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Work of the Week: Alexander Goehr – Vanishing Word

On 25 November, Ensemble Modern will give a concert focused on the music of Alexander Goehr at the Wigmore Hall in London, including the UK premiere of his major song cycle Vanishing Word with mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer and tenor Christopher Gillet. The following day, the same performers present the concert at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, marking the work’s German premiere.

First composed in 2013 for two voices and piano, Vanishing Word is a cycle of songs, duets and instrumental pieces orchestrated in 2015 for mezzo soprano, tenor and ensemble. The work explores the ambiguities of words, of ideas, and of human understanding. Goehr has set seven texts by six different authors, among them Jakob Böhme, Rainer Maria Rilke and Ingeborg Bachmann, that address in some manner man’s distance from nature and the ways in which language and meaning diverge over time. Between the sung movements, the words ‘vanish’ in five instrumental preludes.

Vanishing Word: The meaning of meaning

Vanishing Word begins with a metaphor of language as a tree, as described by the 17th century German mystic Jakob Böhme. Through growth and separations, the universal language of nature becomes divided into increasingly weaker languages. In the second song Goehr sets the story of how Adam was ordered by God to assign a name to each animal, and the following texts are settings of poems which reflect on the nature and use of words. The texts captured Goehr’s attention while he was working on his earlier song cycle for baritone TurmMusik (2009) which tells the biblical story of the Tower of Babylon, and is thus related thematically to Vanishing Word.

Vanishing Word had its world premiere on 22 January 2016 in New York by the Juilliard Ensemble, after which the cycle was lauded for its combination of mysticism and transparency.

The impression I aim to create is one of transparency: the listener should perceive, both in the successive and simultaneous dimensions of the score, the old beneath the new and the new arising from the old. – Alexander Goehr

Alongside Vanishing Word, Ensemble Modern will give the world premiere of two other pieces by Goehr, Manere II for clarinet and horn and Manere III for clarinet, horn and violin, to complement Goehr’s existing Manere I (2008). The title ‘Manere’ refers to a particular melisma from Gregorian chant that, for several centuries, was frequently used in works by composers including by Pérotin and Machaut before largely disappearing.