1924 - 2020
Gerard Schurmann was born of Dutch parents in the former Dutch East Indies, but lived in England from childhood until 1981, when he settled in the United States. He studied composition with Alan Rawsthorne, who became a lifelong friend, piano with Kathleen Long and conducting with Franco Ferrara. The recipient of numerous international awards and commissions, Gerard Schurmann wrote music for a wide variety of media. His catalogue of concert works includes Six Studies of Francis Bacon (1968) and Variants (1970) for orchestra, The Gardens of Exile (1989-90) for cello and orchestra, the opera-cantata Piers Plowman (1979-80), the choral cantata The Double Heart (1976), concertos for Violin and Piano and many solo instrumental works, songs and chamber music. Schurmann's Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and first performed by them for their centenary anniversary concert in March 1996, with conductor Edo de Waart. The piece was subsequently recorded on the Chandos label, alongside Schurmann’s Violin Concerto, featuring the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer. Gaudiana (2000-2001), a set of Symphonic Studies for Orchestra that draws its inspiration from the work of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí , was written for and first performed by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Gerard Schurmann made his home in the USA, but continued to have close musical ties with England and Europe until his death in 2020.
Schurmann's orchestration is dazzling - a combination of French fastidiousness and American boldness. - BBC Music Magazine (Violin Concerto)
Concert audiences will welcome Schurmann's crusading zeal, and, I hope, the flashing heavyweight bravura solo piano part so perfectly tailored to [John] Ogdon's special accomplishments....
- The Times (Piano Concerto)
Use of the orchestra was brilliant, particularly the masterly percussion effects, echoing Dr. Schurmann's childhood acquaintance with Javanese orchestras.
- Bournemouth Evening Echo (The Gardens of Exile)
The quickly changing moods and blazing flash of colors are most persuasively balanced in this volatile and delicate collection, in which Schurmann's mastery of the orchestra is everywhere apparent.
- Akron Beacon Journal (Six Studies of Francis Bacon)
Gerard Schurmann was born of Dutch parents in the former Dutch East Indies, but lived in England from childhood until 1981, when he settled in the United States. He studied privately with Alan Rawsthorne, but was largely self-taught as a composer. At the end of World War II, during which he served in the RAF, Schurmann, while still in his early twenties, was appointed Dutch cultural attaché in London by the Netherlands Government. He held this position for three years, combining it with a successful career as a pianist and composer, before being appointed resident orchestral conductor to the Dutch Radio in Hilversum. At the end of his term there, Gerard returned to England in order to concentrate on composition.
Commissions and awards followed, together with a career as a composer and orchestrator of music for films. Among the 45 feature films on which he worked are the two Oscar winning scores for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Exodus.” Other film credits include: “The Vikings,” “The Lost Continent,” “The Ceremony,” “The Bedford Incident,” “Cross of Iron,” “Claretta,” and, most recently, “The Gambler.”
Published by Novello & Co., his concert works have been performed by major orchestras and ensembles throughout the world. Slow working and self-critical, Schurmann achieved intensity of expression through telling contrapuntal writing and a rich, individual harmonic language which often accommodated pentatonic scales to colouristic advantage. Vivid orchestration and a refined ear for instrumental detail lend clarity to form and structure.
Schurmann’s work is approachable through two main avenues. On the one hand, there are the brilliant, highly coloured orchestral canvases, whose expressionism touches both extremes. Six Studies of Francis Bacon, a product of close friendship with the painter, is typical, boldly individual and forcefully expressive. The later Concerto for Orchestra likewise sets off sections of the orchestra in a fusillade of sound to immediate and powerful effect. On the other hand, Schurmann introduces a balancing calm and serenity, most obvious in the accompanied vocal works and concise chamber ensembles. Typical of the former is Chuench’i, an exquisite setting for high voice and piano of Chinese poems (later orchestrated) which captivates by its wistful expressiveness. Both solo concertos, for Piano and Violin, are impassioned virtuosic works. The Gardens of Exile, virtually a cello concerto, echoes nostalgically the gamelan music, and related Hungarian folk-melody, that the composer heard in childhood. Oriental flavouring, including occasional hints of Javanese music, recalls Schurmann’s Dutch East Indies origin, but also reflects, especially in the chamber pieces, the music of Bartok with whom his mother, the daughter of Hungarian parents studied piano in Budapest.
All of Gerard Schurmann’s best qualities seem to fuse in his 1980 “Opera-Cantata” Piers Plowman; immense spareness and concision (the whole 55-minute work derives from a five-note opening motif), dramatic power, deft orchestral colourings and the weaving of solo lines of a rare beauty conjure up audible magic. In The Double Heart, an a capella work written for the BBC Singers, Schurmann weaves a tour-de-force of canonic counterpoint for double choir. His chamber and solo instrumental works, exemplified by the two Piano Quartets—a splendid route into Schurmann’s carefully controlled and richly varied output—and the Duo for Violin and Piano, are strongly characterized, important additions to the repertoire.
Schurmann’s output is meticulously crafted, highly inventive, elegantly sensuous in melodic line, and emotionally direct.