Fiona Sampson

When atonal music was original and exciting

Alexander Goehr, the sole survivor of the radical Manchester School of Music in the 1960s, describes turning pre-war European tradition into British cutting edge

Alexander Goehr. [Getty Images]

In the 1960s and 1970s, British music was transfixed by the Manchester School. Led by the composers Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies, this northern powerhouse of art music also included the brilliant pianist John Ogden and the conductor Elgar Howarth. All five had studied in the city in the early 1950s. Yet what united them wasn’t geographical happenstance but the embrace of what Robert Hughes famously called, writing on modern art, ‘the shock of the new’.

It is a mark of the effectiveness of an artistic revolution when young radicals become the creative establishment

Far from quaint regionalists, the Manchester School were radically anti-parochial. All enjoyed stellar international careers. Even more to the point, they reached across to international modernism, turning pre-war European tradition into the British cutting edge. There are echoes, in this lift away from cosy, middlebrow nativism towards the demanding big picture, of what happened in the lofts of 1950s New York as Abstract Expressionism exploded out of émigré modernism.

For this was a time when art music was cool: think – the US again – of John Cage, of collaborative Happenings. The Manchester School had none of Cage’s post-Buddhist accessibility. Their atonal music was difficult and brainy. But it was also young, exciting and aligned with everything contemporary. In 1965 Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies formed the Pierrot Players, who, as the Fires of London, continued for more than two decades to perform modernist classics of chamber music theatre – from Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to Maxwell Davies’s own Eight Songs for a Mad King. In 1971 ‘Max’ moved to Orkney, where for more than four decades he directed the St Magnus Festival, its international premieres and (often the same thing) community collaborations. In 1975 Birtwistle became the first music director of Peter Hall’s National Theatre and, perhaps more than his peers, a target for sneers about ‘wrong note music’ by genteelly conservative critics and audiences.

But it’s a mark not of selling out but of the effectiveness of an artistic revolution when young radicals become the creative establishment.

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