Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970)
Concerto for Orchestra
KSO Performed: 25 November 2008
Reader, beware: Roberto Gerhard once said, “My favourite listener is the one who does not read explanatory programme-notes… Understanding comes first, knowledge second,” and asserted: “I stand by the sound of my music. It is the sound that must make sense.”
He was born of Swiss-German and French-Alsatian parents in Catalonia. Inevitably this gave him an internationalist outlook, but nevertheless he felt his identity as a Catalan strongly. After studying with Schoenberg, he worked during the 1930s as a consultant to the Arts Ministry of the Catalan government, which acted as an autonomous body within Spain from 1932. Here, he was responsible for raising Catalonia’s artistic profile considerably, not only with his own scores but his work promoting others. This culminated in his bringing the International Society of Contemporary Music’s annual festival to Barcelona in 1936, during which Berg’s Violin Concerto had its world première.
In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain, and when in 1939 Franco’s troops captured Barcelona, a centre of Republican resistance, Gerhard was forced into exile. He ended up in Cambridge, where he adopted the Hispanic form of his name (he was christened Robert) and produced music for theatre, radio and television. From his earlier romantic style, concerned with the use of Catalan folk music, in his later years he cultivated a more modernist music, partly derived from his teacher Schoenberg, but with a sensitivity for colour that produces a sound far removed from the expressionist angst of pre-war Vienna: the folk music he studied so carefully in his youth lay beneath the surface, continuing to influence his sound-world.
His sensitivity to the nuances of sound was sharpened by his experience as one of the pioneers of electronic music: his music for the RSC’s 1955 production of King Lear was the first electronic score for the stage in Britain, and a few years later he was one of the first composers to work at the BBC’s newly-established Radiophonic Workshop, the cradle of some of the most radical experimentation ever to appear in mainstream culture, such as the extraordinary piece of electronica that nearly 50 years later still holds television audiences in thrall: the theme to Doctor Who.
As his colleagues gave voice to the TARDIS, Gerhard was re-establishing himself as a composer of concert music, and it was a commission for the 1965 Cheltenham Festival that resulted in the Concerto for Orchestra. In fact, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance in Boston in April 1965 by permission of the Festival Authority. The British première followed in Cheltenham a few months later. It ruffled a few feathers, far removed as its sense of drama was from the cosy familiarity of the typical “Cheltenham symphony.”
By this time Gerhard was seriously ill: he had had heart trouble for some years which was by then becoming acute, and would cause his death in 1970. There is however no hint of fragility in the Concerto, which from its opening explosion of notes is a work filled with vigour. Gerhard overcame his aversion to explanatory notes to provide a preface to the published score, in which he described his approach to what remains an unusual genre in orchestral music: “Ensemble playing, the distinguishing feature of the concerto for orchestra, in fact here takes the place of the virtuoso soloist in the traditional concerto.” So the emphasis is less on individual display (although Gerhard certainly provides plenty of challenges for the players) than showing off the orchestra as a collective.
If there is a solo element in this piece, it is time itself: the music is constantly moving between different perceptions of time, expressed in three contrasting ways. The first, exemplified by the very opening, is characterised by busy, dense textures which create a sense of an infinitely expanded tonality. Then there are passages of what Gerhard describes as “almost static yet pulsating constellation-like patterns”, where tone gives way to a myriad array of sounds produced through unorthodox playing techniques, from tapping and rustling sounds in the strings which sound like an abstraction of flamenco music, to the unearthly harmonics of bowed cymbals. Finally, there are moments where time seems to stand still, and we experience “the magic sense of uneventfulness.” These kaleidoscopic changes of texture that abound in the Concerto, in which busy, scurrying passages dissolve into radiantly static textures have a dreamlike quality that the listener might experience as a sonic parallel to the images of another prominent 20th century Catalan, Salvador Dalí.