Alexander Goehr – Composer

Sunday 7 July 2019

The combination of mystery and transparent musical language compels attention—as did the edgy, controlled performance—even as the core meaning remained a puzzle. This was one of the best kinds of musical experiences, where one wants to hear the music repeated and get closer to the mystery at the center.

New York Classical Review


“Unburdened by ideology and technical schemata, Goehr’s works fly free of their conceptualisation with the energy of pure artistic discovery. What he most values in his technical devices is an ability to throw up felicities of part-writing or reiterative rhythm which may be cultivated for their independent strangeness and beauty. Such trouvailles lend his music a very personal flavour even as they unlock the fragrance of the past.” Paul Driver 2009

Alexander Goehr, composer and teacher, was born in Berlin on 10 August 1932, son of the conductor Walter Goehr, and was brought to England in 1933. He studied with Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College of Music (where together with Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and John Ogdon he formed the New Music Manchester Group) and with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod in Paris. 

In the early 60’s he worked for the BBC and formed the Music Theatre Ensemble, the first ensemble devoted to what has become an established musical form. From the late 1960’s onwards he taught at the New England Conservatory Boston, Yale, Leeds and in 1975 was appointed to the chair of the University of Cambridge, where he remains Emeritus Professor. He has also taught in China and has twice been Composer-in-residence at Tanglewood.

He has written five operas: Arden Must Die, Hamburg 1967; Behold the Sun, Deutsche Oper 1985; Arianna, lost opera by Monteverdi, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1995; Kantan & Damask Drum, Theater Dortmund September 1999; Promised End, derived from King Lear, London 2010; and a music theatre Triptych (1968-70). His orchestral works include four symphonies, concerti for piano, violin, viola and cello and other orchestral compositions, which have been commissioned and performed by major organisations and leading conductors. He had a particularly  close working relationship with Oliver Knussen, who has premiered and recorded several works. 

Many of his works have been commissioned by the BBC and feature regularly at the Proms. The year of Goehr’s appointment at Cambridge coincided with a turning point in his output with the composition of a white-note setting of Psalm IV. The simple, bright modal sonority of this piece marked a final departure from post-war serialiasm and a commitment to a more transparent soundworld. 

Goehr found a way of controlling harmonic pace by fusing his own modal harmonic idiom with the long abandoned practice of figured bass—thus achieving a highly idiosyncratic fusion of past and present. The output of the ensuing twenty years testifies to Goehr’s desire to use this new idiom to explore ideas and genres that had already become constant features of his work, such as the exploration of symphonic form (Sinfonia (1979), Symphony with Chaconne (1985-86), Eve Dreams in Paradise (1987-88), Colossos or Panic (1991-92). However these years’ output is also characterised by a number of ambitious vocal scores. 

A common feature of many of the vocal compositions of these years is the choice of subjects that function as allegories for reflection upon socio-political themes: The Death of Moses (1992); the cantata Babylon the Great is Fallen (1979) and the opera Behold the Sun (1985). But there are also non-political works: the cantata Sing, Ariel (1989-90), that recalls Messiaen’s stylized birdsong and sets a kaleidoscope of English poetry, and the opera Arianna (1995), written on a Rinuccini libretto for a lost opera by Monteverdi, is an exploration of the soundworld of Italian Renaissance.

After productions of his opera Kantan & Damask Drum (1997-98) in Dortmund and London, Goehr devoted himself almost exclusively to chamber music. Through the chamber music medium Goehr gains an unprecedented rhythmic and harmonic immediacy, while his music remains ever permeable by the music and imagery of other times and places. A series of quintets for different combinations began with Five Objects Darkly (1996) and grew with a Piano Quintet (2000); …around Stravinsky for violin and wind (2002); a Clarinet Quintet(2007); and most recently, from 2008, Since Brass nor Stone… for string quartet and percussion (2008), a memorial to Pavel Haas. The set of piano pieces Symmetries Disorder Reach (2007) is a barely disguised baroque suite; Marching to Carcassonne (2003) flirts with neoclassicism and Stravinsky, and Manere for violin and clarinet (2008), based on a fragment of medieval plainchant, is a typical foray into the art of musical ornament.

Goehr returned to the operatic medium with the opera Promised End (2008-09), based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, performed in 2010 by English Touring Opera. And there has been more orchestral music: TurmMusik (2009-10), with Nigel Robson and the BBC Philharmonic conducted by HK Gruber, and When Adam Fell (2011-12), commissioned by the BBC to celebrate his 80th birthday, with the BBC Symphony conducted by Oliver Knussen. His most recent work, To these sad steps (20011-12), to texts by Gabriel Levin, was premiered by Christopher Gillett and BCMG conducted by Oliver Knussen in September 2012.

Alexander Goehr is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a former Churchill Fellow, and the 1987 BBC Reith Lecturer. His archive is curated by the Berlin Akademie der Künste. Much of Goehr’s music is available on the NMC label, the latest release comprising Colossos or Panic, Little Symphony and The Deluge, conducted by Oliver Knussen. A new disc of orchestral music was released by Naxos in February 2013. Collections of his writings can be found in ‘Finding the Key’ (Faber & Faber 1998), and in ‘Fings ain’t wot they used t’be’ (Berlin Akademie der Künste and Wolke-Archive 2012). Discs of orchestral music on Naxos and chamber music on NMC were released in 2013 and further recordings are planned on Resonus.