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Emerging narratives from the archive

Some discussion on how the archive helped establish new perspectives on the life and work of Roberto Gerhard

There are several important elements of Gerhard’s life that the archive has helped us gain a better understanding of.

Electronic Music

Most importantly, the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive provides us with a wide range of recordings of Gerhard’s electronic music at a wide range of different stages in the compositional process. We have access to the intermediate materials and collections of sounds that he would rework for a range of different pieces, as well as various examples of his home recording process. Most entertainingly, in one of Gerhard’s tapes we can hear him playing with different splicing’s and playback speeds of parts of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’, seemingly trying to explore how this material might be manipulated creatively.

As well as these raw materials, the archive has unearthed a range of fragments of Gerhard’s works for radio and theatre, long thought lost. There are sound cues and extended segments of his music for radio dramas ‘Asylum Diary’, ‘L’etranger’, and ‘Good Morning Midnight’, full feature recordings of the radio broadcasts of ‘The Anger of Achilles’ and ‘Funny House of a Negro’, BBC recording sessions of his film soundtrack cues for ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Man Born to be King’, fragments of his theatre works, including ‘The Cherry Orchard’, ‘The Prisoner’, and Coriolanus’, and many other examples of his applied music created across two decades. Although there are sadly very few final complete recordings to be found here, what is present gives us a fascinating insight into how Gerhard approaches these pieces, how he used electronic sound in his theatre, radio and film productions, and the range of his compositional talent.


Friends and colleagues often remarked on Roberto Gerhard’s wide-ranging interests and ability to discuss and engage with ideas across the fields of arts and science. His interest in fields such as physics, psychology, and aesthetics is evidenced both in his personal library now part of the Gerhard archive at the Cambridge University Library and through his copious notetaking in his personal notebooks on texts he read. Sir William Glock remarked on Gerhard’s memorial broadcast that:

…one learned so much and reigns with him over so many fields of interest. Discussions of his favourite authors, disquisitions on biology and cybernetics, the Spanish Civil War, and Spanish proverbs as befitting the occasion. … But really anything that he was bursting with at that particular moment and always some memorable statements about music and contemporary problems, embedded in a general exposition which seemed to be a mixture of logic and improvisation; of matters carefully considered, and on the other hand, brilliant inventions of the moment. He was that rare kind of composer who was able to reflect clearly and profoundly on the principles of his art and very often, on reaching home, I used to write down some of the remarks that he’d made.

The Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive shows another aspect of this. Roberto Gerhard used his studio not just for creation but for recording broadcasts from the radio, either his own music or other features. As such we can find a number of tapes with a wide range of focus, covering discussions about music publishing, the English National Opera, Victorian art, contemporary discoveries in the fossil record, national drug policy, and more. It’s a fascinating insight into the very personal interests of the composer.

His rising profile

We can note that, of the recordings of his acoustic work, the archive tends to concentrate on works from the last decade of his life. We can see then that these recordings of live broadcasts with his music track with Gerhard’s rising profile as a composer, and that many of the earlier works receiving their BBC radio performance as part of this rising profile.

His professional network

One interesting element that has emerged from the digital archive has been an attempt to keep track of each named performer on each recording. This has resulted in a list of 86 individuals who were active in performing classical music in the south east of England at the time. Some were regular collaborators with Gerhard, for others it is not clear how they came to find Gerhard and perform his music. Interestingly, many of these names do not appear in contemporary documents, and may never have established an ongoing profile as a performer. As such, the archive provides a really interesting record of otherwise forgotten performers in England, and helps acknowledge the role these people played in the classical music scene at the time.

His musical interests

Alongside Gerhard’s work, there are 39 other named composers in the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive, alongside many uncredited recordings of folk music from around the world. Some of these composers are not particularly surprising, Schoenberg features heavily, as does Stravinsky, Webern, and Boulez. However, it also includes recordings of Schaeffer’s ‘Etude aux sons animés’, Malec’s ‘Dahovi’ and Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’. Overall, Gerhard’s collection of other composers works provides further evidence of his own range of compositional interests.

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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