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Gerhard: Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter (1959)

Listening exercise – Roberto Gerhard's Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter (1959)

Listening exercise

Gerhard’s ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter’ is one of his most attractive electroacoustic works – highly developed, rich in sound, and demonstrating the depth of creative thought that marks Gerhard’s contribution to electronic music.

A setting of Lorca’s poem of the same name – ‘Llanto for Ignacio Sánchez Mejîas’ (1934) – Gerhard’s composition was largely recorded in the composers home, and assembled and mixed at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop between September and December 1959. It premiered in May 1960 on the BBC’s Third Programme.


Gerhard had a personal history with Lorca. “I knew Lorca well in Spain,” Gerhard said in the radio introduction to ‘Lament…’, “We were much together in 1921 in Madrid when we were both students and he lived in the Residencia de Estudiantes. Later on, I saw him every time he came to Barcelona, and I heard him on several occasions recite the Lament.” Differing ambitions took the two on different paths, yet Gerhard never ceased to praise Lorca’s “impeccable ear” for word poetry, describing Lorca’s recitation of the ‘Lament…’ as being sung with “a mouth of sun and flint”.

Gerhard’s ‘Lament…’ reflects a development in the electroacoustic music of the period, wherein composers of the avant-garde began to reflect critically upon the principals of the existing schools of thought in electroacoustic music – principally that of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the WDR’s preoccupation with sound synthesis and Pierre Schaeffer and the GRM’s interest in acousmatic composition with recorded sound.

By the end of the 1950s, composers had begun to explore the combination of these electronic music practices, something that Roberto Gerhard had started exploring in his own practice as early as 1955. ‘Lament…’ demonstrates the thoughtful engagement of these ideas by an outsider, a composer for whom electronic music was all about the sonorous expression of music and not just a space for exploring a set of rules.

When Gerhard first thought of setting Lorca’s ‘Lament…’ to music, his choice of the electronic medium was immediate and unquestioned. His admiration for Lorca’s own achievements of “word-music” in the original made the text unsuitable, in Gerhard’s mind, for a traditional setting of sung text and conventional classical instruments, fearing that the delicate and tenuous quality of the text’s internal melodies, rhythms and sonorities would be lost. Instead, Gerhard embraced the expressive and gestural possibilities of electronic sound, which allowed him to use simpler musical structures of a more complex sound quality.

The work adhere’s principally to the same formal structures of the original text, expressing itself in four distinct movements – Cogida and Death, The Spilling of the Blood, Body Present, and Absent Soul – each with a distinctive musical focus. The first movement revolves around a scraped-pizzicato “tearing sound”, reflecting the violent goring of the bullfighter, which contrasts against the repeated phrase of “at five in the afternoon”.

In the second, timpani rolls and glissandi are manipulated, in various degrees of recognisability, and contrasted against cymbal crashes, mimicking a primal, sacrificial ceremony as the bullfighter’s blood is spilt, paired with the repeated, varied refrains of “I do not want to see it”.

The third and fourth movements proceed more programatically, with the unifying musical ideas emerging as elements of the overall texture as the text eulogises the fallen bullfighter. The third movement contrasts a serene three note motif in the tympani with passages of pronounced silence and abstract electronic textures, while the fourth makes use of various manipulations of wood block recordings and fragments of Gerhard’s orchestral works until filtered white noise emerges, evoking a “sad wind through the olive-trees.”

Percussionist Gilbert Webster reflected on his experience creating percussion samples for Gerhard to use in the ‘Lament…’ during an interview with the BBC. This quote really highlights the general lack of awareness about the creative potential of electronic music, even amongst musicians, in 1972:

I was once engaged to do a session with Roberto at Maida Vale, I think it was a play… ‘Death of a Bullfighter’. He wanted me to extemporise on about six cymbals, gongs, bass drums, snare drums. He just told me what he wanted, I thought it was strange because, to me, it didn’t make any sense just roaring on a cymbal and roaring on another one. He said, ‘Give me four minutes of that, will you Gilbert?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, right-o’. I did all this and the session came to an end, of course I promptly forgot it.
But, lo-and-behold, I listened to the broadcast of ‘Death of a Bullfighter’. It was just like a symphony! From me! I said, ‘That can’t be me.’ So I got in touch with him and I said, ‘What did you do with all these sounds?’ I said it’s absolutely fantastic. He says, ‘I took the tape home and I got all my recording apparatus going.’ And he says, ‘I did something with the sounds.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re marvellous. Marvellous.

Despite Websters claim above, as best as we can tell the sound materials were recorded in Gerhard’s home studio in Cambridge and brought to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for assemblage and mixing. The musical element of ‘Lament…’ was realised live in the studio, with Gerhard manually triggering several tapes, containing different sonic components, during playback of Stephen Murray’s monologue. For this reason, ‘Lament…’ was never realised in a single, continuous pass, inextricably linking Lorca’s text with Gerhard’s musical composition.

Over to you

What was your response to the combination of voice and electronic sound? How clear is the interaction between the different lines of dialogue and the sound materials? What kinds of interactions do you notice emerging in this piece?


Gillies, S. (2022) “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter”.

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