Alexander Goehr

Alexander Goehr

To These Dark Steps / The Fathers Are Watching

We met first, poet and I, in a little group of people in Jerusalem reading Greek tragedy, and then later at a demonstration in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood protesting against the expulsion of Palestinian residents from their houses by Israeli settlers. Levin’s son had just been arrested. I mention both meetings because they tell us about the atmosphere among at least a minority of people in Israel and I believe, something about the poems, ‘To These Dark Steps’ and the prose pieces, ‘The Fathers are Watching’ which accompany them.

Levin later explained that at the time of the bombing of Gaza (in 2008), he had found himself unable to listen to the kind of music he loved; only twentieth century pieces by Webern, Bartok, Ligeti, Messiaen and Morton Feldman now spoke to him. The poems he brought have as their subject the listening to these composers’ works at such a time. They are not ‘political’ poems, he told me. It seems to me that they are poems written in a landscape, albeit one inseparable from quotidian political events.

In order to prepare a sequence which might serve as the basis for a musical setting, for solo voice accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, I had to combine, reorder and omit. There would clearly be a variety of ways in which this might be done and mine is only one solution. I wanted of course to keep the poems as they were written (and with the exception of one shortening) I did this. Around the poems, I placed (sometimes abbreviated) prose texts, which after all were not written with the idea of they’re being set to music. As I did this, I believed I became more aware of the manner in which these pieces illuminated the verses and clarified their intentions.

In what I do, in the way I have attempted to compose the texts, I think that as much as I admire the rich subject-matter and the finely judged language in which it is presented, I am conscious of the distance between the poet’s and my own feelings about the music. I imagine that whether or not one is aware of such a distance, it inevitably exists whenever a composer sets words. There can be no marriage of words and their meanings and music without a dialectic pull of the one against the other.

Alexander Goehr

To These Dark Steps was premiered by BCMG conducted by Oliver Knussen at CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 30 September 2012.