On the pros and cons of writing in the shadow of Bach
Alexander Goehr is one of the UK’s most important contemporary composers: a pupil of Messiaen, Goehr rose to prominence along with Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, with whom he formed the New Music Manchester group in the 1950s. This month a new recording of three of his works – Marching to Carcassone, When Adam Fell and Pastorals – has been released on Naxos. We spoke to him about his inspirations and why being the son of a musician is a mixed blessing.
The first work on this recording is When Adam Fell. Where does that title come from?
One of the ideas for the piece was to use the bassline of Bach’s chorale Durch Adam’s Fall ist alles verderbt, which is an extraordinary one in representing the fall of Adam. It’s a very dramatic bassline – all the intervals fall by sevenths and sixths and it’s very expressive. It was a great favourite of my teacher Messiaen, he used to play it in class and I picked up my love of it from him. The English version of the title is ‘When Adam Fell’.
You’ve dedicated the piece to Oliver Knussen, who also conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra on this recording. Why did you choose him as your dedicatee?
He’s a very close friend of mine and has been since he was ten years old. His father was a very distinguished double bass player and he wanted Ollie to be a conductor, but Ollie wanted to be a composer. When I met him he asked me to advise him about what he should do. I gave him some advice which wasn’t taken and I’ve remained close to him ever since. He’s also a faithful advocate of my work – he’s the one I turn to if I want to try and get something performed. He’s also a great conductor.
The second piece on the recording is called Marching to Carcassonne which you’ve said is inspired by a story by Jorge Luis Borges…
I read a lot when I’m not pushing dots about. Now I’m old I have more time to read because I don’t teach anymore. It comes out of an article called Kafka and his Precursors by Jorge Luis Borges which talks about a story called Marching to Carcassonne by an Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, about an army which sets out to go to Carcasonne but never finds it. They make progress, but each time it’s only half as much as the previous day, so they never get there. So that’s the quasi-mathematical basis for this piece, which has a refrain which gets shorter every time it reappears – not that any listener would ever hear it, but they might be amused by it. When the piece is over, it’s half a bar too short.
The third piece on the recording is Pastorals, which you say in the CD booklet notes ‘does not refer to the English countryside’. What does it refer to?
In the late-60s I worked as a music director and composer for the Mermaid Theatre in London for Bernard Miles. One of the things he put on was Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus and I wrote incidental music for them. I was particularly struck by Oedipus at Colonus which is about the death of Oedipus in a grove near Athens in incredible violence. Hence, it’s not pastoral in any sense, but it’s this idea of a death surrounded by violence but taking place in what I take to be a countryside grove.
You seem to be very aware of the past in terms of the composers who’ve come before you.
Yes. But I don’t know if that’s an advantage; in a way I wish I wasn’t – I wish it was a blank slate. It’s something Ollie Knussen and I talk about quite often: we’re the sons of musicians and that means there are certain advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the music seeps in from babyhood without you knowing it; the disadvantage is pleasing or kicking the father becomes part of ones makeup. I don’t think I can avoid being concerned with the history of music. It doesn’t mean that I understand anything more about it than anyone else, in fact it makes me feel ignorant. You only have to look at a piece by Brahms, for example, and you realise you how far you are from being any good. I know no more about the past than anybody but I can’t avoid it, it’s there it lives with me.
What are you working on at the moment?
Things come and go. I had a little pause from the autumn onwards and now I’m fiddling around. I have no other purpose in life except to fiddle around with notes, so I fiddle around with notes and hopefully something will come out of it.
Alexander Goehr's 'Marching to Carcassonne', 'When Adam Fell' and 'Pastorals' have been recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, pianist Peter Serkin and conductor Oliver Knussen. The recording is available now from Naxos