Alexander Goehr

Alexander Goehr

Alexander Goehr (born 10 August 1932 in Berlin) is an English composer and academic.

He was born in Berlin, the son of Walter Goehr. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (1952–55) where he met Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group dedicated to performances of contemporary music. In 1956 he went to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire, and the same year he went to Darmstadt where his "Fantasia" for orchestra received its first performance. Whilst resident in Paris in 1956–57, Goehr also had private consultations with Pierre Boulez.

In 1971 he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of Leeds, moving in 1976to a similar position at the University of Cambridge, which he held until 1999.

Early works

Goehr's earliest published work is the Piano Sonata from 1953, a fluent and idiomatic work which bridges the gap between Prokofiev and serialism (Prokofiev had died in March of that year, and the sonata commemorates this fact with a brief quote from his Seventh Piano Sonata). Goehr's works from the middle fifties tend to be more austere and closely adhere to traditional Schoenbergian twelve-tone technique. Goehr's first international success was with his Eisenstein cantata "The Deluge" (1958), which created a considerable stir at its first performance, conducted by his father. It is a tautly constructed yet lyrical work, with more harmonic coherence and considerably more dramatic impact than most serial music of the period. Its impact upon Goehr's colleagues from Manchester seems also to have been considerable: echoes of it, both in terms of vocal writing and instrumental writing, may be discerned in Maxwell Davies's "Leopardi Fragments" (1961) and Birtwistle's "Monody for Corpus Christi" (1960).

As a result of the success of "The Deluge", Goehr was commissioned to compose an orchestral piece for the BBC Promenade Concerts ("Hecuba's Lament") and a larger Eisenstein cantata "Sutter's Gold" (1961) for chorus, baritone and large orchestra. However the premiere at the Leeds Festival was not successful, provoking an editorial in The Times newspaper claiming that it signalled the end of the British choral tradition.

Despite this, Goehr continued to compose choral works. Encouraged by his friendship with the choral conductor John Alldis, who was strongly committed to new music, Goehr composed his "Two Choruses" in 1962, which used for the first time the characteristic modally inflected harmonic serialism which was to remain his main technical resource for the next 14 years. Briefly explained, parts of a row are laid over other segments of the original row to produce a limited intervallic vocabulary in which certain pitch classes and harmonic aggregates tend to predominate. The result is euphonious, harmonically consistent and a complete departure from the consistently dense chromaticism of Schoenberg's classical 12-tone pieces.

Both as a technical procedure and in its harmonic results, Goehr's rotation technique has much in common with Boulez's idea of the 'bloc sonore' derived from segmenting rows into smaller units which are multiplied with each other. But, unlike Boulez, Goehr retains a strong and lasting link with the precepts of Schoenberg as expressed in the latter's writings (as found in the anthology 'Style and Idea', for instance). Like Schoenberg, Goehr is committed to the revivification of traditional Western forms such as sonata, symphony and fugue. This makes his music difficult to pigeonhole as it is not purely traditional in outlook, but neither does it spurn certain features of post-War avant-garde aesthetics. This has led to views like that of composer and critic Bayan Northcott, who has termed Goehr a "radical conservative".

The first large scale application of Goehr's new modal serialism came in his "Little Symphony" of 1962. It is a memorial to Goehr's conductor/composer father, who had unexpectedly died, and in consequence it is based upon a chord-sequence subtly modelled upon (but not quoting) the "Catacombs" movement from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Goehr senior had made a close harmonic analysis of this unusual movement; he had also published his own orchestration of 'Pictures' - although he excluded 'Catacombs' from it). Alexander Goehr's own choral sequence is richer than Mussorgsky's original, with strongly predominant thirds and sixths, and prominent false relations between adjacent chords. It comprises the entire first movement of the "Little Symphony" for strings. What follows is in effect a gigantic sequence of variations upon this chord sequence, though in fact only the following, second movement is actually designated 'variations' as such. The scherzo third movement offers a sharp contrast with its skirling woodwind writing, but close echoes of the basic chord sequence return in the slow trio. The finale alternates two contrasted types of music, both based upon the chorale - a slow lament, and much faster music featuring dotted-rhythm cadences which have remained a typical feature of Goehr's mature style. The coda clinches the argument in a final variant of the opening of the whole symphony.

Later works

Goehr's subsequent output from the sixties included one further symphony (in 1969) which fuses sonata, fantasia and variation principles in a half-hour discourse. The harmony is some of Goehr's most lush and articulate, with richly detailed orchestration to match. The strikingly discursive coda to the work deliberately leaves the harmonic threads hanging unresolved on a luminous brass chord. During this period, Goehr also composed the "Romanza" for cello and orchestra, premiered by Jacqueline du Pré, under the direction of her husband Daniel Barenboim at the 1968 Brighton Festival with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. She said it "suited her down to the ground" and it remained the only contemporary music she ever played (and has since appeared unofficially on CD). Though highly melodic, the work also has its darker, more ominous overtones, and it proved further the expressive viability and flexibility of Goehr's modal serialism.

Goehr's first opera, "Arden Must Die", was also composed during this period and proved to be a powerful setting of a Jacobean morality play which had uncomfortably contemporary political and social resonances. Though very successful at its Hamburg premiere, and revived more than once in the years that immediately followed, it has not been performed in Britain since.

Goehr's chamber music output has included a Piano Trio commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin. It is a two-part work whose dance-based theme-and-variations first movement is counterbalanced by an intense slow movement which opens with a germinal cello melody and proceeds through haunting passages of near-stasis to a poised conclusion. The second and third string quartets (1967) and (1976) respectively, are no less successfully executed as regards combining harmonic innovations with traditionally anchored large-scale form.

The third quartet (1976) was the last Goehr composed using his personal form of serialism. With "Psalm 4" he abandoned serialism for a purely modal harmonic world (the work has long passages almost entirely using the white notes of the keyboard), but this was no 'spiritual modalism' such as would become fashionable some years later. The counterpoint is austere, yet sonorous and not lacking in tension. He delivered the Reith Lectures in 1987 entitled "The Survival of the Symphony".

Notable students

*Thomas Adès
*George Benjamin
*Robin Holloway
*Silvina Milstein
*Ye Xiaogang


*Latham, Alison (ed.). 2003. "Sing, Ariel: Essays and Thoughts for Alexander Goehr's Seventieth Birthday". With compact disc. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. ISBN 0754634973
*Williams, Nicholas. 2001. "Goehr (2): (Peter) Alexander Goehr". "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians", ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

External links

* [,7550.html Alexander Goehr page] on Schott music publishers' website

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