A memory of Alexander Goehr

Monday 13 September 2010

Photo: Goehr’s autograph and drawing of Julia playing the gong, next to the words “hit it!”

ETO networker Julia Johnson recalls a school concert from her childhood, which was conducted by a young composer named Alexander Goehr.

In early 1963 I was a 12 year old girl at a co-educational boarding school in Surrey (King Edward’s School, Witley). I was small for my age and rather self-conscious, which makes it all the more surprising that I was asked to play the gong for a school concert in May. I believe the concert was to commemorate the opening of a new Music School (The Countess of Munster Music School). Part of the concert, we were informed, was to be conducted by a promising young composer called Alexander Goehr, (who had composed the piece). This was presented to us as a great honour.

I was learning the piano at school and could therefore read music, and so found myself in front of this enormous percussion instrument. I was conscientious and kept count, and so came in with my few notes on time. However I was terrified of the sound of the gong, and barely touched it. Alexander Goehr showed great kindness in encouraging me to hit if fearlessly, and it took much coaxing before I could do this. He showed no impatience, and treated me as a valued part of the orchestra. I’m sure he achieved more with his gracious, kindly manner than would have been achieved with scowls and raised voice. The music and his manner made a huge impression on me. The piece was called “Virtutes”.

Many years later I was living in Suffolk and noticed one of his compositions was on the programme for that year’s Aldeburgh festival at Snape Maltings. I attended the concert and the pre-performance talk which was given by him. It was a huge thrill to see him again, and to find his manner unchanged. I very much wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed his music at school all those years before and tentatively approached him after the talk. He seemed surprised to be reminded of this no doubt insignificant part of his career, but smiled broadly at the recollection.

There must have been many people waiting to question him and talk about more sophisticated musical matters, but as in 1963 he was kindly and un-condescending in his response. The concert also more than matched up to my expectations, and left a great impression on me.

I look forward to his next Opera at Snape in November with great impatience!

Julia Johnson

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