of value, if it is steeped in the values and techniques of tradition. It’s like the archer who can hit the target without appearing to try, because he’s been practising for so long.
Goehr’s recent pieces have something of that freedom and fluency. In that respect he’s like another composer who’s had to forge his own creative persona out of sheer hard graft: Elliott Carter. Goehr’s new-found ease is telling, because it’s been so hard-won.
This article was commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival for the 2012 festival programme book, and is reproduced with permission.
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