Unlocking the music of Maurice Ohana

'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


Pliable said…
Strangely it appears that the Erato 4CD box of Maurice Ohana's music isn't available in North America, which I guess only confirms my point about him remaining unknown outside France.

But it is available from Amazon.co.uk and several resellers and it is very well worth the overseas shipping and a few extra days wait -

Unknown said…

Even though I had the Erato set, you're making me intend to listen to it.

I do not, as I may have said, entirely agree with you about Foulds's Requiem -- and on another eccentric (in the objective sense of having an odd relationship with the centre), the ever-perplexing Havergal Brian, I don't agree with your comment somewhere that he uses an unnecessary number of notes! He's very strange, but he isn't prolix.

I will post on him myself soon.

Pliable said…
David thanks, and, as ever, I have no problem with healthy and amicable disagreement.

But there is a far more important point. The reader stats show that you and I have introduced an extraordinarily large number of people to the music of Maurice Ohana - and that's what An Overgrown Path is about.
Pliable said…
Do blogs affect CD sales?

When I uploaded this post at 3.15pm this afternoon the Erato Ohana box had an Amazon.co.uk sales rank of 33,007.

Six hours later the sales rank is 5,518.
Matthew Roy said…
I'm a burgeoning musicologist with a passion for the prelude genre. Right now I'm listening to Ohana's 24 Preludes on Naxos' Music Library. Do you know where I can get more information about these works? Microtonal? Serial? I am not finding the Moroccan influence. :)
Enjoy your site and hope to explore it more.
Nicolò Spera said…
Dear friends of Maurice Ohana,

I am writing a little note to invite you to a presentation I will be giving on his music this coming March, at the University of Surrey:

I hope we'll be in touch to share more of this unique, powerful music, and bring it to the world out there!
Kindest regards,
Nicolò Spera

Here I am writing an abstract for this lecture-recital:

Towards a Lexicon of Twentieth Century Topics: Maurice Ohana’s Si le jour paraît… (1963–4) for Guitar

The role of topics in 18th and 19th century music is well known and has been extensively studied by such scholars as Lenoard Ratner, Kofi Agawu, Jonathan Bellman and others.
In more recent music, charting topics has proved more problematic: the notion of topics seems inextricably linked with a “common practice,” whereas the twentieth century has been an era of personal languages, elusive psychological exploration and stylistic experimentation.
To produce a “master list” of topics for even a small cross-section of modernist composers may not be an impossible task, but it will have to be constructed composer by composer, as we remain sensitive to intersections between one sound world and another. Of course, some composers will lend themselves more to this kind of examination than others. Maurice Ohana is a particularly suitable composer.
Born as he was in Casablanca, brought up in Gibraltar, educated in France and widely traveled, his music offers an eclectic mix of elements from the music of Spain (in particular the cante jondo of flamenco), Africa, Afro-Cuban folk traditions and the music that grew out of French Impressionism, as well as the distant past.
In this lecture, I shall identify topics in a large-scale work for ten-string guitar dating from Ohana’s first maturity, Si le jour paraît…, constructing my lexicon of topics by relating the music to other works of Ohana.
A performance of Si le jour paraît… will follow the lecture.

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