As visitors to this website will be aware, I have been busy since October 9th when Alexander Goehr’s operatic treatment of King Lear, Promised End, opened at Covent Garden. Hence the delay in posting these thoughts about it.
In his pre-premiere comments Goehr observed that a composer cannot hope to present Lear whole and must select aspects of the play. This I suppose depends on which aspects he selects. Most of us carry around an internal snapshot of Lear as an angry old man who quarrels with his daughters. The play is the great study of conflict between the generations. But in Frank Kermode’s libretto, this aspect all but disappears. Goehr astonishingly says that he is not interested in the daughters, describing Cordelia (via Orwell) as the typical middle-class English girl. But even a typical middle-class English girl is usually adored by her father, which is why Lear carrying her body at the end is one of the shattering moments of world drama. Here it was a passing bit of stage action, because it had no context. You sense that Kermode and Goehr would have cut this too if they could have managed it.
So what was left? Two old men, Lear and Gloucester, being humanized by contrariety and suffering. Yet even this intriguing theme was almost smothered by too much stage theory: Brecht hovered in the use of the entire cast (on-stage for the whole opera) as an ad hoc Greek chorus, and there was Noh, and Beckett, as exiled Lear and his Fool jeuked out at us from under the lid of a box. Never was the hail-blasted heath so unatmospherically conjured.
But the real disappointment of Promised End lay in the unequal contest between the music and its grand occasion. For the whole evening vocal lines coughed and spluttered. What, since Britten and Purcell, has happened to English composers’ ability to write a sustained and grateful vocal line? Goehr rightly criticizes Thomas Ades for dumbing The Tempest into mod-speak. But what is the use of retaining Shakespeare’s words if they are almost entirely inaudible? Too often I wanted the music to give over (Goehr’s chamber band includes two tubas!) so that I could be left with the words, so thrillingly un-needy of all this tuneless hocketing. One left the theatre with the feeling that Goehr’s very individual talent had been dramatically mis-applied.
Yet what a good and shamefully neglected composer he is. I have followed his music for over twenty years and each new piece, even the weaker ones, has some spiky, irreplaceable piece of invention. Is English music so rich in individual talent that it can afford to ignore him as it does? Goehr’s reputation will depend little on Promised End, but there are riches elsewhere sufficient to guarantee that.
So here is one composer’s list of the top Goehr pieces. I’m sure others will have different lists, but I think all the pieces here worth listening to: