Violin Concerto (1943)

By Meirion Bowen

Written for the concert From the Last Century, performed on Oct 10, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

‘…a braiding of diverse strands…’

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) might be considered as a prototype of the exiled twentieth-century composer. His career trajectory, like that of Kurt Weill and many others, was continually disrupted by war and political upheavals.

Just as he began to study music in Munich, the First World War broke out, forcing him to return to his native Catalonia, in Spain, where he became a pupil of Granados and Felipe Pedrell. Just as his reputation as a composer was blossoming in the late 1930s, the onset of the Spanish Civil War meant that (as a supporter of the Republican cause) he had to flee the country. And just as he took refuge in Cambridge, England, at the age of 43, and began the formidable task of establishing himself in a country where he was virtually unknown, the Second World War began and public music-making was severely constricted.

Characteristically, Gerhard found an unusual way to survive, writing incidental music for BBC radio plays, and this eventually took him into the experimental realm of musique concrete and electronic music on tape. That his stature, manifest in a succession of substantial orchestral and chamber compositions, was eventually recognised in the 1950s and 60s—not only in the UK and Europe, but in the USA (where he taught at Michigan and Tanglewood and attracted major commissions)—says much for his persistence and integrity. Finally, post-Franco Spain has now posthumously acknowledged him as one of their highest-ranking composers.

The fragmentation of Gerhard’s career, the inaccessibility, until recently, of recordings of his music, and of editions of his writings, has made it difficult to assimilate his creative personality as a whole. The first temptation is to label him a Spanish nationalist, dependent upon the inflexions and colours of regional folk-music. But his multi-faceted musical character is more accurately summed up in his own description of his violin-and-piano piece, Gemini (1966) – ‘a braiding of diverse strands’.

Most crucial to Gerhard’s development was his five-year period of studies with Schoenberg in Vienna and Berlin (1923-28), which enabled him to solidify his technique and discover his own identity as a composer. Soon after he settled again in Barcelona, a retrospective concert of his music took place on 22 December, 1929, at the Palau de la Musica Catalana: and now as then, it offers a good starting-point for identifying the different facets of his creative character.

Firstly, it was regarded as a controversial concert, an invasion of territory ruled by the conservative Orfeo Catala, founded by the elderly and revered conductor Luis Millet. Millet published a hostile review and Gerhard’s intelligent, but thrusting counter-attack began his lifelong championship of artistic innovation.

At one end of the spectrum, the concert programme featured his arrangements of Catalan popular songs and two newly composed Sardanas, celebrations of Catalonia’s most treasured regional dance, symbolising unity (and later banned by Franco). The inclusion of Gerhard’s succinct early song-cycle Seven Haiku (1923) also revealed his affiliation to Stravinsky. But it was his new Concertino for strings (originally written for string quartet) and Wind Quintet, both raising the banner for Schoenbergian compositional techniques, that Millet and his supporters found provocative. Gerhard’s accomplishment therein showed what great strides he had made since studying with the Viennese master.

Soon after reaching England, Gerhard began to crystallise all the ingredients in his musical make-up. This entailed paying homage to his former teachers and making explicit references back to earlier works. He first acknowledged his debt to Pedrell with a Symphony based on themes from an unpublished opera by his teacher. In his subsequent Violin Concerto (1942-5), he took as his starting-point the Concertino mentioned earlier; and the central slow movement of the work pays a seventieth-birthday tribute to Schoenberg with chorale-like music based on the twelve-note row of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet. While Schoebergian procedures prevail in these two movements, the finale is much freer, beginning with a quotation from the Marseillaise (symbolising liberation), followed by references to Sardanas and ending with a Spanish dance. This intermingling of traditions and techniques, old and new, remained a feature of Gerhard’s music thereafter and is the most fundamental reason for its unpredictable, yet rewarding vitality.