An introduction to Gerhard’s music by Calum MacDonald
Roberto Gerhard ended his career in the very forefront of musical modernism, producing
in his last 15 years a series of scores notable for their scintillating textural invention
and their almost Varesian cragginess of expression. (Metamorphoses, a far-reaching
revision of his Second Symphony that amounts to a separate work, was the very last
of these.) Their undeniable power – and the aura that automatically adheres to a
gifted pupil of Schoenberg – tend to dominate discussions of Gerhard’s output.
Yet before he studied with Schoenberg, Gerhard was a pupil of Granados and Pedrell (the
latter commemorated in his Pedrelliana); so it is not really a paradox that long
after his years in Vienna and Berlin he continued to write music recognisably in the
‘Spanish nationalist’ tradition – more specifically within the traditions
of his native Catalonia. Such colourful, danceable, folk-inflected scores as the 1932 Cantata
or the Albada, Interludi i Dansa hardly fit any theory of evolutionary modernism.
Yet Gerhard’s enlarged experience enabled him to bring to them and their like a rare
compositional discipline, and to open up new resources of organised chromaticism (already
explored in the Haiku and Wind Quintet) that broadened the
‘folkloric’ archetype into a music of universal significance. The major
compositional statements of this synthesis are the ballet Don Quixote and the opera
The Duenna (the most felicitous of whose many marriages is surely its amazingly
natural wedding of the Iberian musical vernacular to English prosody), but Gerhard saw no
incongruity in producing such relaxed entertainments as Alegrías and Cancionero
de Pedrell. All in all, this was an achievement comparable to that of Bartók in
Hungary, but effected by different means.
In fact, Gerhard never truly renounced his Catalan heritage, which continued to nourish
his flamboyant colour-sense and even provide specific melodic gestures right up to his
very last scores. But the Concertos for violin, piano and harpsichord chart a progress
away from the more anecdotal aspects of that heritage towards a more flexible and
radicalized language. The first major embodiment of that perfected manner is the official First
Symphony, one of Gerhard’s most powerful works; and it is consolidated in the
following orchestral and chamber scores, such as the Nonet. These works illustrate,
to an astonishing degree, the union of post-Schoenbergian serial rigour with
freely-evolving, apparently improvisational fantasy: the Debussian ideal of music as
‘endless arabesque’. And even at their most radical and uncompromising, these
works are imbued with a Mediterranean warmth and brilliance, a dark vision and dry humour,
that speaks of their composer’s essential roots.
Calum MacDonald, May 1991
"A composer needs grace (inspiration), guts, intellect, madness"
"Discovery is nothing. The difficulty is to acquire what we discover."
"There are countless music-lovers the world over who lay no claim to
under-standing (in any logical sense) the music they enjoy, and some are amazingly
perceptive. Only think of the meagre audiences of cognoscenti that would be left us
without that great body of pure amateurs. True, they must be led through the maze of the
contemporary scene by an informed elite. But in the last resort their response will also
be the ultimate test of that elite."