Roberto Gerhard, who died 50 years ago on January 5th, was one of the most important composers to have lived in Cambridge. Born in Valls near Barcelona in 1896 to a Swiss-German father and Alsatian mother he was brought up fluent in Spanish, Catalan, German and French. He studied the piano with Granados, and composition with Felipe Pedrell, who had also taught de Falla, Albéniz, and Granados. He was Pedrell’s last pupil, and after Pedrell’s death in 1922 Gerhard studied with Arnold Schoenberg from 1924 to 1928, first in Vienna and then in Berlin. He met Poldi (Leopoldina) Feichtegger in Vienna in 1925, and after their marriage in 1930 they settled in Barcelona. They remained close friends of the Schoenbergs, who visited them in the summer of 1932.
He was soon involved with the International Society for Contemporary Music’s annual Festival, which included premieres of his 6 Catalan Folk Songs (Vienna, 1932), the Passacaglia and Choral from his cantata L’alta naixenga del rei en Jaume (Amsterdam, 1933), Ariel (Barcelona, 1936) and Albada, interludi, i dansa (London, 1938).
As a staunch supporter of the anti-fascist Republican government in which his brother Carles was a minister he escaped from Barcelona following its capture by the Franco’s Nationalists in January 1939. Gerhard first stopped in Paris, from whence he attended the Warsaw festival in April. It was through his contact with Edward Dent, both President of the ISCM and Professor of Music in Cambridge, that he was offered a studentship by King’s College, which enabled him to come to Cambridge on a bursary of £200. He remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life.
After he died his widow, with the encouragement of one of Roberto’s closest Cambridge friends Sydney Smith (zoologist of St Catharine’s College and editor of Darwin’s letters, and dedicatee of Gerhard’s Violin concerto), deposited all his manuscript in the University Library, and after her death his other papers, letters, photographs, sound recordings, and his library of books and music were also deposited. In 2008 Dr Rosemary Summers gave the whole archive to the library since when work has been done to make the collection more easily available – though much work still needs to be done.
One recent discovery in the Archive has been a group of photographs taken in 1928 on the last day of Gerhard’s time with Schoenberg. One is a portrait of Schoenberg, by Gerhard, the others are of Schoenberg with seven pupils. The better group photos must have been taken by Gerhard, as he does not feature on them, and have been published as being “the class of 1926”, and is of Adolph Weiss, Walter Goehr, Walter Gronostay, Erich Schmid, Winfried Zillig, and Josef Rufer standing, and Schoenberg and Joseph Zmigrod seated.
The same group with Roberto next to Schoenberg is marked by him on the back in Catalan “Schoenberg tal com el vaig deixar [On my leaving Schoenberg]. Berlin, 1928. La classe de Schoenberg, a primera fila R.G., Schoenberg, Gronostai” with 5 others behind, two with heads partly out of the photo. This is probably taken by Winfried Zillig, who does not appear in it.
Evidence of Gerhard’s studies with Schoenberg are richly found in his library of music, where Gerhard carefully numbers Schoenberg’s twelve-note rows. They can be found on iDiscover by including the words “schoenberg twelve note gerhard” in a keyword search.
There is currently an exhibition of programmes associated with Gerhard, including that of the 1936 ISCM congress in Barcelona, and a selection of books from his library, in the Anderson Room at the UL.
There will be more events across the UK and in Spain over the next two years.
[There has been some confusion online about these group photographs, with some incorrect dating, and naming of those portrayed. We suspect that this may have been down to muddled memories. As far as we know, after much research, the dates and names as given above are correct – MAJ]