MUSIC / Of fathers and sons: Before The Death of Moses in tomorrow's Prom, Bayan Northcott offers a 60th birthday tribute to the composer Alexander Goehr

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The Independent Culture
On 5 July 1946, the gaunt auditorium of Central Hall, Westminster reverberated to a revelation. For here the choir and orchestra of Morley College launched what seems to have been the first complete performance in modern times of Monteverdi's resplendent Vespers of 1610. The college's Director of Music, Michael Tippett, had composed an introductory prelude - his only work for organ - especially for the occasion. But the revival was inspired and conducted by a German-Jewish emigre from Berlin.

Walter Goehr's manifold contributions to mid-century British music are too little remembered today - perhaps because of his relatively early death. A pupil in Schoenberg's master class in the 1920s, he had fled Hitler's ascendancy in 1933, earning his living here in recording, films, and conducting the BBC Theatre Orchestra. But his real interests lay in the rediscovery of early music and promotion of the new. During the war, he had conducted the first performances of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, and Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time. In 1953, he scandalised the critics with the British premiere of Messiaen's Turangalila. And in February 1959 at the ICA he brought forth a striking little expressionist cantata entitled The Deluge by his own son.

Privately, that performance seems to have represented something of a truce. Alexander Goehr has acknowledged his father's expertise, and in 1963 was to compose one of his most moving scores, the Little Symphony, in his memory. But sons who seek to pursue their father's metier rarely have a simple time of it - as even Mozart found. Goehr evidently felt intimidated enough by his father's ironic attitude to keep his early efforts secret, so that by the time he announced his intention of becoming a composer, he was technically far behind. It was actually Tippett who offered encouragement: 'He was the first person who told me the rather English thing that the best reason for doing something was because you wanted to do it; whereas my father's more German approach was that the best reason for doing something was that you were good at it. I was manifestly not good at it, so I was very pleased to be told I should try all the same.'

This consciousness of severe musical limitations, at least compared with the more fluent of his peers, is something that has tended to haunt Goehr's talks and interviews over the years. But it needs putting in perspective. The kind of musicianship that involves an ability to play a dozen instruments, transpose at sight and imitate any historical style may not be an unmitigated advantage to a composer. Some of the most striking, indeed, have achieved their individuality precisely through the turning of musical limitations to advantage. One thinks of the brilliant instrumentation of Berlioz, who could scarcely play anything except the guitar; the originality of Mussorgsky, unalloyed by academic know-how, or the richness of reference Tippett accumulated in the very struggle to build up his technique.

Actually, it is difficult to find any obvious technical defect even in Goehr's earliest published work, the already characteristic Piano Sonata completed at 20. And his later training was comprehensive enough, ranging from his father's belated help by way of the old Royal Manchester College - where he explored new ideas with his contemporaries Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies - to a year in Messiaen's Paris Conservatoire class, when he was also put through a strict regime of French harmony teaching by Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, and encountered the analytic brilliance of the still-young Boulez. Nor, in a working life that has involved much private teaching, work for the BBC and a string of full-time academic posts, could a seriously inhibited composer have accumulated so imposing an output: including two operas, three large-scale choral works, three symphonies, four string quartets, and music in a wide range of other genres.

If Goehr's feeling of musical limitations finds any objective expression in his work, it is rather in a pervasive sense that little is granted him easily; that every musical idea, every development, every form has to be consciously wrought. On the negative side this may sometimes mean that the music snaggles itself in its own processes and fails quite to sound or to flow. Yet at best, this consciousness lends his composing a rather special authority in focusing the dialectical diversity of concerns, artistic and ideological, that have circulated round his 40-year development. As a humanist, he has been tormented by the resurgent force of religious fanaticism; as a man of the left, saddened by the tendency of most revolutions to make matters worse. As an artist who grew up with one foot in the Continental avant-garde and one foot in English tradition, he has constantly worried away at the balance between professional innovation and accessibility to the ordinary listener; whether the way forward should involve the invention of new musical procedures or the transformation of old ones. And as an heir to both Schoenberg and Messiaen, he has struggled to reconcile the dynamic, psychological time-sense of the one with the static, ritual time- sense of the other.

All of these issues are to be found eloquently embodied in his output - whether in the exquisite balance of static and dynamic elements in his beautiful Piano Trio of 1966 or the explicit pity and terror of his Anabaptist opera Behold the Sun of 1985. Yet the impression remains, not only from his writings and teachings but from the very facture of his work, that the essential dialectic for Goehr is the process of composition itself. Against those who would seek to appropriate the art for purposes of agitprop or mass hypnosis, he has often argued for regarding it as a self-justifying human activity, like reading a book: 'I write music in order that people can follow from bar to bar and know that certain notes follow and that others don't' Behind this one senses an almost ethical imperative: that until a composer has got his notes as clear, cogent and right as possible, he or she has no right to buttonhole or browbeat listeners with broader issues. Out of the consciousness engendered by his difficult musical upbringing, out of the extraordinary diversity of musical concepts and sources, traditional and avant-garde, German, French and English, that he has attempted to synthesise, it is not too much to say that Goehr has emerged as the compositional conscience of his generation.

Such a stance has hardly made him popular with the audiences who seem currently prepared to grant standing ovations to expressions of religious devotion or engage protest irrespective of whether the music is of any substance or originality. Yet the large-scale vocal and instrumental work which received its world premiere last night in Seville Cathedral and reaches the Proms tomorrow, eight days before Goehr's 60th birthday, entwines musical and extra-musical issues intriguingly enough. In form, The Death of Moses seems to be a kind of modern reworking of the Monteverdi Vespers that impressed him so long ago - appropriately so, for its conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, founded his own career on the Vespers. But, in basing the text on a post- biblical tradition in which the Prophet refuses to die until God himself comes for his soul, Goehr raises yet again the theme of fatherly authority, looking back, as it were, over his own father's shoulder to the figure of Schoenberg, composer of Moses und Aron and inspired breaker and maker of musical laws. As Goehr confesses in his programme note: 'Schoenberg is my Moses, and I am one of his people too.'

Tomorrow at 7.30pm: Royal Albert Hall box office 071-823 9998. Relayed on Radio 3, 7.30pm; BBC 2, 9.40pm

(Photograph omitted)