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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

Front Page




Morocco has been included in this Guide through the music of one composer, Maurice Ohana (born 1914). Although he could as legitimately been included under Spain or France, it seems appropriate to place him under his country of birth (then under the control of Spain), as he is a modern example of the cultural forces that have for centuries existed along a plane from southern France, through Spain, to the north-west Saharan Africa.




OHANA Maurice

born 12th June 1914 at Casablanca

died 13th November 1992 at Paris


Maurice Ohana brought to a modern idiom an unusual mixture of musical influences that reflected the circumstances of his upbringing. From his parents, both of Andalusian descent (his father was a British citizen of Gibraltar, and the composer himself fought in the British army), came a strong Spanish element. From the country of his birth there were reflections of the atmosphere and bright light of North Africa, the music of the Berbers, and other African influences. From the country of his later childhood, France (where he eventually settled in 1945) came elements as diverse as echoes of Impressionism and the residue of his electronic studies with Pierre Schaeffer. In 1947 he became one of the Paris `Zodiaque' group, reacting both against the new serialism and against neo-classicism.

The major work to show the Spanish influence is the song-cycle Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias (Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejias, 1950), for reciter, baritone, female chorus and small orchestra. This powerful score, one of the major Spanish song-cycles of the century, extends the idiom of de Falla in a style that is both modern and yet unmistakably follows a Spanish tradition. With its literal setting, considerable dramatic colour, and sometimes tense, sometimes broodingly dolorous emotions, it brings the impact of Lorca's famous cycle of poems to the fore, and deserves to be much more widely known. The instrumentation includes the harpsichord, which remained an important instrument for Ohana, in such works as the atmospheric and funereal Sarabande for harpsichord and orchestra. Percussion has also been another important element in Ohana's orchestral palette, combined with Spanish influences in the Guitar Concerto (1950-1957, properly known as Tre gráficos [Three Designs]), which uses micro-tones in its slow movement. This often austere work has some of the drama of the Lorca song-cycle, with a wide, sometimes brutal orchestral soundscape contrasting with the intimacy of the guitar writing, often unaccompanied, which has distant reflections of Andalusian folk-roots. For those looking for a guitar concerto contemporary in voice and idiom, while aware of the Spanish traditions, this is as effective as any, its balance cleverly judged. The inspiration of Lorca emerged again in the cello concerto Anneau du Tamarit (1977).

In the 1960s Ohana's music started to reflect many of the avant-garde trends then current: the rather defracted Synaxis (1965-1966) for two pianos, percussion and orchestra, for example, is a post-serial score, some of whose phrase lines and orchestral effects recall Messiaen. At the same time atmosphere remained the most important characteristic, reflected not just in orchestral colour and effect, but in his interest in ancient musical forms, myths and symbols. Thus Synaxis has elements of ancient calls and cries as well as early liturgical hymns. The chamber opera Syllabaire pour Phèdre (Speller for Phaedra) is based on Greek myth, and Signes (1965) for wind instruments, zither in third tones, flute, piano and percussion, considers archetypal symbols, as does Chiffres de clavecin (Ciphers of the Harpsichord, 1967-1968)). In this harpsichord concerto the range of string colours is considerable, from string instruments, through the harp, to the solo instrument, set within the larger orchestra, although the overall structure (five linked sections further subdivided) emerges as rather diffuse. The Twenty-Four Preludes for piano benefit from a conceptual derivation from Chopin, and are miniatures of shades of pianistic light, sometimes with an ethereal language that recalls Messiaen, sometimes with Impressionistic washes, and discreetly using prepared piano effects for colour.

The works of the 1970s continued the preoccupation with atmosphere and with ancient forms and symbols, but within less frenetic structures. These include the Lys de madrigaux (Lily of Madrigals, 1976) for chorus and instrumental ensemble, the atmospheric Mass (1970), with early Christian elements, and the especially effective Livres des prodiges (Book of Prodigies, 1978-1979), a kind of concerto for orchestra that evokes early mythical images, from the inversion of sun and moon, through the winged bull and the Hydra, to Afro-Cuban rhythmic ideas couched in a more international language. In all these works, the orchestra is used to shape colour above everything else, with prominent brass, often harsher-sounding percussion, colour blocks, and atmospheric effects, sometimes with a sense of rather brutal or rigid underlying rhythms. His more recent works have included a chamber opera triptych, Trois contes de l'honorable fleur (Three Tales of the Honorable Flower, first performed 1978), which include electronic sounds, and the opera La Célestine (first performed 1988).

Ohana's music emerges as a modern, sometimes derivative and often complex idiom that demands concentration. It evokes, through the atmospheric and colour-conscious use of that idiom, symbols or images on an emotional, subconscious level in a manner that withstands purely abstract consideration. In this his aims were not unlike those of his contemporary Dutilleux, and if he did not have the French composer's clarity of musical imagination, those who respond to the Dutilleux's music - or indeed to the orchestral works of Messiaen - may well find Ohana's music an interesting experience. Anyone interested in the 20th-century song-cycle should include Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias among their list of core works.


works include:

- cello concerto; guitar concerto (Tre gráficos); Chiffres de Clavecin and Sarabande for harpsichord and orch.; Synaxis for 2 pianos and orch.; Silenciaire for 6 percussionists and strings

- Livres des Prodiges for orch.

- Quatre études choréographiques for percussion; Signes for wind instruments, zither in third tones, flute, piano and percussion

- piano sonatina; Caprichos and Twenty-Four Preludes for piano

- Si le jour parait and Tientos for guitar

- song-cycle Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias; Tombeau de Claude Debussy for soprano, zither tuned in third tones, piano and chamber orch.; Messe for soloists, chorus and instrumental ensemble; Cantigas for chorus, piano, winds and percussion; Cris for chorus a capella and percussion

- chamber opera Syllabaire pour Phèdre and Trois contes de l'honorable fleur; opera La Célestine


recommended works:

Guitar Concerto Tre gráphicos (1950-1957)

Livres des prodiges (1978-1979) for orchestra

song-cycle Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejias (1950)

Twenty-Four Preludes for piano



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