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Books Grey eminence of UK music

BENN LUNN appreciates an honest and direct insight into what a composer’s life can look like

Alexander Goehr — Composing A Life
Jack Van Zandt, Carcanet, £30

ALEXANDER GOEHR has been one of Britain’s quietly influential composers for a very long period of time. Though slightly overshadowed by Peter Maxwell Davis and Harrison Birtwistle, Goehr’s influence is still felt in many corners of contemporary music in this country. 

Similarly, due to his highly influential father, composer and conductor and composer Walter Goehr, Alexander Goehr’s life is equally fascinating. Ultimately, he is long overdue for a dedicated book of this nature. 

Born in 1932, Alexander Goehr was brought up in a Jewish musical family, initially in Berlin before they moved to Britain in 1933. Goehr’s father famously performed the premiere of Hanns Eisler’s Deutsche Sinfonie, while Goehr’s mother Laelia had trained in Ukraine. 

Goehr studied alongside Maxwell Davis and Birtwistle at the Royal College of Music in Manchester, where they formed the “Manchester school.” Goehr’s education was broad, including gaining a political education from socialist zionists as well as going to Manchester to teach Marxism, and it was through this activity that he got to know his first composition teacher Richard Hall, with whom he studied in Manchester. 

The “Manchester school” was famed as comprising the individuals who brought European modernism to Britain, and Goehr is no exception. His wide variety of works cover many settings, including opera, symphonic works, chamber music and choral music. For me, his opera Behold the Sun, about the Anabaptist uprising in Munster in 1534, is a fascinating work whose topic wouldn’t be too distant from composers such as Alan Bush, but it speaks with a very different and powerful musical language.

So, when I was initially informed about this new publication, I was definitely intrigued. However, a composer biography can be difficult to get “right,” as it can overexaggerate the person’s influence, get too stuck in musical lingo that can be hard work for someone to fall in love with the music of the composer or it can risk trying so hard to be “down with the people” that it oversimplifies and fails to give any information of depth or intrigue. 

Jack Van Zandt, a former pupil of Goehr, was really canny with his choice to make this book a collection of biographical interviews, which for the most part explore the relationship of a composer with their teachers, their mentors and their encounters. This not only allows a rather direct and charismatic storyteller to describe his life in a really rich and free manner but also quietly shows that a composition teacher, or mentor, can be even more significant than a high-flying superstar. 

The four big sections of the book, Teachers and Mentors, The American Experience, Models and Explorations and My Father’s Son, organically show how each composer Goehr encountered had some influence, without trying awkwardly to glue it on, but then also discuss the limitations of that interaction or show why that encounter was important for that point in his life. I was personally fascinated in his interactions with Hanns Eisler and Edgard Varese and, thanks to this book,I got to see another side to their personality which hasn’t been discussed in other accounts. 

The final section includes a collection of letters from Goehr’s own students, which in most instances show that he was consistently doing his best to pay it forward with those in his charge.

I’d happily recommend this book. For those unfamiliar with Goehr, you’ll find a wonderful insight into what a composer’s life can look like and see how they grow and develop as individuals. For those familiar with Goehr, it is a fascinating insight into his life which doesn’t patronise but is ultimately honest and direct. 

Credit should be given to Van Zandt for handling this tricky task with quite some elegance.


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