Robert Gerhard arr. Meirion Bowen
Six Songs from L'infantament meravellos de Shaharazada
Born in 1896 at Valls, a small inland town in the Tarragona district of Catalonia, Robert Gerhard was not in fact Catalan by blood, but Swiss-German on his father's side and French on his mother's. Although he abhorred nationalism, he identified closely with Catalonian culture and history. Gerhard studied the piano briefly with Granados in 1915 and in the same period began lessons with the highly influential Catalan composer and scholar, Felip Pedrell, who had previously taught Granados and Manuel de Falla. Pedrell advocated the ideas of the eighteenth-century Jesuit Antonio Eximeno, in particular, his notion that the music of each nation should be based on its own indigenous folksong. Gerhard accepted this to some extent, later composing folk-derived songs such as the 14 Cancons populars catalanes (1928) and the Cancionero de Pedrell (1941).
Early on, however, Gerhard felt a contrary pull towards cosmopolitanism. After studies with Schoenberg, he devleoped his music along a quite independent path, continuing to do so right up to the astonishing works of his final decade. Gerhard's first two published works, the song-cycle for high voice and piano, L'infantament Meravellos de Shaharazada (completed in 1918, though sketchd as early as 1916) and Piano Trio (1919) both show him exploring beyon nationalist or regional frontiers. The main inspiration for the Piano Trio seems to have come from Debussy, Ravel and Falla; Shaharazada has an even wider range of references, though overall it is more Strauss-ian in emphasis.
The 12 songs of Shaharazada are settings of poems from a longer sequence by J. K. Lopez -Pico that might be described as a fin-de-siecle Catlan version of the Arabian Nights. Rarely performed, the cycle is taxing for both singer and pianist. A number of songs seem to imply an orchestral accompaniment. Six of them (nos. 2,5,6, 7, 9 and 10) suggested to me a more intimate kind of accompaniment, nevertheless affording ample variety of colour and even some degree of opulence. I have scored these for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp and a quintet of solo strings. The songs have been re-ordered to make an independent entity: and these arrangements are offered as a little present to two of my sweetest friends of recent years - Tim Lissimore and Francesc-Xavier Andreu Canals Santero (who, in fact, has translated this text for me into Catalan and Spanish).
These arrangements were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble of London: and they gave the first with Rosa Mannion (soprano) and Lionel Friend conducting, at the Purcell Room, London on March 1, 1994.
They are shortly to be publised by Trito Edicions, Barcelona (copyright Meirion Bowen (1994))
"...the Shahrazada songs [are] (a Catalan version of the Sheherazade legend) - a product of [Gerhard's] youthful years. These songs are of a voluptuous beauty firmly in the Wagnerian tradition and Meirion Bowen's ravishing scoring perfectly caught their seductive quality. The 'glass ewers, gentle breezes' of the third song began with the aptly fragile sound of the harp, before tremolo strings led to the sonorous addition of trumpet and horn for the sparkling of the glass in the sun." (Barry Millington, The Times, August 17, 1996)