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Alexander Goehr

Alexander Goehr

Country of origin: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Birthday: August 10, 1932

Upcoming Performances

Conductor: Geoffrey Patterson
Orchestra: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
March 5, 2025 | Liverpool (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , The Tung Auditorium

About Alexander Goehr

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).



Born 10 August in Berlin, the son of the conductor Walter Goehr
Brought to England and educated at Berkhamsted School
First acknowledged compositions: "Songs of Babel", "Sonata for piano"
Studies composition with Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College of Music
Founds the New Music Manchester Group with his fellow students Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon
Attends Olivier Messiaen's master class at the Paris Conservatoire and studies strict counterpoint with Yvonne Loriod
Works in London as a freelance editor and translator
"Cappriccio" for piano, op.6; "Variations" for flute and piano, op.8; "Four Songs from the Japanese", op.9; "Sutters Gold", op.10
String Quartet No. 1
Producer, orchestral concerts at the BBC
"Suite", op.11 premiered by Melos Ensemble at Aldeburgh Festival

BBC Symphony Orchestra premiere "Hecuba's Lament", op.12
Premiere of "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra", op.13 at Cheltenham Festival by Manoug Parikian and LSO

Premiere of "2 Choruses", op.14 in London

London Symphony Orchestra premiere "Little Symphony", op.15

"Little Music for Strings", op.16 commissioned by  Lucerne Festival and premiered by Lucerne Festival Strings

Organises Wardour Castle Summer School of Music with Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies
"Five Poems and an Epigram of William Blake", op.17 premiered by John Alldis Choir at City of London Festival

Wrote "Three Pieces for Piano" op.18 and "Pastorals", op.19

World premiere of "Piano Trio" op.20, at Bath Festival (Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin and Maurice Genron)

World premiere of "Arden Must Die" (Arden muss sterben) at the Hamburg State Opera
Musical director of the Music Theatre Ensemble
"String Quartet No. 2", op.23 premiered by Allegri Quartet
In Tokyo on a Churchill Scholarship
Associate Professor of Music at the New England Conservatory, Boston
Wrote "Romanza" for cello and orchestra, op.24, "Naboth's Vineyard", op.25, "Konzertstück", op.26, "Nonomiya", op.27, "Paraphrase" for clarinet, op.28
Associate Professor of Music at Yale University

"Symphony in One Movement", op.29 premiered by the New Philharmonia Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall, London
Visiting lecturer at Southampton University
"Shadowplay", op.30 premiered in London

"Sonata about Jerusalem", op.31 premiered by Israel Chamber Orchestra

Radio-Télévision Belge Chamber Orchestra perform premiere of "Concerto for Eleven", op.32
West Riding Professor and Head of Music Department, University of Leeds
"Concerto for piano and orchestra", op.33 premiered by Daniel Barenboim and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Brighton
Awarded Hon. DMus (Southampton)
UK premiere of "Arden Must Die" (Arden muss sterben), New Opera Company, London
"Chaconne for Wind", op.34 commissioned by the University of Leeds in celebration of their centenary; performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra

"Lyric Pieces", op.35 premiered by London Sinfonietta

First performance of "Metamorphosis/Dance", op.36 by London Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall, London
"String Quartet No. 3", op.37 premiered by Lindsay Quartet at St. John's Smith Square, London
Artistic Director of the Leeds Musical Festival
Professor of Music, University of Cambridge
Awarded Hon. ARCM
Premiere of "Psalm IV", op.38a and "Fugue on the notes of the Fourth Psalm", op.38b at City of London Festival
"Romanza on the Notes of Psalm IV", op.38c
Gives 4 lectures for BBC Radio 3 'Modern Music and Society'
Wrote "Babylon the Great is Fallen", op.20

"Das Gesetz der Quadrille" (The Law of the Quardille), op.41 premiere at Norwich Triennial Festival

 "Sinfonia", op.42 premiered by the English Chamber Orchestra, London
Awarded Hon. FRNCM
Featured composer, Musica Nova, Glasgow
Awarded Hon. FRCM
"Deux Etudes", op. 43 premiered by Scottish National Orchestra

"Behold the Sun" (dramatic scena), op. 44a commissioned and performed by London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Awarded Hon. Mem. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
World premiere of "Behold the Sun" (Die Wiedertäufer), op. 44 at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein
Premiere of "...a musical offering (J.S.B. 1985)...", op. 46 at Edinburgh International Festival, performed by Scottish Chamber Orchestra

BBC Singers premiere "Two Imitations of Baudelaire", op. 47 at St John's Smith Square, London
Premiere of "Symphony with Chaconne", op.48 by BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Manchestra
UK première of "Behold the Sun", BBC studio production
Gives the BBC Reith Lectures on 'The Survival of the Symphony'.
Feature Composer, King's Lynn Festival
Wrote "Eve dreams in Paradise", op.49 and "... in real time", op.50
Featured Composer, Aldeburgh Festival
"Sing, Ariel", op.51 premiered at Aldeburgh Festival

First performance of "String Quartet No. 4", op.52 by Arditti String Quartet
"The Death of Moses", op.53 premiered in Seville

Wrote "Colossos or Panic", op.55
Composer-in-Residence, Tanglewood Festival
Awarded Hon. DMus (Manchester, Nottingham)
World premiere of "Arianna", Royal Opera House, London
Staging and recording of "Arianna" in the Guildhall, University of Cambridge
"Schlussgesang" op.61 premiered at Aldeburgh Festival, performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra

Quintet "Five objects Darkly", op.62 premiered in Los Angeles
BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week
London Sinfonietta premiere "Idées Fixes", op. 63 at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Wrote "Sur terre, en l'air", op. 64
Gives the Prince of Hesse Memorial Lecture at the Aldeburgh Festival on 'The Songs we Love to Sing (Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten)'.
World premiere of "Kantan and Damask Drum", Theater Dortmund
Professor Emertius, University of Cambridge
Awarded Hon. DMus (Sienna)
Wrote "Piano Quintet", op.69 and "Suite", op.70
Awarded Dr hc (Cambridge)
UK premiere of "Kantan and Damask Drum", Aldeburgh and Almeida Festivals and French premiere, Paris
Awarded Hon. Prof. Beijing University
"...a second musical offering", op.71premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival by Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Wrote "...around Stravinsky", op.72
Wrote "Marching to Carcassonne", op.74

"Adagio" (Autoportät), op.75 premiered by Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim
Wrote "Dark Days", op.76
Premiere of "Fantasie", op.77 by Paul Watkins and Huw Watkins in Lincoln
Wrote "Broken Lute", op.78
75th birthday marked with CD release of "Symmetry Disorders Reach" and portrait concert at the Wigmore Hall, London
"Since Brass, nor Stone..." wins a British Composer Award for chamber music
World premiere of "Promised End" by English Touring Opera at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
Composer portait concert at Festival Ultraschall 2011 in Berlin
Publication of "Fings ain't wot they used t'be" by the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
"To These Dark Steps/ The Fathers are Watching" is premiered by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Oliver Knussen in Birmingham
World premiere of "When Adam Fell" by BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen to mark 80th birthday
Featured composer at Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije 2013, Meije, France
Release of Naxos orchestral disc and NMC chamber music collection

World premiere of "…between the lines…" by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin


"Verschwindendes Wort" receives its world premiere by Ensemble Modern at The Juilliard School


Lahav Shani and the Bamberger Symphoniker premiere "Two Sarabands"


after “The Waking” is premiered by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall


Made Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society


World premiere of "Vision of the Soldier Er" by the Villiers Quartet


Catherine Larsen-Maguire and BBC National Orchestra Wales premiere "The Master Said"


Wins the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Works Collection


World premiere of "Combat of Joseph de la Reina and the Devil" at Wigmore Hall for 90th Birthday Celebration


Talea Ensemble premiere "Double Chaconne with Gaps"



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  • Sinfonia
    Conductor: Geoffrey Patterson
    Orchestra: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
    March 5, 2025 | Liverpool (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) , The Tung Auditorium
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