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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

HERMIT AT HEART

Carolyn Nott pays an eightieth birthday tribute to her husband, the composer GERARD SCHURMANN

It's hard to believe that Gerard was eighty on 19 January 2004. He seems no different from when I met him almost forty years ago, except that his hair is now white. Dictionaries and magazines frequently misquoted his age over the years. To rectify this situation, Gerard allowed me to give a copy of his birth certificate to Nicholas Slonimsky as proof of the right date for his Baker's Dictionary. Believe it or not, even he still got it wrong! Admittedly, the certificate issued in the former Dutch East Indies is confusing and reads like a book without punctuation. Amidst a string of strange and colourful names of towns, districts, sub-districts, and residencies, sounding like an Asian version of Tolkien's Middle Earth, is a date not of Gerard's birth but of its registration by his father, Johan Gerhard Schurmann, then thirty-five years old and an officer at a sugar factory (subsequently he became the proprietor of his own wine and cigar import/export business). Rambling on like a fairy tale, the saga goes on to describe Gerard's birth as taking place at a distance of more than ten poles from the building where the certificates of the Civil Registration were made up - and finally we have the date - on January nineteen, one thousand nine hundred twenty-four, in the evening at fifty minutes past seven.

After wartime service in the RAF, Gerard lived and worked as a composer and conductor in England for over forty continuous years, apart from a brief sojourn in the Netherlands in his early twenties when he was a resident conductor at the radio in Hilversum. Born into a highly cosmopolitan family, Gerard has cousins on his father's side in Holland, England, France, Sweden and America, plus, on his mother's side in Holland, Hungary and Scotland. His uncle, Carl Schurmann, former senior Netherlands Ambassador to the UN and in Washington, married an English girl and educated his three sons at Eton. I remember that thirty years ago all three had Dutch passports, yet spoke not a word of Dutch. In England, during the war, Carl gave a series of lectures on Dutch music from the Old Netherlands School to the present, illustrated by Gerard at the piano

As Cultural Attaché at the Netherlands Embassy in London immediately after the war, Gerard was instrumental in arranging exchanges of musicians and art exhibitions, as well as setting up scholarships between England and Holland. This resulted in numerous performances in the Netherlands of music by Alan Rawsthorne (Gerard's lifelong close friend and mentor), Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, among others, including the first post-war performance of Tippett's A Child of our Time in Arnhem. Gerard himself conducted the first performance of Elizabeth Lutyens' Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra and her Viola Concerto with the Radio Philharmonic in Hilversum.

Gerard was very homesick for England after we moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and, to this day, he regards England as his true spiritual home. His only daughter Karen, by his first marriage to the violinist Vivien Hind, lives in the north of England with her artist husband and children, and runs a successful alternative medicine practice. California, on the other hand, instilled in us the feeling that anything was possible. We live perched on a promontory in the Hollywood Hills where Gerard likes being in a country setting among woods and wild animals, yet at the centre of a large, dynamic city. We regularly encounter coyotes, racoons, possums, and snakes, as well as deer that canter violently past us chased by our dog. Most romantic of all are the red-tailed hawks, which circle and plummet into the valley between our hill and the next. Somewhat of a hermit at heart, Gerard enjoys the feeling of isolation, as long as it is tempered by occasional visits to festivals, orchestras, and universities.

With a body of work behind him before we left England, culminating in his Opera/Cantata Piers Plowman - a commission from the Dutch Radio in Hilversum premièred at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in August 1980 - Gerard has produced a steady flow of compositions in California. He has a reputation for working slowly, but composition occupies his mind consciously or sub-consciously throughout the day, even - I suspect - when he is eating or watching his favourite British comedies on television!

When we first arrived in Los Angeles, he missed his soundproof London studio, and it was three years before we were able to build a similar workplace for him among the trees on our land, a short walk from the house. After our arrival, he completed the Two Ballades for Piano that he began in London, and almost immediately he received a commission from the violinist Earl Carlyss and his wife, pianist Ann Schein, for a violin and piano Duo, which they premièred at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and New York in March 1984. That same year, Gerard received an award from the US National Endowment for the Arts, which, along with a number of performances of his music in the US, helped him to feel accepted and part of the concert scene in America.

Quite different, however, was the response from the film industry, which in England had provided an important source of income. It seemed that because he came with a reputation as a 'serious music' composer, the film industry was not interested. Gerard composed scores for only two films after moving to America and both of these were made outside the US. The first, in 1984, was an Italian film called Claretta, about the last days of Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci, starring Claudia Cardinale. The second, a treatment of Dostoyevsky's autobiographical novella, The Gambler, made in 1996, came to him because the British producer did not want 'a typical film composer'. A CD of the music was subsequently issued on the Virgin Classics label.

While Gerard worked on Claretta, we spent five months of fraught enjoyment in Rome, staying at a hotel that possessed one of the best restaurants in town. However, for Gerard this pleasure was tempered by the difficulty of working with a hot-headed, musically ignorant director who shot most of his scenes containing dialogue with Wagner's music playing in the background, in order, as he explained, to create the right atmosphere for the actors. In Italy, it is usual for the original dialogue track to be discarded and then re-recorded in the studio. The music sessions for the film were recorded in Rome with Gerard conducting the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, and an LP of the brooding, emotionally charged score was issued on CBS. Gerard had been an occasional guest conductor with the orchestra in the past, sometimes combining it with an engagement in Naples and the Scarlatti Orchestra. The album of Claretta sold well, and the music continues to have a life of its own.

In 1987, Dennis Burkh, Music Director of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in Czechoslovakia, had the idea of commissioning Gerard to arrange a set of Slovak Folk Songs for his Slovak-born friend, Stephen Roman, whose Company, Denison Mines in Canada, controlled the largest uranium mine in the world. Both Stephen and his wife Betty shared a nostalgic enthusiasm for Slovak folk music and, in order for Gerard - who speaks no Czech or Slovak - to become familiar with it, they arranged for us to visit their palatial home just outside Toronto where they had invited a group of around thirty Slovak men and women to give him a demonstration of the Romans' favourite folk songs. These they sang a cappella and without harmony amid constant bickering and arguments about the correct versions of rhythm, words and often the vocal line itself. All of this was recorded on cassette and given to Gerard who subsequently consulted a few additional Slovak sources in an effort to resolve the discrepancies. It took him almost a year to complete a set of Nine Slovak Folk Songs for Orchestra, with soprano and tenor soloists. Unfortunately, Stephen Roman died in 1988 and was never able to hear this charming and popular work.

Our second decade in America, during the nineties, saw us emerge gradually from the initial struggle to acclimatize ourselves and establish a secure financial footing without Gerard's film work as one of our main sources of income. We survived our first major earthquake in 1994, a terrifying event that shook the house with a deafening roar and flung its contents around like a poltergeist, causing total disorder and minor structural damage at four o'clock in the morning. That same year, Gerard went into hospital for a major operation. He recovered well, but it took time. Before the operation, he had received a commission from Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to write a Concerto for Orchestra for the occasion of the orchestra's centenary. It was performed at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh in March 1996 and many people, including those who have written about the subsequent Chandos CD of the work, performed by the BBC Philharmonic with Gerard conducting, have remarked on its fertile inventiveness and orchestral mastery. I remember that with health concerns behind him composition appeared to go smoothly, and Gerard was as happy and engrossed in his work as I had ever seen him. On the same CD is the Violin Concerto that he wrote in 1978 for Ruggiero Ricci's fiftieth jubilee as a solo violinist, a very different story in terms of its compositional progress, which took place over the course of four years.

Perhaps because we were more settled, and I was out of the house working, the nineties were fruitful years for Gerard's composition. New works included The Gardens of Exile for Cello and Orchestra, a commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which premièred the work in Poole, Bristol and Southampton with Peter Rejto as soloist in 1990, and two Piano Quartets (the first dating back to 1986), both written for the Los Angeles Piano Quartet and premièred in the US almost a decade apart at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in Arizona. All three works are available on CD.

At eighty, Gerard shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, his creative impulse is stronger than ever. New works include Gaudiana, a substantial set of Symphonic Studies for large orchestra and a tribute to the extraordinary architecture of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain; a Trio for Clarinet Cello and Piano to be premièred at the Tucson Festival in March 2004; and Six Songs of William Blake, written to a commission from the Rawsthorne Society. For the latter work, he used some of the same poems and musical material from a discarded earlier song-cycle to poems of William Blake, which he wrote in 1955 for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

As I write, Gerard is finishing a String Quartet to be premièred in 2004 by the Chilingirian Quartet. It is actually his third work in the genre, but the first two have been withdrawn by Gerard along with many of his other early works. There is an interesting history attached to his first String Quartet, written in 1943 when he was still in the RAF. It was dedicated to HM Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who lived in exile in England during the Second World War, and the work was first performed in the presence of Her Majesty in London by the Hirsch String Quartet, who played it subsequently at many of their concerts. Gerard's Second String Quartet, written in 1946, was a ten-minute piece, composed in response to competition guidelines that required it to be a prelude to Bartók's Third String Quartet. It was performed by both the Dutch Sweelinck Quartet and the Hungarian Quartet before Gerard withdrew the work and subsequently used some of its material for his chamber orchestral work Variants in 1970.

Still very much to the fore at eighty is Gerard's sense of fun, along with his capacity to enjoy life, whether it's his love of reading, good food, travel, exploring new things and our animals. He enjoys listening to music by younger composers and believes it is now their turn to be given vital opportunities. Today, mercifully free of former preoccupations with prevailing musical fashions, Gerard seems to be at his prime, confident in his style, and ready to go on composing new music for at least twenty more years.

© 19 January 2004 Carolyn Nott, Los Angeles, USA

[Carolyn Nott's tribute to Gerard Schurmann was first published in the January/February 2004 issue of Musical Opinion]

 



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