Gerhard was born (as Robert Gerhard – he only consistently adopted the form ‘Roberto’ after he was exiled from Spain) in Valls, near Barcelona. Son of a German-Swiss father and an Alsatian mother, he was predisposed to an international, multilingual outlook, but by birth and culture he was a Catalan.
He studied piano with Granados and composition with the great scholar-composer Felipe Pedrell, teacher of Albéniz, Granados and Falla. When Pedrell died in 1922, Gerhard spent several years in Vienna and Berlin as Arnold Schoenberg’s only Spanish pupil. Returning to Barcelona in 1928, he devoted his energies to new music through concerts and journalism, in conjunction with the flourishing literary and artistic avantgarde of Catalonia. He befriended Joan Miró and Pablo Casals, brought Schoenberg and Webern to Barcelona, and was the principal organiser of the 1936 ISCM Festival there. He also collected, edited and performed folk songs and old Spanish music from the Renaissance to the 18th century.
Identified with the Republican cause throughout the Spanish Civil War (as musical adviser to the Minister of Fine Arts in the Catalan Government and a member of the Republican Government’s Social Music Council), Gerhard was forced to flee to France in 1939 and later that year settled in Cambridge. Until the death of Franco, who made it his business to extirpate Catalan national aspirations, his music was virtually banned in Spain, to which he never returned except for holidays.
Apart from copious work for the BBC and in the theatre, Gerhard’s compositions of the 1940s were explicitly related to aspects of Spanish and Catalan culture, beginning in 1940 with a Symphony in memory of Pedrell and the first version of the ballet Don Quixote. They culminated in The Duenna (a Spanish opera based on an English play, by Sheridan). During the 1950s the legacy of Schoenbergian serialism, a background presence in these overtly national works, engendered an increasingly radical approach to composition which, by the 1960s, placed Gerhard firmly in the ranks of the avant-garde.
Performances at international festivals and by the BBC brought wider recognition on both sides of the Atlantic and he taught in the USA in the early 1960s.
Gerhard’s most significant works, apart from those already mentioned, include four symphonies (the Third, Collages, for orchestra and tape), theConcerto for Orchestra, concertos for violin, piano and harpsichord, the Camus-inspired cantata The Plague (1963–4), the ballets Soirées de Barcelone (1936–9) and Pandora (1943–4), and pieces for a wide variety of chamber ensembles, including two Sardanas (1928–9) for the indigenous Catalan street band, the cobla.
He was perhaps the first major composer of electronic music in Britain; his incidental music for the 1955 Stratford-upon-Avon King Lear – one of many such commissions for the Royal Shakespeare Company – was the first electronic score for the British stage.
From the early 1950s Gerhard suffered from a heart condition which eventually killed him. He died in Cambridge in 1970. In 1992, the longdelayed stage premieres of The Duenna in Madrid and Barcelona signalled the beginning of the restitution of his reputation in Spain.
Profile © Calum MacDonald
Tracks (7)Last Played on BBCTHIS SPORTING LIFE (1963): I and VI
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