Some composers are content to let their music speak for itself. Others feel the need to talk across it. Bayan Northcott ponders the special qualities of composers' writing in the light of a new collection of essays from Alexander Goehr.

Alexander Goehr by

Alexander Goehr by Bayan Northcott

Alexander Goehr by Bayan Northcott

Alexander Goehr by Bayan Northcott

Maybe Benjamin Britten was secretly thinking of his loquacious colleague Michael Tippett when he once divulged his "very real dread of becoming one of those artists who talk". Music, Britten strongly implied, should be allowed to speak for itself.

In fact, a surprisingly substantial volume could be put together from the brief articles, programme notes, acceptance speeches and interviews he was induced to supply from time to time - whereas, among the few composers of the last couple of centuries who really lived up to his ideal of reticence, was one he came particularly to dislike. While masters such as Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov took to publishing memoirs, criticism, polemics and technical treatises as means of projecting their images, explaining their intentions or simply making ends meet in an increasingly commercialised culture, Brahms contrived to get through a vastly productive career virtually without publishing, or formally uttering in public, a word about music.

Yet we know from his correspondence with such intimates as Joachim and Clara Schumann, and from conversations preserved in the reminiscences of friends, that Brahms actually thought about the techniques and aesthetics of music, about tradition and innovation, about the relation of music to the other arts and of the arts in general to the history of ideas, as seriously as any composer who ever lived. Indeed, in more intricately ambiguous passages of his music, it can be difficult to escape the feeling that, in some intangible manner, such wide-ranging studies and speculations have worked their way into the very notes themselves. Had Brahms been willing to deliver the occasional reflection on his life and times to the press, the odd analysis class to young composers, a scholarly paper or two on early music to the academy, and had some associate around the time of his 60th birthday collected the best of such piaces, it is fascinating to imagine what sort of book might have emerged.

Rather than resembling anything published by earlier 19th-century composers, it might well have anticipated such 20th-century collections as Style and Idea, the influential mix of personal and technical writings Schoenberg compiled just before his death in 1951 - including that celebrated reassessment of his great predecessor, "Brahms the Progressive". One might imagine Brahms opening with a couple of simple autobiographical pieces on his Hamburg composition teacher Eduard Marxsen, and his transforming encounter at 20 with Robert and Clara Schumann, followed by more technical discussions of his counterpoint studies with Joachim and his discovery that early music harboured compositional possibilities ripe for future development. Brahms might also have allowed himself a more ideological onslaught against the avant-garde of the day - Liszt's so-called New German School - and an aesthetic reverie distinguishing the sort of opera he would have liked to write from the music-drama of Wagner (whose achievement, however, he respected far more than the partisans of either composer realised). And, among the analytic studies of the masters who meant most to him, there would surely have been a "Schubert the Progressive". Finally, as the book went to press, he might just have added a self-deprecating survey of his progress to date.

If one were to suggest that Finding the Key, Selected Writings of Alexander Goehr, edited by Derrick Puffett, strikingly complements Brahms's unwritten - or, for that matter, Schoenberg's written - Style and Idea, the first person to protest at any comparison of creative stature would be Goehr himself (although his tendency in discussion to concede his compositional limitations is one of the traits he rather shares with Brahms, if emphatically not with Schoenberg). And doubtless the parallels are only sketchy. Goehr's early efforts were guided by no Marxsen-figure, but rather tossed between an encouraging Tippett and his own, discouraging father, the conductor and Schoenberg-pupil Walter Goehr; there was no Joachim in his Manchester student days of the early 1950s (unless one counts John Ogdon), though plenty of technical sparring with his fellow students Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies; the Schumann-like couple who inspired him at 20 took the rather different form of Olivier Messiaen and his pianist wife Yvonne Loriod (with both of whom Goehr later studied); while the "New German School" he attacked in the late 1950s comprised the total serialists of Darmstadt. Yet Brahms, Goehr and, indeed, Schoenberg could all be said to have shared the same preoccupation in their pronouncements, as in their works: how to carry forward the cumulative richness of Western musical tradition at different moments of cultural crisis - or maybe it is the same crisis that has now extended for over a century.

Goehr's collection opens with an essay entitled "Letter to Pierre Boulez" describing the conflict he felt as a young composer not only between the Schoenbergian tradition of his father and Boulez's glittering avant-garde, but between Modernism in general and the socially conscious amateur tradition of his British background. And it ends, in "Finding the Key", with an account of how he moved away from the old avant-garde project of reinventing the language to a humbler search for fresh things to do with what remains of tradition. Meanwhile, towards the middle, the entire 20th-century background is surveyed in a series of talks entitled "Modern Music and Its Society", originally broadcast in 1979, and which Puffett rightly preferred to Goehr's 1987 Reith Lectures, depersonalised as they were by BBC editing.

Between these pillars are disposed a couple of autobiographical pieces - a lively evocation of the Manchester years and a rather touching account of Messiaen's composition class - balanced later in the book by some of Goehr's most striking studies of other composers: Brahms, Liszt (a telling comparison here with Brahms), Schoenberg, Stravinsky. Likewise, his 1972 lecture, "Poetics of My Music", suggesting simply how his aesthetic precepts help to shape his basic musical material, is balanced later by the far more demanding technical discussion with Christopher Wintle of King's College London entitled "The Composer and His Idea of Theory". Meanwhile, a trio of articles refer outside Western tradition. "Traditional Art and Modern Music" looks to some of the master-performer traditions of non- Western music and wonders whether the insights of ethnomusicology might not help our avant-garde out of some of its more artificial attitudes; "Musical Ideas and Ideas about Music" investigates the threat of Muzak and noise pollution in general; and "Music as Commmunication" questions whether the choices and values that define any artistic tradition could withstand the total relativity of perception that some commentators and ideologues would now like us to accept.

Yet, as Goehr argues in his essay on Stravinsky, any serious composer is forced to make choices from the gamut of musical possibilities by the very limits of his innate capacity to handle them - limits which, if he is realistic and skilful enough, he may then turn to artistic advantage. Tomorrow week the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen will be giving a Goehr 65th-birthday concert, including the now-classic Little Symphony of 1963 in memory of his father, which marked the full emergence of his mature musical manner, coupled with a kaleidoscopic new "sonata for 13" entitled Idees fixes. Meanwhile the inclusion in the coming Radio 3 Composer of the Week programmes devoted to Goehr of such masterpieces as the profoundly intimate Piano Trio (Monday) or the exhilarating "imaginary ballet" Metamorphosis/ Dance (Thursday) will amply demonstrate how he has turned what he perceives as his own limitations to positive expression.

Despite the innumerable ways in which he succeeded in deepening the tradition he had inherited, Brahms sometimes conveyed the melancholy impression of having come too late: "the last wave", as the young Mahler once teased him to his face. A hundred years on, amid the still greater problems, pressures and doubts that surround the would-be serious composer today, the message of Goehr's personal, realistic and vastly stimulating essay collection - as of his music - is rather more hopeful.

`Finding the Key', Faber, 321pp, pounds 11.99 (paperback). Goehr 65th-birthday concert, 7.45pm Saturday 13 December, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)