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for orchestra
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This piece was originally conceived in 1973 as the ballet sequence of an unfulfilled operatic project, and later commissioned as an independent work by the London Philharmonic Orchestra who gave the first performance on 17 November 1974 under Bernard Haitink. It is dedicated jointly to Marie Wilson and the LPO.

Its starting point was the Circe episode in the Odyssey where Homer tells us:

She struck them with her wand, and straightaway
hustled them to her sties, for they grew heads
and shapes and bristles of swine, with swine
voices too. Only their reason remained
steadfastly as before; so they grieved,

But Ulysses himself escapes the fate of his followers and after an amorous encounter with the enchantress he persuades her to transform them back, so that:

They turned to men again as they had been
before, but younger now, fresher and much
taller to the eye.

Goehr’s interest in this material was not so much its richly programmatic implications, however, as the purely musical structure that it suggested. Despite the wand-like tappings for slapstick at the beginning and some rather subdued contra bassoon grunts later on, his score is not a symphonic poem but a set of strict proportional variations.

The most famous example of this procedure is the variation finale of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, in which, despite an unchanging basic pulse, the music seems to progress from slow to fast and back again, owing to the increase and decrease in its rate of rhythmic and harmonic change. In Metamorphosis/Dance, however, this process is reversed; the music working from fast to slow (with a consequent increase in the length of successive variations) and then back to fast again. In addition, Goehr interrupts the progress of the variations at irregular intervals with a series of refrains.

The work begins with the theme, a spiky, lurching dance tune for oboes and bassoons, in regular AB form with repeats, followed by a brief refrain of disjointed figures over a sustained bass note. The theme is now restated with elaborate decorations for flutes, glockenspiel and xylophone. A second statement of the refrain leads to the first proportional ‘slowing’ of structure; variation I which immediately follows is more lumbering in character with jagged trumpet interpolations.

The refrain, now itself in a varied form, next introduces an iridescent orchestral ‘dissolve’ of harp and glockenspiel arabesques and string harmonics leading to the second proportional slowing. Variation II, considerably longer and increasingly magical in its textures of rustling strings and high wind chords, leads to a restatement of the varied refrain and ‘dissolve’, to variation 3 for solo flute and finally to the work’s still centre.

Against a strange background of muted brass, variation 4 now unfolds as a duet for solo cello and violin - a slow-motion pas de deux for Ulysses and Circe, so to speak. Thereafter the proportional scheme goes into reverse and momentum begins to pick up again. In variation V the clicks of Circe’s wand are heard anew over a more restless rocking accompaniment for strings and wind. Variation VI begins with the contra bassoon gruntings and is both interrupted and concluded by appearances of the varied refrain. In variation VII the music assumes an increasingly up-beat excitement in its mounting trills and sequences. With variation VIII the original tempo is reached; the elaborated version of the theme in the strings being set against a baying countersubject on the horns. Suddenly, bare octave figures from the tuned percussion slice across the texture, the excitement recedes and the work ends with a chordal apotheosis which the composer has lengthened and enriched since the first performance, rounding it off in turn with a brief reference to the original refrain.

‘Sometimes innovation can arise from reintroducing older, discredited devices into new contexts’, Goehr has remarked. His deployment of regular phrase-lengths and sequential repetition in simple transpositions in Metamorphosis/Dance would certainly seem to run counter to avant-garde orthodoxy. Yet a few suggestions of Stravinsky apart - hardly surprising in a mythological ballet - the music never lapses into neoclassical mannerism, whilst the sensuousness of its ‘dissolves’ and athleticism of its climax achieve something quite fresh in Goehr’s output.

Note by Bayan Northcott

Orchestral Cast

3(2.,3.pic).2.ca.2.bcl.2.cbsn-, b.d, military drum, 4tom-t, 5bng, cym, sus cym, wdbl, tempbl, slapstick, tri, tam-t, gong, xyl, glsp, cong, marac, clav)-hp-str

More Information

for orchestra
Performance material
Schott Music
Year of composition:
1973 - 1974
op. 36
19 ′
World Premiere:
November 17, 1974 · London (UK)
Royal Festival Hall
Conductor: Bernard Haitink · London Philharmonic Orchestra

Commissioned work :
Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain

Technical Details

Product number:
LSL 10034-01

Preview/Media Contents



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