Required Rehandling – an interview with Alexander Goehr

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

Three highly significant British composers were born within two years of each other in the 1930s – Alexander Goehr (in Berlin in 1932), Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (both in 1934). Intentionally or not, studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music in the 1950s linked them. Along with the pianist, the late John Ogdon, and trumpeter now conductor, Elgar Howarth – both also composers – they formed what has been called the ’Manchester School’.

Although Max, Harry and Sandy have gone their separate ways, two key aspects of their work continue to connect them – a constant flirtation with, if not a whole-hearted adoption of, serial technique, and a keen interest in the possibilities of controlling their compositions with ’old’ musical procedures, manipulating or reworking borrowed material or methods. The latter is fundamental to Alexander Goehr’s major new orchestral work – … second musical offering (GFH 2001) – a BBC commission for the Proms, which receives its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday, September 10, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Talking to the amenable and quietly spoken Professor Goehr recently, he told me that “for the second time, I am borrowing Bach’s title. His Musical Offering was originally intended for Frederick the Great. That said, the title really refers to the methods and forms of musical art itself. Fifteen years ago, I composed a piece about Bach’s procedures” – … a musical offering (JSB 1985) … – “this time it is about Handel’s and is based, as opposed to the Bach work, on an actual piece by him, an ’Air’ from the Keyboard Suite in D Minor. Another strand goes back to my opera, Arianna, which was premiered by the Royal Opera in 1995. Arianna is a lost opera by Monteverdi that I set myself the goal of ’rewriting’. The challenge there was that absolutely nothing of Arianna survives except for one small section, the famous ’Lamento d’Arianna’. Maybe I was so in awe of this precious fragment that I first approached rewriting it in a roundabout way by reworking Handel’s ’Air’ as a study. That exercise seemed a way into the Monteverdi. Eventually Arianna did come to fruition and a couple of years later I was approached by the Handel Festival in Halle to compose a piece. The Handel fragment came back to me as a starting-point and I produced Overture with Handelian Air. That now forms the first part of the second musical offering, to which I’ve added a much longer section that I term Concerto with Double.

So far so good, but Goehr’s approach to this composition seems more diverse, as he soon explains. “It perhaps sounds slightly complex but the notion of doubling is another inspiration in what I’ve tried to do. It all goes back to Handel himself. When he supervised publication of his Suite in London in 1720, printed by Walsh, one of his customary publishers, it was rather unusually set in two sizes of musical print – the larger a basic harmonic structure, the second a smaller and more decorated version. So I thought I might play with and reverse that and produce what would be a ’smaller’ basic harmonic structure and something ’larger’ and more decorated – to produce a double of Handel and a double-form based on Handel’s own, curious, doubling of his piece in its two versions. I should add that whilst the second musical offering is in two parts, the smaller basic structure and the more elaborated decoration do not stereotypically follow that groundplan. Then one can have further fun with the entire process – which is where the decoration comes in. After the Overture – slow, fast, slow, fast in shape – I place my own version of his ’Air’ set as a miniature harp concerto. The writing for harp is how Handel might have done it, using the instrument like a keyboard, as if it were harpsichord or organ continuo. At the end of that section the notes G, F, H – H being our B flat – are introduced as a bass: George Frideric Handel.”

Goehr is as much interested in means as methods. “The final main challenge was to try another post-modern Handelian homage. This was what I call attempting to replicate Handel’s open-air sound, which is literally evident in pieces like his Water Music, though the practice is common to much of his writing for double orchestra. Of course our, by which I mean my harmonies are different to those of Handel’s day. There was no question of my attempting a pastiche, or even a neo-classical parody.”

Nevertheless, could Handel’s clarity of sound be preserved? “I’ve tried to preserve it by means of uncongested sonorities – aside from strings and harp, there’s an oboe, bassoon, horn, soprano saxophone, flugelhorn, tuba, trumpets and drums. It’s not the full late-19th-century orchestra in its usual turgid palette, so no clarinets and trombones.”

All very fascinating but it begs me to ask Alexander Goehr where his interest in reworking comes from? “I don’t know,” he confesses immediately before pondering… “Maybe from my father, the conductor Walter Goehr, who conducted much modern music but was around at the 20th-century’s rebirth of interest in the Baroque. Among his favourites were Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach and Handel. So, from my youth I was aware of the possibilities of the modern and the ancient, which were propounded side by side. It’s been a gradual process and I’ve always been extending it throughout my career; for example, I wrote a cantata called The Death of Moses that dealt with some Baroque conventions. I was happy with it but thought I could still do more in that direction, carry things further. Hence a work like Arianna, and hence the current progression of that.”

“Then I have always been of somewhat academic bent and have taught composition – if it can be taught – for a long time at Cambridge; though getting to a certain age recently I was forced to retire. Anyway, in that kind of teaching role one finds oneself constantly re-evaluating and reassessing the tradition, the process itself. But then all composers do this all the time in all sorts of ways. They seem to be asking questions: ’Where am I?’ ’Where do I stand in relation to X, Y or Z?’ If one is enthusiastic about music, one is implicitly enthusiastic about the music of the past. An analogy that appeals to me is the way in which some painters reworked classical canvases by their predecessors in their own image, such as Manet, Cézanne and Picasso, making something original but still allowing the old to shine through.”

Talking to Goehr is a fascinating experience. I can’t leave him without asking about a recent work, and what he intends to do in the future. His Three Japanese Operas – Kantan, (Un)Fair Exchange, Damask Drum – were this summer given at Aldeburgh and the Almeida Festival directed by Tim Hopkins; it was no secret that the composer was not happy with the directorial thrust? “No, I wasn’t,” he admits freely, “but that’s part of the collaborative nature of the operatic process. I dare say that Handel might not be very happy with the way some of his operas are produced these days. In my case it was a somewhat traumatic experience. I won’t dwell on it and I won’t say it’s put me off writing another opera but it’s made me wary. To answer your second question I thought I’d do what I call invention. At the end of his life Bach returned to the keyboard to invent. I’d say invention on this level is good for the brain, so it’s my intention to write some keyboard pieces, simple in form, but which might stretch composer, player and listener – each to re-invent themselves.”

Which begs the final question – is the second musical offering easy to play? “No, it’s not, but it’s not meant to be, although I’m sure Leonard Slatkin and the BBC forces will do it proud. I look forward to being in the Albert Hall to find out”. So do I!

  • The world premiere of Alexander Goehr’s … second musical offering (GFH 2001) is on Monday, 10 September at 7.30pm in the Royal Albert Hall (020 7589 8212)
  • Leonard Slatkin also conducts Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony
    Live relay on BBC Radio 3
  • Classical Source reviewed Goehr’s Three Japanese Operas at the Almeida – click here to read
  • Visit Goehr’s publishers
  • Photograph of Goehr provided by Schott Music Publishers.Reproduced with permission.

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