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Alexander Goehr

I met Stefan in Darmstadt in 1956. He picked up with me, or I with him, fairly quickly. The thing I remember him talking about was his return to Europe. He talked about how before the war he shared a flat with Stuckenschmidt, and they were radicals. Now he was very shocked to find that Stuckenschmidt was a well-established critic, extremely conventional and establishmentish. Wolpe went up to him saying, "Come on, what is all this about?" rather aggressively. Wolpe was an outsider.

I think it was my first time in Germany after the war, and my mother thought I should not go. Although I went, I was quite touchy, so I was quite pleased to cotton on to somebody who was equally touchy on the subject, who didn't quite know whether he ought to be there, or not be there. I remember spending a lot of time with him. He had distaste for the new avant-garde as opposed to the old avant-garde. He was equivocal, because on the one hand Darmstadt was wonderful, it was experimental, it was open. And on the other hand, it had no political radicalism or artistic radicalism in the way that he would have known it. It was very didactic and dogmatic in all the ways he disliked most. And so it was all right for children, students like myself to take that sort of attitude, but he was an old student in that sense.

Very often with Stefan you couldn't actually be sure that he was agreeing with you, or not agreeing with you, because there was something equivocal in his manner of speech. I wouldn't have thought that he would have been terribly sympathetic to what I was doing, I think he would have considered me too square. I was very poor, and he tried to give me work. We met then in Paris after Darmstadt, because I was studying there with Messiaen. I was very hard up, and he gave me that blasted Symphony of his. He thought I could copy it out. He wasn't very well off, so he really offered me a very small amount of money per page. The manuscript was a frightful mess, because each bar had 5/16 plus 2/8 plus 3/16 in it--big bars. That would have been fine if what the instruments played corresponded with that, but they didn't. I was meant to sort all that out. I spent about a week on perhaps the first four pages and then said Stefan, "Reluctantly, I just can't afford to do it," and gave it back to him. He wasn't very surprised.

He was happy to come up to our flat, and sit and talk and have a smoke. I didn't know what he was talking about a lot of the time, but the thing that was most striking, what I first remembered about him (I don't remember entirely favorably) was his physicality. He was a very physical man, much more than almost any one I had ever met. And the physicality of the man was rather aggressive. So that although I was always very fond of him and always very interested in what he did and what he said, there was a bit of me that was slightly put off by him too. I suppose that I was, or am, I don't know, comparatively inhibited musically. I remember him singing his pieces to me, and that upset me very considerably. First of all, I couldn't concentrate on it, because he made Schwitters-like noises [imitates with guttural sounds]. First I thought it was a joke, because by the time you'd reached page 15, he was going on making this noise for hours. [laughing] Neither could one follow or read the score with these noises. Though his vocal imitations were quite expressive, they didn't convey much about the piece. So there was some sense of embarrassment that I felt about him. And yet looking back on it, when I read in your piece that in fact he'd been close to Schwitters, it all fell into place. I was talking to Elliott [Carter] the other day, because he told me you would be coming to talk about him, and I said rather like I'm saying to you now. He thought that Stefan was a lot too near abstract abstractionism for his taste, and that made me think, that I thought he was a bit too near to Schwitters for my taste. He wrote these millions of notes, figures, and things. Perhaps there is an influence. Perhaps he's the only case of anyone serious in the modern music world who actually overlaps with those people. I don't know of any single other composer. But Schwitters was a serious and interesting person and did interesting work. And when I read that in your piece, I immediately began rethinking my impressions of his pieces.

In that direction I want to tell you an anecdote which I've told lots of people. We sat perhaps for four or five hours in a café, which in Paris is common, in London less so. When he came to London, he always phoned up, and I always went to see him or invited him over to eat. He would then go on, telling me what he had been writing and what various people thought about his work. We were sitting in this café in Finchley Road, and we filled a large ashtray full of cigarette ends. I guess I smoked then, and he smoked almost continuously. And we had made a mountain. Finally he said, "Music is like this ashtray. All ashtrays are all different--how the cigarette ends and the ash lies they all don't resemble each other--but on the other hand they're all the same." I thought it was a good image, but it also said something about his attitude towards a lot of music. It was shocking to me in the way that his physicality was shocking to me. Because as a good Schoenbergian, I thought that we use new techniques, they are somehow related to our time, or what we are able to do. But basically what we are trying to do is write like previous composers, individual masterpieces. Maybe we won't succeed, probably not, but ultimately one's trying to write the Brahms Handel Variations, although not the Brahms Handel Variations, something new. I think Stefan objected to what he would have considered rather a square attitude to music in me, not objected enough not to want to spend time with me, but to oppose that point of view. And I was quite shocked by his version of himself, which was a very modest one.

For a time I worked for the BBC and could occasionally help by putting on things, or telling somebody else to put something on. I think I had a bit of a hand in that Prausnitz performance of the Symphony. I don't think I was an active agent, but I did somehow help where I could. I wasn't 100 percent committed to it. I was attracted, and always fascinated and had respect for this figure, but how good those pieces actually were I didn't know.

I went to see him, it was probably the last time I saw him in America. There was this man of such physicality, and he sat in front of me weeping in anger, the tears rolling down his face. He was so angry with his blasted Parkinson's and demonstrating what it did. Those late pieces he wrote with Parkinson's were among the ones that most immediately struck me as the one's that I liked the best. Probably because they stopped having [makes schwittersounds] in them. They seemed austere. He couldn't move his hand, he couldn't write the notes any more, and that was why he was weeping, and when I say weeping, he was in tears. We were on our own at that time, and it simply tore my guts. I just couldn't face it.

Alexander Goehr (b. 1932), studied composition with Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College, founding the Manchester New Music Group. He has been professor of music at the University of Cambrdige since 1975 and a formative influence on many young composers.


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