Goehr: Since Brass, Nor Stone...

Program Note

Alexander Goehr (b.1932)
Since Brass, Nor Stone… fantasy for string quartet and percussion (2008)

Does growing older affect the way you write music?  Some years ago, Alexander Goehr put this question to Elliott Carter, a composer who, before his death in 2012 at the age of 103, was producing music at a faster rate than almost ever before, and was thus in a better position than most to answer Goehr’s question.  Carter’s answer was that composers should carry on doing the same things as before—which is of course exactly what he did.  But Goehr has remained unconvinced, fearing the implication of repetition or even “a resting on faded laurels” which arises from such an attitude.  He can’t start again.  At best, he can look again at “loose ends,” his own and those of other composers he has admired, and try to make out of these something coherent and expressive.  It is in some respects unsurprising that the rather arbitrary factor of his own age should present itself as of artistic significance to Goehr.  Among his contemporaries, Goehr has always been notable for his developed historical awareness, something borne out not merely in his immense musical scholarship but in his recognition of the singularly awkward duty owed by today’s composers to their forebears in the great Western tradition.  A composer’s greatest hope is also the source of his deepest despair: “the illusion,” says Goehr, “that one can add to what is already there.”

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Since Brass, Nor Stone… takes its title from Shakespeare’s foreboding 65th Sonnet.  The poem is concerned with the ravaging effects of time on the physical world, destroying everything except, the poet hopes, the immortal qualities of beauty (and by extension the verse itself).  For Goehr, however, though such questions may have been on his mind, the line is initially taken as a convenient comic reference to the opening sequence in the percussion, which begins with Chinese gong and bell tree (brass), proceeds to stone drum (stone), to log drum (earth), lion’s roar and rainstick (seas), all in the space of the opening four bars.  In many ways, the unusual combination of pitched and unpitched percussion with string quartet may have made a less daunting prospect to Goehr than to others, whose music has always been marked by a certain rhythmic vitality.  What is really remarkable, however, is the way the percussion writing manages to remain of a piece with the string writing.  If viewed another way, the purpose of the string parts could even be understood in terms of filling out the melodic and harmonic desires, as it were, of the percussion writing.  Only in the final section does the percussion fall silent, the strings at the end left to bask in its glow.  

Born in Berlin in 1932, Alexander Goehr is the son of the conductor and Schoenberg pupil Walter Goehr.  He studied in Manchester at the Royal Manchester College of Music with Richard Hall—where together with Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and John Ogden, he formed the New Music Manchester Group—and in Paris with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod.  Goehr worked for the BBC in the early 1960s, during which time he formed the Music Theatre Ensemble, the first devoted to what has become and established musical form.  He has taught at the New England Conservatory, Yale, Leeds, and was appointed to the chair of music of the University of Cambridge in 1975. 

—Adapted from writings by Guy Dammann