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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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South African classical music has not been heard widely outside its borders. The major South African composer, Priaulx R ainier (1903-1986) spent most of her compositional life in the U.K., but her music was influenced by indigenous South African music. Among her contemporaries, John Joubert (born 1927) taught at Birmingham University in England from 1927, with two symphonies and seven operas among his works, while the piano music of Herbert Du Plessis shows the influence of Bartók. The most important South African composer of the next generation, Kevin Volans (born 1949) moved to Germany in 1973. African influences are prominent in She Who Sleeps with a Blanket (1985) for percussion, and his string quartets, impelled by native African music and minimalist in feel, have been widely heard. The String Quartet No.1 `White Man Sleeps' (1987) has delicate repeated patterns grouped in phrases that are interrupted by rhythmic pauses, suggesting sometimes African drumming, sometimes African string music, alluring, rhythmically invigorating, and often with the beauty of sounds heard from afar over a wide landscape. The String Quartet No.2 `Hunting:Gathering' (1987) `paraphrases' from Ethiopian, Zimbabwean and Malian music, with 23 different sections covered in twenty-six minutes, linked in a pseudo-narrative form. It is influenced by Reich in the melodic and harmonic figures, but creates its own atmosphere, with ethereal snatches, sometimes weaving little nets of counterpoint. The String Quartet No.3 is titled `The Songlines' (1988), the String Quartet No.4 (1990) `Ramanujan Notebooks'. The opera The Man with the Soles of Wind (1992) was based on the life of the poet Artur Rimbaud. Of other South African composers, Allan Stephenson (born 1949 near Liverpool, England) has written two symphonies and a number of concertos in a very conservative style, of which the infectious little Oboe Concerto (1978) for oboe and chamber orchestra would make a pleasant accompaniment to a genteel afternoon tea, its slow movement under the spell of Rodrigo's guitar concerto. His Concertino for Piccolo, Strings and Harpsichord (1980), a rare work for such an instrument, is in a similar vein.





born 3rd February 1903 at Howick, Natal

died 10th October 1986 at Besse-čn-Chandesse (France)


Brought up among a largely Zulu population in her home area in South Africa, which exposed her to the influence of indigenous rhythms and colours, Priaulx Rainier settled in London on completing her musical studies. She became noticed as a composer with the Three Greek Epigrams (1937) and the String Quartet (1936-1939), where the absorbed and abstracted (rather than pictorial) echoes of her childhood appear in the exotic, if sparse, colours (including the use of harmonics), in the insistent ostinato rhythms, and in the wide variety of mood and effect in what is otherwise a largely post-Romantic work.

Her earlier music follows this idiom, concentrating on chamber works and ignoring counterpoint in favour of straightforward melodic patterns, with the exception of the Viola Sonata (1945), which introduced a characteristic mood of the sombre and rugged. The African influence appeared more directly in the attractive Two Songs for Tenor and Guitar (1948), with elements of African rhythms in the first and the second setting a Zulu poem, and in the Barbaric Dance Suite (1949) for piano. Two important vocal works written for the tenor Peter Pears followed: the Cycle for Declamation (1952) and the Requiem (1956) for tenor and unaccompanied choir. The former is for tenor voice alone, setting passages from John Donne's Devotions, and indeed uses a declamatory style, the silences between the sentences an integral part of the effect. The latter, to texts by David Gascoyne, is forceful and sparse, the soloist and chorus often echoing or merging with each other, the vocal lines characterized by wide leaps and unsettled rhythms and a declamatory feel, with few points of relief from the overall sense of homophonic tension. Rainier then evolved her style to emphasize the abstract and unsettled qualities, with small motifs replacing thematic material, more chromatic harmonies, more complex rhythms, and greater variety of colours and textures. The dark String Trio (1966) is composed of fragments of ideas and moods, from the intense to the more ruminative, with the wide leaps seen in the Requiem again evident. It has the sense of eavesdropping on a series of circular musical events, rather than a journey between two points, an extension of ideas formulated in the oboe quartet Quanta (1962) whose title is based on quantum theory. The fragmentary effect of the rhythmic snatches and ideas in the quartet is in keeping with the avant-garde patterns of the day, although the underlying basis remains tonal, and a sense of flow is maintained through the atmospheric and gritty work by the regular merging of one instrument into another. The Cello Concerto (1964) is in two movements, with a rhetorical solo line, while each of the seven continuous sections of the orchestral suite Aequora Lunae (1967) describe the affective associations of seven of the seas of the Moon, together forming a `cycle of fertility'. The orchestra is divided into two parts which exchange textures, strings with brass and hard percussion against woodwind and softer percussion. The colour effects include chord clusters and numerous wind solos. Rainier returned to vocal writing with a setting of an extended metaphysical and mystical poem by Edith Sitwell, The Bee Oracles (1969), for tenor, flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord. Again there is a fragmentary quality, but it is combined with a exotic feel partly created by the colours of the instrumentation. Sections of intense forcefulness contrast with the more drifting and ruminative. An unusual sense of progression is achieved through an underlying rhythmic repetitive structure for the vocal line, against which the instruments set up more varied rhythmic conjunctions.

Throughout her output, Rainier's voice is often hard and uncompromising, and completely without any sense of sentimentality. Yet underneath this surface lie fragments of sound patterns, a held chord here, a colour texture there, that clearly derive from her childhood inheritance, like a landscape emerging underneath a hard dawn light. These became more striking and recognizable as her idiom became freer, more abstract and more individual. That idiom will not find a wide appeal, but has an inner sincerity and interest for those prepared to tackle its tough exterior. She deserves to be wider known as one of the more distinctive woman's compositional voices of the century. Rainier taught at the Royal Academy of Music from 1942 to 1961.


works include:

- Sinfonia da Camera

- cello concerto

- Aequora Lunae and Phalaphala for orch.

- Pastoral Triptych for solo oboe;Suite for Clarinet and Piano; viola sonata; string trio; Quanta for oboe quartet; string quartet

- Organ Gloriana and Primordial Canticles for organ

- song cycle for Declamation; Requiem for tenor and unaccompanied choir; Two African Songs for tenor and guitar and other songs

- Barbaric Dance Suite and Five keyboard Pieces for piano


recommended works:

The Bee Oracles (1969) for tenor, flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord

Requiem (1956) for tenor and unaccompanied chorus

Quanta (1962) for oboe quartet

String Trio (1966)

Two Songs for Tenor and Guitar (1948)


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