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Poldi Gerhard’s BBC radio interview with Sasha Moorsom

A look at a primary resource found in the Roberto Gerhard Tape Archive

The BBC Radio feature

Following his death, Roberto Gerhard’s wife, Poldi, gave an interview Sasha Moorsom at the BBC, who produced an hour-long radio feature on Gerhard’s music, broadcast on the 21st April, 1972.

The radio feature in full, as well as many fragments, can be found in the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive, a transcript of which is accessible here.

This interview paints a wonderfully varied picture of Gerhard through the eyes of his wife and other collaborators, and demonstrates the kind of profile Gerhard had in England in the years following his passing – after all, an hour-long radio feature is not something bestowed upon every composer!

Gerhard’s early career

Through this broadcast, we can piece together a better idea of the experiences Gerhard had over the course of his career. For example, his early experiences after moving to England are recounted by Poldi:

[Sasha Moorsom] The first years after his arrival there were a very lean time. There was little money around during the war for commissioning serious music so he had to turn his hand to all kinds of commercial work as his wife, Poldi Gerhard, remembers.
…[Poldi Gerhard] Roberto did scoring of lots of light pieces by quite famous light musicians, which I’m not allowed to mention because that was agreed with them, but the going was pretty heavy and hard. He had a lot to do but was very badly paid, naturally. He wrote a lot under a pseudonym ‘Joan Serrallonga’, and when I ask him, ‘What’s that? What does that mean?’ he said, ‘That was our greatest bandit once upon a time.

Gerhard’s Catalonian background

Similarly, the circumstances of his Catalonian background were something Gerhard had to work through in order to be accepted by English society:
[Sasha Moorsom] It’s appropriate that Gerhard should have chosen an English play set in Spain [Gerhard’s opera, ‘The Duenna’] for one of his first major works written in this country, combining his old life in Spain with his new one in England. In his 60s, he finally became a British citizen but the idea of belonging to any one country in particular was never one that appealed to him.
…[Poldi Gerhard] He felt very attached to Catalonia, but not Catalanistic. He abhorred all nationality, but nevertheless he had enormous roots in the country. But he was not nationalistic at all, for him the world was one piece.
…[Sasha Moorsom] In the beginning of his career in England he did have some difficulty in ridding people of the idea that he was an exclusively Spanish composer. He had no wish to be typecast. Fortunately, in the 1950s, he became very much in demand as a composer of all kinds of incidental music, far more congenial to him than the hackwork he’d been forced to take on earlier.

Gerhard’s approach to composition

There are also some wonderful moments that illustrate the extent to which Gerhard’s compositional practice was supported by Poldi:
[Sasha Moorsom] Although Gerhard was forced by sheer necessity to write incidental music, he had no private income and commissions for serious music were not frequent enough to rely on, he took it very seriously and he did have some compensations. For instance, it enabled him to work closely with outstanding performers. … Gerhard was always interested in exploring all the possibilities of an instrument to push it to the limits of its capacity, so to speak.
…[Poldi Gerhard] We did lots of experiments. For instance, once he borrowed a celesta. He made me always borrow instruments. I was very friendly with a director of a big firm in Cambridge, and he always lent us things. And for instance he… the celesta, he said, ‘Well, the celesta is an interesting instrument. I want to find out all about it.’ And so I had to play the celesta, and he recorded. And of course I… he said, ‘Don’t play anything, play and invent!’ So I said, ‘Well, if I could invent, I would be a composer myself!’ So then he went there and I went to the machine.’

This recording really helps to capture Gerhard’s experience as an immigrant, the way English classical musical culture viewed him, the importance of incidental music in his career, and the partnership that he enjoyed with his wife Poldi. Importantly, it is one of many recordings that can be found in the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive, and represents a resource no longer able to be retrieved from the original broadcaster. Without the archive, there is a very real chance this radio feature might be lost forever. As such, the archive plays an important part in keeping this document alive and accessible for researchers.

Over to you

What are the merits of this kind of document? What are some of the pros and cons that these kinds of articles might present in our attempts to understand their subject?

References

Moorsom, S. (1972) The Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive, tape 599. https://heritagequay.org/archives/GER/599/03/

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