Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Volume 24, Number 2
Alexander Goehr / Elizabeth Agnew
Calendar / For February 2017
Illustration / Alexander Goehr
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
Carol Marie Reynolds
Lisa Scola Prosek
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Alexander Goehr (b. August, 10 1932, Berlin, Germany) and his family moved to Great Britain when he was only a few months old. He came from an extremely musical family: mother Laelia was a classically trained pianist, and father Walter a conductor and Arnold Schoenberg pupil. While Goehr's relationship to his pere was not unproblematic, Walter had a determining influence on his son via composers whose work was championed, including Claudio Monteverdi, Modest Mussorgsky, Schoenberg, and Olivier Messiaen. As a child, Alexander grew up in a household populated by composers, including Mátyás Seiber and Michael Tippett.
Goehr initially intended to study classics at Oxford University, but went instead to study composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, with Richard Hall.
In his composition classes, Goehr became friends with Harrrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and John Ogdon, with whom he founded the New Music Manchester Group. His interest in non-Western music -- sparked by encountering Messiaen's work, combined with an enthusiasm for medieval modes, shared with Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle -- largely influenced Goehr's first acknowledged compositions, including Songs for Babel, Op. 1 (1951) and the Sonata for Piano, Op. 2 (1952), dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). A seminal event during this period was hearing the United Kingdom premiere of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony in 1953, conducted by Walter Goehr.
In 1955, Alexander Goehr left Manchester for Paris and study with Messiaen, and remained there until October 1956. Part of his interest was in combining the contrapuntal rigor and motivic workings of the First Viennese School and Second Viennese School with a strong sense of harmonic pacing and sonority. Indeed, during this time he also studied counterpoint and serialism with Schoenberg scholar and composer Max Deutsch, although not for long. Evidently, Deutsch threw Goehr out of his house upon hearing that the young man intended to study with Messiaen as well. Goehr's indebtedness to Messiaen from this point has been very strong, as is apparent in Goehr's lifelong commitment to modality as an integration to both serialism and tonality.
The Parisian music scene would make a great impression on Goehr, who became good friends with Pierre Boulez and was involved in the serialist avant-garde movement of those years. Goehr experimented with Boulez's technique of bloc sonore, particularly in String Quartet No. 1 (1957). Boulez was a mentor to Goehr in the late 50's, programming his new compositions in concerts at Paris's Marigny Theatre.
Eventually Goehr's sensibility parted from Boulez's serialism. What disturbed Goehr was mainly his perception that serialism had become a cult of stylistic purity, modelling itself on the 12-tone works of Anton Webern. Perhaps Goehr's strong sense of indebtment to Schoenberg, had something to do with his ambivalent reaction to the Boulez / Karlheinz Stockhausen / Darmstadt School avant-garde of the time. Like the older composer, Goehr refused to view current composition as a practice that is independent of any musical tradition, but rather, he sought in tradition the elements for the innovation of musical language.
"Choice, taste and style were dirty words; personal style, one could argue, is necessarily a product of repetition, and the removal of repetition is, or was believed to be, a cornerstone of classical serialism as defined by Webern's late works. . . . All this may well be seen as a kind of negative style precept: a conscious elimination of sensuous, dramatic or expressive elements, indeed of everything that in the popular view constitutes music."
Upon his return to Britain, Goehr experienced a breakthrough with the performance of The Deluge, Op. 7 (1958), in 1957, under his father's baton. This big, ambitious work was inspired by the writings of Sergei Eisenstein, who is one of Goehr's many extra-musical sources of inspiration. Indeed, much of Goehr's works from this point ae, in one way or another, studies in the synthesis of several, different elements. In this case inspired by Eisenstein's notes for an unfinished film based on a writing by Leonardo da Vinci; music about a director's incomplete jottings for a movie based on the writings of a painter. The soundworld could be seen to have been derived from Webern's two cantatas, but it strives for the imposing harmonic tautness and full sonority of Prokofiev's two Eisenstein collaborations, Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 (1939), and Ivan the Terrible, Op. 116 (1945). The cantata genre is one that Goehr would explore a number of times throughout his career, as would be the notion of, at least metaphorically, completing the unfinished works of others.
Following the success of Deluge, Goehr was commissioned a new cantata, Sutter's Gold, Op. 10 (1959), for choir, baritone, and orchestra. However, the new work proved difficult for the singers, and was reasons why the work was dismissed by critics upon its performance at the Leeds festival in 1961. This débacle, however, had a constructive impact on Goehr: rather than dismissing criticism as the mere result of incompetence, he genuinely faced the questions of the position of the avant-garde composer and his music:
"If one wishes, one can just say that music has to be autonomous and self sufficient; but how to sustain such a view when people who sing for pleasure are deprived of true satisfaction in the performance of new work? . . . We can talk about music in terms of the ideas that inform it; we can talk about structure and techniques; we can talk about aesthetics or ethics or politics. But we have to remember that while all this, realistic or not, is of great importance to composers and to anyone who likes to follow what composers are doing, what is being discussed is not the music itself but the location of the music, the place where it exists."
Despite this, Goehr continued to compose choral works. Encouraged by friendship with the choral conductor John Alldis, who was strongly committed to new music, Goehr composed Two Choruses, Op. 14 (1962), using for the first time a combination of modality and serialism which was to remain his main technical resource for the next 14 years. His search for a model of serialism that could allow for expressive freedom led him to the Baroque evocations of Suite, Op. 11 (1961), and his Little Symphony, Op. 15 (1963). This latter is a memorial to Goehr's conductor-composer father, who had unexpectedly died, and is based upon a chord-sequence subtly modelled upon the "Catacombs" movement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), of which Goehr senior had made a close harmonic analysis.
This flexible approach to serialism, integrating harmonic background with bloc sonore and modality, is very representative of the type of writing that Goehr developed as an alternative to the strictures of total serialism. It is no coincidence that Boulez -- who had earlier facilitated the performance of Goehr's music -- refused to program Little Symphony: by 1963. Goehr had departed from the style of his Parisian days.
In 1964, the composer founded the Wardour Castle Summer School with Birtwistle and Davies, and began a preoccupation with opera and music theatre. He wrote his first opera, Arden Must Die (Arden Muss Sterben, Op. 21, 1966), a Brechtian setting of a Jacobean morality play which had contemporary political and social resonances. Goehr's striking setting of a text, composed by Erich Fried in duplets, makes the most of the idea of simple musical ideas that are continually distorted into sinister and sarcastic realms.
Goehr founded the Music Theatre Ensemble in 1967, and thereafter completed the three-part music-theatre cycle Tryptich: Naboth's Vineyard, Op. 26 (1968), and Shadowplay, Op. 30 (1970) were both explicitly written for Music Theatre Ensemble, while Sonata about Jerusalem, Op. 31 (1971), was commissioned by Testimonium Jerusalem and performed by the Israel Chamber Orchestra and Gary Bertini.
From 1968 to 1969, he was Composer-in-Residence at the New England Conservatory of Music, and went on to teach at Yale University as Associate Professor of Music. Goehr returned to the UK as Visiting Lecturer at Southampton University (1970–1971). He was then appointed West Riding Professor of Music at the University of Leeds. During this time, he found inspiration from the formal proportions of a late Beethoven piano sonata in Metamorphosis/Dance, Op. 36 (1974). Goehr left Leeds in 1976 when he was appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge University, where he taught until his retirement in 1999.
Goehr's search for a means of controlling structure and harmony in music led him in during this time to an innovative interpretation Baroque figured bass in conjunction with modality and serialism.
This is exemplified in his setting of Psalm IV, Op. 38a (1976), the ensuing correlated works: Fugue Op. 38b (1976), and Romanza, Op. 38c (1977), on the same source. The simple, bright modal sonorities mark a final departure from post-war serialism and a commitment to a more transparent aesthetic.
The output of the ensuing years testified to Goehr's desire to use this new idiom to explore ideas and genres that had already become constant features, such as re-animating a writers posthumously published prose Das Gesetz der Quadrille, Op. 41 (1979, to words of Franz Kafka), and he exploration of symphonic form, in Sinfonia, Op. 42, and Symphony with Chaconne, Op. 48 (1986).
A common feature of many vocal compositions of these years is the choice of subjects that function as allegories for reflection upon socio-political themes. The cantata Babylon the Great is Fallen, Op. 40 (1979), and the opera Behold the Sun, Op. 44a (1985), for which the former can be considered to be a sketch study -- both explore the themes of violent revolution via the texts from the Anabaptist uprising in Münster of 1543.
There are also non-political works such as Sing, Ariel, Op. 51 (1990), that recalls Messiaen's stylized birdsong and sets a kaleidoscope of English poetry.
The Death of Moses, Op. 53 (1992) uses Moses' angry refusal to die as an allegory for the destiny of the victims of the Holocaust, in a style the composer characterizes as Claudio "Monteverdi heard through Varese." This cantata also alludes to Schoenberg's unfinished Moses und Aron (1932)
Related, inspirations of this period include the art of Francisco Goya (1746-1828), in the orchestral Colossus or Panic, Op. 55 (1990), and the opera Arianna, Op. 58 (1995) -- written on an Ottavio Rinuccini libretto for L'Arianna, a lost opera by Monteverdi (completed by Goehr?!) -- a typically idiosyncratic exploration of sonorities re the Italian Renaissance. Arianna also most overtly displays Goehr's intent to turn his reinvention of the past into a musical process that the audience can hear and identify:
"The impression I aim to create is one of transparency: the listener should perceive, both in the successive and simultaneous dimensions of the score, the old beneath the new and the new arising from the old. We are to see a mythological and ancient action, interpreted by a 17th-century poet in a modern theatre."
Quintet - Five Objects Darkly, Op. 62 (1996), whose title is borrowed from a work by the painter Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is a set of variations based on a Mussorgsky fragment.
The last 17 years of Goehr's output have not received the generous coverage, both in terms of academic writing and frequency of performance, of his previous work. This output is heralded by the striking opera Kantan and Damask Drum, Op. 67 (1999), premiered at the Dortmund Opera. This drama consists of two plays from the Japanese Noh tradition, separated by a short kyogen humorous interlude. The 15th-century Japanese texts were adapted by the composer in this setting. The lusciously tonal idiom does not indulge in orientalism, but rather the relationship between music and drama in Noh animates the entire work. Again with Kantan and Damask Drum, the search continues for an expressive synthesis; in this case, one of Eastern and Western, past and present.
In the following years, Goehr devoted himself almost exclusively to chamber music, where he gained unprecedented rhythmic and harmonic immediacy. His music remains ever permeable by the imagery and sounds of other times and places, as in the Piano Quintet, Op. 69 (2000), and the Fantasie for cello and piano, Op. 77 (2005), are haunted by rich sonorities of a Maurice Ravelian quality.
The set of piano pieces Symmetries Disorder Reach, Op. 72 (2002) is a barely disguised baroque suite haunted by the spirit of early Alban Berg. Marching to Carcassonne, Op. 74 (2003), flirts with neoclassicism and Igor Stravinsky; and manere for violin and clarinet (2008), based on a fragment of medieval chant, is a typical foray into the art of musical ornament. Since Brass nor Stone for string quartet and percussion, Op. 80 (2008), a memorial to Pavel Haas, was inspired by a Shakespeare sonnet, from which it borrows its title. This work is representative of the inventiveness of recent chamber work. One reviewer described the work as "hiccoughing fugal patterns overlaid with intricate, delicate percussion . . . a magical garden of dappled textures"
After an almost ten-year hiatus, Goehr returned to opera with Promised End, Op. 83 (2009), first performed by English Touring Opera in 2010 and based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. When Adam Fell, Op. 89 (2011), was a BBC commission for orchestra based on the chromatic bass from the Bach chorale Durch Adam’s Fall ist alles Verderbt, first introduced to Goehr by his teacher Olivier Messiaen. To These Dark Steps/The Fathers are Watching, Op. 90 (2012), written for tenor, children's choir and ensemble, sets texts by Israeli poet Gabriel Levin concerning the bombing of Gaza during the Iraq war and was premiered in a concert marking Goehr’s 80th birthday.
Largo Siciliano, Op. 91 (2012) is a trio praised for its mastery of aural balance among violin, horn, and piano, from opening melancholy to an ending vanishing into oblivion. The chamber symphony …between the lines… (2013), the latest commission in a long-standing relationship with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, is a monothematic work of four movements played without a break, in direct acknowledgement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1906).
Further sources of inspiration for Goehr have the treatises on musical ornamentation by Monteverdi and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. The former's synthesis of Renaissance polyphony with the early Baroque homophony and the control of harmony clearly mirrors Goehr's own commitment to a harmonically expressive contemporary practices.
Songs of Babel, Op. 1 (1951)
Piano Sonata, Op. 2 (1952)
Fantasias for clarinet and piano, Op. 3 (1954)
Capriccio for piano, Op. 6 (1957)
String Quartet No. 1 (1957)
The Deluge, Op. 7 (1958)
Variations for flute and piano, Op. 8 (1959)
Four Songs from the Japanese, Op. 9 (1959)
Sutter's Gold, Op. 10 (1959)
Hecuba's Lament, Op. 12 (1961)
Suite, Op. 11 (1961)
Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1962)
Two Choruses, Op. 14 (1962)
Virtutes, a cycle of nine songs and melodramas (1963)
Little Symphony, Op. 15; Little Music for Strings, Op. 16 (1963)
Five Poems and an Epigram of William Blake, Op. 17 (1964)
Three Piano Pieces, Op. 18 (1964)
Pastorals, Op. 19 (1965)
Piano Trio, Op. 20 (1966)
Arden Must Die (Opera), Op. 21 (1966)
Three Pieces from "Arden Must Die", Op. 21a (1967)
Warngedichte, for mezzo-soprano and piano), Op. 22 (1967)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 23 (1967)
Romanza, for cello and orchestra, Op. 24 (1968)
Naboth's Vineyard, Op. 25 (1968)
Konzertstück, Op. 26 (1969)
Nonomiya, Op. 27 (1969)
Paraphrase for clarinet, Op. 28 (1969)
Symphony in One Movement, Op. 29 (1969)
Shadowplay, Op. 30 (1970)
Concerto for Eleven, Op. 32 (1970)
Sonata about Jerusalem, Op. 31 (1971)
Piano Concerto, Op. 33 (1972)
Chaconne for Wind, Op. 34 (1973)
Lyric Pieces, Op. 35 (1974)
Metamorphosis/Dance, Op. 36 (1974)
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 37 (1976)
Psalm IV, Op. 38a (1976)
Fugue on the Notes of Psalm IV, Op. 38b (1976)
Romanza on the Notes of Psalm IV, Op. 38c (1977)
Babylon the Great is Fallen (Cantata), Op. 40 (1979)
Organ Chaconne, Op. 34a (1979)
Das Gesetz der Quadrille (The Law of the Square Dance),
Op. 41 (1979)
Sinfonia, Op. 42 (1979)
Deux Etudes, Op. 43 (1981)
Behold the Sun (Opera), Op. 44a (1985)
...a musical offering (J.S.B. 1985)..., Op. 46 (1985)
Two Imitations of Baudelaire, Op. 47 (1985)
Symphony with Chaconne, Op. 48 (1986)
Eve Dreams in Paradise, Op. 49 (1988)
...in real time, Op. 50 (1988)
Sing Ariel, Op. 51 (1990)
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 52 (1990)
The Death of Moses (Cantata), Op. 53 (1992)
Colossos or Panic for orchestra, Op. 55 (1992)
The mouse metamorphosed into a maid for unaccompanied voice,
Op. 54 (1993)
Arianna, Op. 58 (1995)
Three Songs, Op. 60 (1996)
Schlussgesang for orchestra, Op. 61 (1996)
Quintet - Five Objects Darkly, Op. 62 (1996)
Idées Fixes for ensemble, Op. 63 (1997)
Sur terre, en l'air, Op. 64 (1997) (1997)
Kantan and Damask Drum, Op. 67 (1999)
Piano Quintet, Op. 69 (2000)
Suite, Op. 70 (2000)
...a second musical offering, Op. 71 (2002)
...around Stravinsky, Op. 72 (20020
Symmetry Disorders Reach for piano, Op. 73 (2002)
Marching to Carcassonne, Op. 74 (2003)
Adagio (Autoporträt), Op. 75
Dark Days, Op. 76 (2004)
Fantasie, Op. 77 (2005)
Broken Lute, Op. 78 (2006)
Since Brass, nor Stone..., fantasy for string quartet and percussion,
Op. 80 (2008)
manere, duo for clarinet and violin, Op. 81 (2008)
Overture for ensemble, Op. 82 (2008)
Promised End, opera in twenty-four preludes (scenes) to words from
Shakespeare's King Lear, Op. 83 (2009)
Broken Psalm for mixed choir (SATB) and organ, Op. 84 (2009)
Turmmusik (Tower Music) for two clarinets, brass, and strings,
with baritone solo, Op. 85 (2010)
When Adam Fell for orchestra, Op. 89 (2011)
To These Dark Steps / The Fathers are Watching, Op. 90 (2012)
Largo Siciliano, Op. 91 (2012)
…between the lines… (2013)