Walter Goehr (1903 – 1960)

Conductor, composer, and arranger Walter Goehr was born 28 May 1903 in Berlin. He was the eldest of two sons to Jewish parents Julius Goehr and Thekla Mendelsohn. The latter was related to the famed Mendelssohn composer family.

Goehr’s earliest musical experience comprised of work as a conductor of operetta in theatres throughout Berlin. In 1921, he was accepted as a student of Arnold Schoenberg at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. He continued under Schoenberg’s tutelage until 1924. The following year he began work for Funkstunde AB Berlin (Berlin Radio Broadcasting Company), where he remained until 1932. According to Walter’s son, composer and Professor Emeritus Alexander Goehr, Goehr held Schoenberg in high esteem and the composer’s influence was engrained in his style. However,Goehr’s later works resemble those of Hindemith and Weill. The change from Schoenbergian serialism can be answered, in part, by Walter Goehr’s personal view not everyone was destined to continue under the puritanical approach to music prescribed by his former tutor. Nevertheless, he remained an avid supporter of Schoenberg’s music and conducted many of the composer’s works throughout his career.

In 1930 Goehr married fellow musician Laelia Rivlin who studied at the Hochschule für Musik Berlin under Leonid Kreutzer. Rivlin subsequently worked as a freelance musician, providing music to accompany films in Berlin’s silent cinemas. She was also part of the performance duo The Stone Sisters who played jazz and ragtime music. According to their son Alexander, the couple were first introduced at a party hosted by their mutual friend, film director Billy Wilder.

Many of Goehr’s early compositions were performed in Germany during this period. One of these includes the notable opera Malpopita (1931), written exclusively with radio broadcast medium in mind. Although it was not broadcast until 6 May 2004 in Berlin, the work is likely to have been written with the Berlin Funkstunde AB in mind.

The early 1930s ushered in major changes for the Goehr family. In 1932, the same year as his separation from the Berlin Funkstunde, Goehr’s son Alexander was born. Only a few months later, Walter assumed the position of Music Director for the Gramophone Company (later EMI) and the family relocated to London in 1933. Goehr worked for Gramophone (1933-1939) on many recordings conducting, arranging and providing piano accompaniment for singers such as Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, Austrian tenor Richard Tauber and Austro-Hungarian/Romanian tenor Joseph Schmidt. Goehr’s recording credits were listed as anglicised versions of his name, either ‘G. Walter’ or ‘George Walter’. One of many notable recordings from this period included the premiere recording of Bizet’s Symphony in C for the company.

Goehr’s all-encompassing training at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin provided many opportunities. Along with his work with Gramophone Records, Goehr conducted the Raymonde Orchestra and their performances were frequently featured on BBC radio broadcasts in the late 1930s. From 1939 onward he also utilised his arranging skills honed at the Funkstunde AB Berlin, orchestrating, arranging and conducting for the BBC Theatre Orchestra in their regular broadcasts of light classical music. His work for the BBC included work with Lawrence Gilliam on his invention called ‘Opera of News’ which employed news reels and stories in the news, incorporating them into radio dramas around the topics.

Other arranging for the company included several works which fall under the category of ‘Radio Potpourri’. This genre, pioneered by fellow émigré composer Julius Burger, utilises themes or sections from existing musical works which are then combined with incidental music and woven together around a centralised theme. While musical potpourris have been in use since the 17th Century and have a duration of several minutes, a ‘Grand’ Radio Potpourri has the duration of approximately one hour. Examples of Goehr potpourris include The Story of the Waltz (1939), The Story of the Ballet (1941), and England Dances (1940). He also did a large amount of arranging of music for wartime radio programmes of the early 1940s.

Goehr added further to his work portfolio when, in 1943, he was recruited by friend Michael Tippett to join the staff at Morley College. This engagement lasted for 17 years, during which time Goehr premiered many important works, notably the first British performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers 1610. It is notable that many of the refugee musicians who worked at the college had their first performance experiences in Britain with Goehr conducting.

Goehr was an avid promoter of modern works and, in a series of concerts at Wigmore Hall through the 1940s, he premiered compositions by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Benjamin Britten’s first performance of his work Serenade in 1943 as well as the premiere of friend Michael Tippett’s work A Child of Our Time in 1944 took place under Goehr’s baton. The latter work was inspired by the November pogroms of 1938.

In 1946, Goehr succeeded Stanford Robinson as conductor of the BBC Theatre Orchestra. He continued to work for the company until 1948, while also taking on further engagements as a composer and conductor for the film industry. While this was not a new addition to his portfolio (he had worked as a film composer in Germany as early as 1930), Goehr conducted for several  film soundtracks in the 1940s. Examples include the the 1944 film adaptation of A Canterbury Tale, composed by friend Alan Grey, and the score for the 1947 adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, directed by David Lean.

The 1950s saw Goehr on a continued successful conducting career with many more premieres including the first British performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.6 for the BBC (1950) and the first recording of Monteverdi’s L’incoronaziore di Poppea (1952). (The LP version won a Grand Prix du Disque in 1954). Also in 1952, Goehr gave the first British performance of Schoenberg’s Op.22 Songs and two years later gave the premiere of American composer Lukas Foss’s Second Piano Concerto. A further premiere in 1959 included the cantata work by son Alexander Goehr titled The Deluge.

Walter Goehr’s multifaceted career came to an abrupt end on 4 December 1960 when, after completing a performance conducting Handel’s Messiah, he died suddenly at the City Hall in Sheffield, England. He was aged 57. Alexander Goehr’s work Little Symphony was written as a tribute to his father after his death.

According to Alexander Goehr, his father had little time for the egotistic tendencies which are often present in the field of music. Of the roughly 50,000 emigres who came to Britain between 1933 until 1945, Walter Goehr is recognised as being among those who made an important impact on the field of British music, composing works for radio, stage and concert; conducting and arranging for many of the great ensembles of the day; promoting works by modernist composers as well as kindling interest in past masters such as Monteverdi; and accompanying a talented array of artists for the Gramophone label.

By Ryan Hugh Ross


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