Alexander Goehr: Composing a Life

Return to Alexander Goehr: Composing a Life


Michael Schmidt, Carcanet

Sally Groves, ex Creative Director, Schott Music

Introduction to Alexander Goehr : Composing a Life : Teachers, Mentors, and Models
Jack Van Zandt, composer and author

Message from Alexander Goehr

Jack Van Zandt

Alexander Goehr Vision of the Soldier Er (String Quartet No 5)
Jack Van Zandt Strange Loops for String Quartet (world première)
Alexander Goehr Onedering (String Quartet No 6) (world première) *

* presented here with the kind permission of the Swaledale Festival

Villiers Quartet:
Katie Stillman, Tamaki Higashi violin
Carmen Flores viola
Leo Melvin cello

Followed by audience Q&A.

Autographed copies of Composing a Life: Teachers, Mentors & Models, published by Carcanet Press, will be available for purchase.


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With Thanks

Programme Notes

Alexander Goehr : Vision of the Soldier Er (String Quartet No 5) (2018)

Commissioned by Swaledale Festival for the Villiers Quartet.
For Hugh, a lifelong friendship.

My friend, poet Gabriel Levin told me about the myth of Er, which forms the closing pages of Plato’s Republic. Initially I was taken by the image of the planets, circling the earth each with a siren sounding a single note. I tried to imagine what this might sound like all together. In the 4th movement of my quartet “I beheld light beams fastened like a ship’s under girders,” I tried to portray (in microcosm!) the eternal image, taking a 6 part mechanical canon by Messiaen as a point of departure.

The soldier Er, in Levin’s inspiring poem (published in Errant, Carcanet 2018) is (apparently) killed battle. My first movement, Battle-piece, leads to a second, “What drew me on my own faltering steps” based on a limping rhythm. Then the dead soldier observes a kind of purgatory: Punishments for the wicked and rewards for the good. In the fifth movement the soldier observes the process of reincarnation, as the “great” of the world choose the form in which they will return to the next life. But it’s all been a bureaucratic error, and Er returns to earth to tell his tale and once more return to the battlefield.

The six movements that form my quartet follow the Myth of Er, as found in the closing pages of Plato’s Republic and made into a poem by Gabriel Levin (Errant, Carcanet, 2018)

1. Battle-piece
2. “What drew me on in my own faltering”
3. Punishments and Rewards
4. “I beheld light beams fastened like a ship’s under-girders”
5. Shapes and Shadows
6. Return to Earth

Alexander Goehr, 2018

Jack Van Zandt : Strange Loops for String Quartet (world première)

Composed in 2005, revised in 2015.

In Strange Loops for string quartet, the composer explores the paradoxical mathematical concept first introduced by Douglas Hofstadter in his revolutionary book, Gödel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A strange loop is a hierarchical structure with repetitive layers whereby moving through the various levels one returns to the starting point. Many of the artworks of M. C. Escher display such systems, as do the contrapuntal structures of J. S. Bach, in The Musical Offering for instance. There are literary examples as well that can be seen in the work of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and others.

The composer found analogues for this mathematical device in the real world, including observing the effect of a number of dancing Sufis, Semazen, also known as “whirling dervishes,” which became the model for the first of the quartet’s three movements.

The second movement is an adaptation from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men . . .

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion . . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This brought to mind a strange loop form whereby the parts of something with little energy attempt to come into being only to be defeated by exhaustion, then to begin again, destined to repeat the cycle until all energy is used up.

The final movement, Chant, is a cyclic variation form based on a fragment of a Tibetan Buddhist chant where each instrument decorates the cantus within the confines of its own temporal zone that is in proportion to the others (divisions of 6, 7, 8 and 9), creating a kind of slow motion Doppler effect.

Jack Van Zandt, 2023


Alexander Goehr (b. 1932)

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. – George Grella, New York Classical Review on Verschwindendes Wort (Vanishing Word)

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 1960’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.

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 (1976). The simple, bright modal sonority of this piece marked a departure from post-war serialism 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, 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 were already 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)). 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). 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.

Goehr’s orchestral works include four symphonies, concerti for piano, violin, viola and cello, works for chamber, string and wind orchestra, as well as ensemble. Goehr held a particularly close working relationship with Oliver Knussen, who recorded and gave premiere performances of many works including … a musical offering (J. S. B. 1985)… (1985), Idées Fixes (1997) and To These Dark Steps/The Fathers Are Watching (2011-12) for tenor, children’s choir and ensemble. He has received numerous commissions over the years from the BBC, beginning with Hecuba’s Lament (1959-61) premiered at the 1961 BBC Proms with John Carewe conducting. Schlussgesang six pieces for viola and orchestra (1996) was premiered by BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 1997 Aldeburgh Festival with Tabea Zimmermann and When Adam Fell (2011-12) was commissioned to celebrate his 80th birthday and premiered with the BBC SO, both with Oliver Knussen conducting. …second musical offering (GFH 2001) (2001) was a Proms commission premiered by Leonard Slatkin and BBC SO, and BBC Philharmonic and HK Gruber premiered TurmMusik/Tower Music (2009-10) in a festival of Goehr’s music in 2010. Many other world-class orchestras, soloists and conductors have performed his works: The cello concerto Romanza (1968) was written for Jacqueline du Pré and premiere at the 1968 Brighton Festival with Daniel Barenboim and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra premiered Metamorphosis/Dance (1973-74), Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Colossos or Panic (1991-92) under Seiji Ozawa and Bamberg Symphony commissioned Two Sarabandes (2014) and premiered the work with Lahav Shani.

Goehr 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 most recent contribution to the operatic medium was Promised End (2008-9), based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and premiered in 2010 by English Touring Opera.

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 he gained 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 includes Five Objects Darkly (1996), …around Stravinsky (2002) for violin and winds, and Since Brass nor Stone… (2008) for string quartet and percussion, a memorial to Pavel Haas which won a British Composer Award. Marching to Carcassonne (2003) for Peter Serkin and London Sinfonietta, flirts with neoclassicism and Stravinsky. The set of solo piano pieces Symmetries Disorder Reach (2007), a barely disguised baroque suite, was premiered by Huw Watkins and the trio Largo Siciliano (2012) for violin horn and piano was notably performed with pianist Daniel Barenboim. In addition, …between the lines… (2013) was premiered by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, Verschwindendes Wort (2014-15) was performed by Ensemble Modern, and the quintet after “The Waking” (2016-17) was commissioned by Wigmore Hall and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and premiered by the Nash Ensemble. Goehr’s fifth quartet, Vision of the Soldier Er (2018), was premiered in 2019. Most recently, The Master Said (2016) was premiered by BBC National Orchestra Wales and co-commissioned with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and Talea Ensemble gave Double Chaconne with Gaps (2019-2020) its world premiere with Susanne Blumenthal. In celebration of Goehr’s ninetieth birthday, Wigmore Hall hosted a portrait concert of the composer featuring the premiere of Combat of Joseph de la Reina and the Devil (2019-2020) and Cambridge University New Music Group in collaboration with the Britten Sinfonia curated a concert entitled ‘Alexander Goehr: A Retrospective’.

Alexander Goehr is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a former Churchill Fellow, and in 1997 gave the BBC Reith Lecture. In 2019, Goehr was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of his lifelong contribution to musical culture. He is an Emeritus Professor at Cambridge University, and his manuscript archive is curated by the Berlin Akademie der Künste. In December 2022, he was most recently awarded the Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Works Collection.

Much of Goehr’s music is available on the NMC label, including the discs ‘Colossos or Panic’ (2012), ‘Since Brass, nor Stone’ (2003), and ‘Piano Concerto – Symphony in One Movement’ (1995), and a portrait disc of his orchestral music has been released by Naxos. 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).

Jack Van Zandt (b. 1954)

Jack Van Zandt is a Grammy-winning veteran Los Angeles and Ireland-based composer of music for concerts, streaming platforms, television and film, and multimedia installations. He studied composition at UC Santa Barbara with Thea Musgrave and Peter Racine Fricker, and in England with Alexander Goehr at Cambridge University, where he was Goehr’s teaching and musical assistant from 1978-1985,  and Peter Maxwell Davies at the Dartington College of the Arts. He is a teacher, music education program designer, concert curator and producer, and frequent lecturer on various musical subjects. He was recently a faculty member of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts). He is a founder and co-director with composer Anne LeBaron of the Beyond Opera Collective.

He was co-winner of the Best Classical Compendium Grammy Award in 2020 for pianist Nadia Shpachenko’s CD, The Poetry of Places with his piece for piano and electronics, Sí an Bhrú, inspired by Ireland’s Neolithic monument at Newgrange. His concert music has been performed all over the world and his music composed for TV has appeared on numerous broadcast, cable and internet networks, including Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, HBO, AMC, Discovery, Apple +, Oxygen, History Channel, E Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.

His current projects in progress include a new work for string orchestra commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Orchestra for performance in April 2024; a dramatic madrigal with dance, On the Shores of Eternity, with texts by R. Tagore for vocal ensemble and soloists, dancers, electronics, flute, harp, cello and electric bass; a set of Irish traditional music-inspired pieces with flutist/co-composer Jane Rigler and Irish traditional singers, artists and filmmakers; a piano sextet with electronics, Lessness, for the Oxford University based Villiers Quartet and pianist Nadia Shpachenko; and a 2024 New York performance of his opera with Canadian soprano Stacey Fraser, The New Frontier: An Atomic Age Jazz Opera. Van Zandt’s book with British composer Alexander Goehr, Composing a Life: Teachers, Mentors and Models will be published by Carcanet (UK) on October 26, 2023. A CD of his chamber vocal works written for Stacey Fraser, A Chaos of Light and Motion, will be released by Neuma Records in September 2023. His concert works are published by Composers Edition in Oxford, UK.

Villiers Quartet

Katie Stillman, violin I
Tamaki Higashi, violin II
Carmen Flores, viola
Leo Melvin, cello
(player biographies below)

Named after Villiers Street in London, the Villiers Quartet encompasses the grand and iconic spirit of the extraordinary music tradition in Britain and has been praised for “exquisite ensemble playing” (Seen & Heard International), and their absolute “commitment and virtuosity” (The Sunday Times). The Villiers Quartet is the Quartet-in-Residence at the Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building at Oxford University.

Hailed as “Champions of British Music” (The Observer), the Villiers Quartet has become one of the most recognised quartets in the UK for the performance of British music. The VQ has released acclaimed recordings of works by Elgar, Delius, Peter Racine Fricker, William Sterndale Bennett, David Matthews, and most recently music by William Alwyn and Kuljit Bhamra, MBE. In 2020 they gave the world premiere of the complete 1888 Delius string quartet, featuring movements in their original versions uncovered by Professor Daniel Grimley from Oxford University

In 2020 the Villiers Quartet initiated new digitally-based projects including ​VQ Discovery: Beethoven Discovery, an online course to study Beethoven’s quartets in-depth whilst in lockdown; ​VQ Create, mentoring secondary school pupils online to compose new music for string quartet; and From Home: VQ Commissions, commissioning new works from 6 diverse British composers to celebrate the VQ’s 10th Anniversary season for 2021.

The Villiers Quartet has been broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Leamington International Quartet Series, and on NPO Radio 4 live from the Concertgebouw. The VQ has been featured on BBC’s In Tune and also BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show with pianist Alexis Ffrench and double bassist Leon Bosch. The VQ was the featured quartet on the score to the BBC film Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Villiers Quartet has presented masterclasses in the UK and abroad at Oxford University, Duke University, Dartmouth College, University of Nottingham, Syracuse University, Cal State LA, Jacksonville University, and Indiana University South Bend. ambassadors for British chamber music, the VQ has given premieres and performances of music by British composers including Anthony Payne, Alexander Goehr, Martyn Harry, David Matthews, and Elizabeth Kelly

The broad curiosity of the Villiers Quartet and its passion for teaching and performing have made the VQ a valuable resource for students and audiences alike. Inspiration comes from the heart of the Villiers Quartet’s philosophy: ​to believe in the art of string quartet.

Katie Stillman (Violin I)

Canadian violinist Katie Stillman has an extensive career as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral principal. Last season, she directed and performed as a soloist with Manchester Camerata and London Concertante as well as guest leading Opera North’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

With her duo partner Simon Lane, she has won many prizes including the Tillett Trust Young Artist Platform and Park Lane Group Young Artists’ New Year Series, and performed in such venues as the Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room, Bridgewater Hall and St. John’s Smith Square. In 2011, 2014 and 2018 they recorded part of the ABRSM violin syllabus for the supporting exam material which is distributed worldwide.

Katie was a founding member of the Barbirolli Quartet which performed extensively throughout Europe including at festivals in Aix-en-Provence, Verbier and Aldeburgh. She is Associate Leader of Manchester Camerata and a member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Katie teaches violin and chamber music at Chetham’s School of Music, pedagogy at the Royal Northern College of Music and plays regularly in concerts for children in the acclaimed series Bach to Baby.

Tamaki Higashi (Violin II)

Japanese violinist Tamaki Higashi is a passionate chamber musician and the founding member of the Villiers Quartet, the resident quartet at the University of Oxford. With the Villiers Quartet, she performs regularly in the UK, Europe and USA, and have released numbers of discs of British music from major labels.

Tamaki’s chamber music career started with the Degas Quartet in the USA, and she performed and toured across the nation. With the Degas Quartet, Tamaki has appeared at Aspen Music Festival, Great Lakes Chamber Festival as a guest artist. The Degas Quartet served as a resident quartet with Western Piedmont Symphony in Hickory, NC and worked closely to bring the music into the community. She had studied string quartet with members of Juilliard, Cleveland, Takacs, Fine Arts, Colorado Quartets.

Tamaki genuinely enjoys all the aspect of collaboration. She has worked with many distinguished musicians such as Jazz bassist Christian McBride, Indian Tabla specialist

Kuljit Bhamra, amongst many other finest musicians within the chamber music scene. Tamaki studied violin with Lewis Kaplan and Muneko Otani, and viola with Jerry Horner, and has graduated from Mannes College of Music in New York.

Carmen Flores (Viola)

Carmen Flores is dedicated to creating new pathways for experiencing and performing classical music. From 2007 – 2019 Carmen was Principal Viola of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, performing with the orchestra across the UK and abroad for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Carmen has performed as soloist and Guest Principal Viola with orchestras and ensembles including English National Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, Orchestra of the Swan, the English Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, Sinfonia VIVA, and the European Union Chamber Orchestra.

She is a founding member of the acclaimed Villiers Quartet (VQ), which is Quartet-in-Residence at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at Oxford University. Hailed as one of the most “adventurous” string quartets in the UK (Strad Magazine) and “Champions of British Music” (Guardian) , the VQ has made several acclaimed recordings on the Naxos, Somm, and Lyrita record labels. She is a recipient of the prestigious US Fulbright Award, and she has given performance masterclasses at the University of Nottingham, Oxford University, Dartmouth College, Birmingham Conservatoire, and Sheffield University, among others.

Carmen’s international career has seen her perform throughout the United States, Canada, Asia, and Europe and she has been featured on several BBC Radio and Television broadcasts, including BBC Radio 3’s In Tune and The Andrew Marr Show​. She has participated in Les Jardins Musicaux Festival (Switzerland), Tanglewood (USA), Pacific Music Festival (Japan), and the Boyne Music Festival (Ireland).

She is Director of the Nottingham Chamber Music Festival (NCMF), which celebrates chamber music and the creative community at venues across Nottingham. She has also served as advisor on programming to Nottingham Trent University’s University Hall and has worked closely with concert venues and organisations to curate music programmes. She performs on a viola made in 2006 by British luthier William Castle.

Leo Melvin (Cello)

London-born cellist Leo Melvin graduated with honours from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he studied on full scholarship, with Richard Lester. Leo also studied in Hamburg, Germany with professors Kleif Carnarius, Claudio Bohorquez and Troels Svane. He has performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, given solo and chamber recitals across the UK, and he also teaches cello and piano in London.

Leo has performed several Concerti (including Dvorak, Schumann, Haydn D and Brahms Double) with various orchestras such as Sinfonia D’Amici and Kings Sinfonietta and recorded a solo cello track for Howard Goodall’s CD release ‘Enchanted Voices.’ In October 2013, Leo was invited to play with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on their Academy Program and has performed with the orchestra in Dijon.

Carcanet Press

Carcanet Press is one of the outstanding independent literary publishers of our time. Now in its sixth decade, Carcanet publishes the most comprehensive and diverse list available of modern and classic poetry in English and in translation. Since 1969 the press has been committed to publishing poetry from around the world and in 2019 celebrated 50 years as a leader in this field. During 2023, Carcanet’s poetry journal PN Review also celebrated its jubilee, continuing its championing of the very best in new poetry and literature, rediscoveries, commentary, literary essays, interviews and reviews from around the globe.

Carcanet’s vast catalogue and PN review archive, now with over 270 issues, claims contributions from an astonishing array some of the most important writers of our times. Key contributors include Octavio Paz, Laura Riding, John Ashbery, Patricia Beer, W.S. Graham, Eavan Boland, Jorie Graham, Donald Davie, C.H. Sisson, Sinead Morrissey, Sasha Dugdale, Anthony Vahni Capildeo, and many others.

In 2019, The Bookseller acknowledged Carcanet’s founder and managing director, Michael Schmidt, as being arguably “Britain’s most important poetry publisher”.