Roberto Gerhard was born in Valls, Catalonia on 25 September 1896. Although Gerhard was of Swiss-German and Alsatian ancestry, he considered himself a Spaniard of Catalan culture.
As the last student of Felipe Pedrell—the teacher of such composers as Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla—and the only Iberian student of the Austrian émigré, Arnold Schoenberg, Gerhard absorbed diverse artistic and scientific cultural currents of his time and his music undoubtedly reflects this wide range of ideas and influences. Upon his return to Barcelona following his studies in Vienna and Berlin, he wrote numerous musicological articles for various Catalan arts journals and served as an active member of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) and worked tirelessly to bring musical modernism to his native Spain. Important works composed during this period include the Sis Cançons Populars Catalanes (1931) for soprano and orchestra, the cantata L’Alta Naixença del Rei en Jaume (1931-32), the ballet Ariel (1934) and the orchestral Albada, Interludi I Dansa (1936).
Towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, Gerhard’s identification as a Catalan led to his living the last three decades of his life as an exile in Cambridge England, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen and a recipient of the prestigious CBE award before his death in 1970.
Arriving in England in 1939, Gerhard composed a large number of works for ballet, theatre and radio, working particularly closely with the BBC. The works from the 1940s, including the ballet Pandora (1942-43), the autobiographical Violin Concerto (1942-45), works for radio such as Cristóbal Colón (1943-44) and The Adventures of Don Quixote (1943-44), and opera The Duenna reveal a composer coming to terms with his Catalan heritage in exile and embedding personal narratives about the politics of, and his personal reaction to the Spanish Civil War.
Although for many composers incidental music is often regarded as being of secondary importance in their output, for Gerhard it was a place of unbridled innovation and experimentation. His electronic music for Briget Boland’s The Prisoner (1954) was the first incidental score to include electronic music in England. In the following year the furore surrounding his electronic sound score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of King Lear lead to sold out performances and great notoriety for Gerhard. In the late 1950s Gerhard was one of only four composers invited to work at the newly opened BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Gerhard’s work at the BBC resulted in a number of iconic works including the Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter (1959) and the Prix Italia winning Anger of Achilles (1964) – on which Gerhard worked with Delia Derbyshire.
Gerhard himself was a prolific writer about his craft. The composer’s library and notebooks reveal the composer’s passionate interest in linguistics, philosophy, music theory, analysis, theatre, architecture, ethnomusicology, contemporary dance, performance, mathematics, science (particularly physics) as well as art. Having lived in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and England during the first half of the 20th century Gerhard had met many of Europe’s most influential thinkers, artists, and scientists. Through these writings, it is possible to identify Gerhard’s position concerning such musical matters as free atonality, integral serialism, musical form and proportion, electronic music composition, and audience reception, as well as issues regarding musical aesthetics in a modern society.
Gerhard’s musicological writings and compositions as well as his philosophical musings provide great insights into his idiosyncratic compositional design and his forward-thinking views on music. Due to Gerhard’s integration of a wide variety of 20th-century techniques and methods, the study of his music and theoretical writings provides important insight into the intellectual content and musical ramifications of the century’s disparate trends. Gerhard’s contribution to modern music offers us a different perspective communicated via a unique harmonic language and musical structure.
This is reflected in many of his later works from the late 1950s onwards which are cast in a single movement. Arguably drawing on Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7, Gerhard took this one movement form to greater complexity in works such as his Symphony No. 3 ‘Collages’ which includes a significant electronic part, and Symphony No. 4 ‘New York’ (1967).