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Gerhard in context

A discussion of Roberto Gerhard's music in the context of other composers of the time

Gerhard in context

Unlike Stockhausen, Schaeffer, Varèse and other frequently referenced leading figures of electronic music, Roberto Gerhard was not exposed to new sound-manipulating technology through electronic music studios and concerts.

Rather, Gerhard had to explore electronic music for himself through the establishment of his own private studio. Gerhard’s pioneering achievements in the mid-1950s can therefore be best understood when put in the context of other electronic music activities of the time.

The timeline

As we have seen, the first musique concrète work, the ‘Étude aux chemins de fer’, was produced by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948, followed by the first substantial work of music concréte, the ‘Symphonie pour un homme seul’, in 1950. The German WDR studio opened in 1953, where Stockhausen produced his first experiments with Elektronische Musik, ‘Studie I’ (1953) and ‘Studie II’ (1954).

The first work that combined instruments and electronic sounds is generally recognised as Italian composer Bruno Maderna’s ‘Musica su due dimensioni’, premiered in 1952 for flute, cymbal and electronic tape. One of the most famous larger early works incorporating electronics was Varèse’s ‘Déserts’ (1954) for ensemble and tape. We haven’t looked at this piece in this course so far but it’s very much worth listening to if you haven’t already. In it, Varèse alternates between passages of instrumental music and electronics.


It was in the same year, 1954, that Gerhard completed his first ensemble and tape work, the incidental music for Bridget Boland’s play, ‘The Prisoner’. Very few documents relating to Gerhard’s soundtrack to ‘The Prisoner’ exist today, but based on a few tapes that may relate to this production, it appears that Gerhard’s soundtrack might have utilised some subtle tape loops to accompany a small ensemble, as well as some more extreme electronic sounds that might have been utilised for effect.

A year later, Gerhard produced his notorious electronic music soundtrack for George Devine’s 1955 production of ‘King Lear’. Like ‘Déserts’, Gerhard’s music provoked strong responses. The sound score for the storm scene (King Lear, Act III, Scene 2) was likened to ‘London Airport in full flight’, while another reviewer claimed that ‘storms in this Never-Never Land sound exactly like jet-engines’. Such was the critical furore surrounding the production that when it reached London all the performances sold out.

This production took place three years prior to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (1958) and five years prior to Tristram Cary’s concert of electronic music at Queen Elizabeth Hall (1960). As such, Gerhard’s soundtrack to ‘King Lear’ was an extremely high-profile performance of electronic music, made with commercial equipment in Gerhard’s home studio, at a time when electronic music was not something the average patron would have encountered in England.


Both Gerhard’s and Varèse’s work received strong critical backlash at the time, despite the differing contexts of their production. Importantly, both composers differed in their aesthetic approach to magnetic tape sound composition. Whereas Varèse’s vision of electronic sound was utopian, offering composers a form of ‘liberation’ from the existing systems for composing music, Gerhard viewed the electronic medium as offering an extension to, rather than an outright usurpation of, the sound palette of the orchestra.

Unlike his European counterparts who were continuing to produce works primarily within the concert music tradition, Gerhard was concerned with the potential of the medium for commercial music for radio, theatre, and film. As we’ve seen, this was a characteristic shared by other pioneers in Britain at the time, including Delia Derbyshire (Radio), Tristram Cary (Television), and Ernest Berk (Dance) and it’s with this in mind that we will focus on Gerhard’s activities as a composer of both classical and electronic music in the next two days.

Over to you

Why do you think Gerhard only started working with electronic music a few years after his contemporaries in Europe, and yet a few years before his colleagues in England?


Adkins, M. (2022) “Gerhard in Context”.

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