'Neglected genius' and 'undiscovered masterpiece' have become devalued marketing-speak following the John Foulds World Requiem debacle last year. And yes, I know I've used those words myself enough times. But recently both here and on Future Radio I have tried simply to present the music, irrespective of how well or little known the composer is. The music itself is the best advocate of a composer's powers and the listener is the best judge. So as presenter I now try simply to be a conduit for the artist's genius, or otherwise. In that spirit I am discussing a composer today who will probably be as unfamiliar to most readers as he was to me until recently, and my best introduction is to say I was very surprised I had not come across him before.
Maurice Ohana's musical influences are truly multi-cultural. He was born in Casablanca , Morocco in 1913 one year after the Treaty of Fès imposed French rule on the country. He came from Sephardic-Jewish stock and his parents were of Spanish-Gibraltarian origin and held British nationality as a result of the Gibraltar connection. This meant that Ohana was a British citizen until he became a French national in 1976. But although the British side of his parents determined his nationality it was his Spanish ancestry coupled with his exposure to traditional tribal music from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa and Afro-Cuban folk-music that helped forge his musical style. The photos accompanying this post were all taken during my recent visit to Morocco and I hope they give a flavour of the unique culture that helped mould the young composer.
The teenage Ohana left Morocco to study architecture in Paris, a vocation he shared with Iannis Xenakis. But he soon switched his studies to music and became a concert pianist on graduating. He worked as pianist with a Spanish dance group and became immersed in the music of Falla, Albéniz and Granados. But he saw his future as a composer and in 1937 enrolled in the composition class at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where Renaissance polyphony added another layer to his cosmopolitan composition style. His studies were cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War and, unlike several other composers, Ohana was committed to fighting the horror of Fascism. He escaped to Britain via Portugal in 1940 and saw active service with the British Army in several theatres of war.
When Ohana returned to Paris after demobilisation in 1946 he found himself marginalised by what he considered to be doctrinaire groups who had pursued their music careers during the German occupation. Although Ohana's voice was contemporary and he certainly wasn't swimming against the tide of modernism he felt out of sympathy with Boulez and other members of the Darmstadt School. So Ohana joined with three like-minded composers to form the Groupe Zodiaque which was committed to freedom of musical expression developed from sources such as folk music and plainchant rather than the perceived tyranny of tone rows. This group gained support from Henri Dutilleux and other contemporary composers. But Ohana's refusal to align himself with the fashionable avant-garde left him unclassified and largely unknown outside France. Sixteen years after his death he remains an overlooked figure, a sad and surprising situation given the huge impact of Hispanic culture on contemporary North America.
But at this point I am going to break from the chronological narrative because I've noticed several readers logging off with a resigned sigh saying 'Oh no, here we go again, Ohana is just a late-20th century John Foulds'. Please stop before you leave. Because Maurice Ohana was not a disciple of Darmstadt and IRCAM does not mean he was a reactionary who spent his time writing 'comfort music'. His stylistic influences were pretty eclectic even if they did not include the holy trinity of Boulez, Messiaen and Stockhausen. That great figure of twentieth century music Igor Stravinsky was a major influence with Ohana's Livre des Prodiges (“Book of the Prodigies”) for orchestra paying homage to the Rite through quotation, while some of Ohana's progressive counterpoint recalls Witold Lutoslawski and there are also hints of Carl Orff in his writing for voices.
Among Ohana's early influences are de Falla with whom he shared a passion for the harpsichord, and Ohana's own wonderfully edgy contribution to the harpsichord repertoire looks forward to Xenakis and shares Elisabeth Chojnacka as an advocate. Ohana's orchestral balances were of the moment and favoured piano and percussion over strings, and he explored new techniques including the use of micro-intervals and writing for the voice as instrument rather than narrator. But counterbalancing these contemporary credentials were references to the past including Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Andalusian flamenco.
But I'm going off track again. Ohana would probably have hated my dogmatic attempts to categorise his output, and anyway the music is his most eloquent advocate. For just £12 ($24) you can buy Erato's superb 4CD overview of Maurice Ohana's music which includes what is arguably his finest work Syllabaire pour Phèdre from 1967 together with Livres des prodiges from 1979, plus his first cello concerto and some of his fine music for harpsichord played by the incomparable Elisabeth Chojnacka and much more supported by a fine essay from the composer's biographer Caroline Rae. As I said at the beginning I'm just the conduit. But, believe me, the music of Maurice Ohana is well worth unlocking. My copies of the Erato discs have received far more than the industry standard 1.3 playings and they will be receiving an airing soon on my Future Radio programme. So for this contemporary composer from Casablanca it really is - play it again Ohana
Maurice Ohana website here, read about the Sephardic Jews here.
With thanks to David Derrick for giving me the key to this particular door. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2008. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk