Carmelo Bernaola

With the deaths, a day apart, of Carmelo Bernaola and Francisco Escudero, Spain has lost two of her most important composers, both of them Basque.

One of the fundamental influences on Bernaola's musical development was the popular songs he heard all around him as he was growing up, sung in his mother's bar and played by the local band. He enjoyed a normal schooling until he was six, when at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War his home town, Ochandiano, was shelled and his father was briefly imprisoned. The family then moved to Medina de Pomar in Burgos, where Carmelo's musical training began in earnest, with lessons in solfege and trumpet from the local bandmaster, Servacio Martin.

His interest extended to other instruments, taking lessons on the requinto (the four-string folk guitar) and the clarinet, which was to earn him his keep for many years; he also taught himself the saxophone and the piano. Bernaola was only 13 or 14 when he first appeared in public, playing in a local trio and the municipal band, and thus enjoyed his first fees as a professional musician; he also began composing marches for the band.

A move to Burgos in 1944 allowed him to study harmony with Domingo Amoreti, whose cathedral choir he also joined and for which he began to write choral music; and in 1949 he was appointed second clarinet in the Orquestra Sinfonica de Burgos (the leader was Rafael Fruehbeck, later to gain fame as a conductor). His career was now interrupted by military service, but he managed to turn it to musical advantage by getting himself posted to the band of the Ministry of the Army.

The posting, moreover, brought him to Madrid, and he made full use of the musical opportunities the city offered him. He joined the municipal band there too and, with his clarinet bringing him economic security, enrolled in a number of courses at the Conservatorio de Madrid: harmony with Enrique Masso (his studies were rewarded with a Premio Extraordinario), counterpoint and fugue with Francisco Calés, history of music with José Fons and composition with Julio Gomez; he picked up a number of other prizes, for clarinet, counterpoint and fugue, chamber music and composition. He later singled out Gomez's teaching for its blend of technical rigor and a flexibility that allowed the student his head.

Bernaola's compositions were beginning to attract attention: his Music for Wind Quintet (1955) obtained an honorary mention in that year's Premio Nacional de Musica. He began to show an interest in dodecaphony around this time, studying the scores of the Second Viennese School and discussing them with Luis de Pablo, then Spain's leading modernist. Bartok's works, and his treatment of folk music, were also powerful influences, as were Stravinsky and Hindemith, particularly in his orchestration.

Two further important contacts came when he attended a course at Compostela in 1959 and met the composers Alexander Tansman and André Jolivet, as well as the conductor Edmond de Stoutzé the result was an invitation to join Jolivet's classes in Paris and a commission for a violin concerto for de Stoutz's Zurich Chamber Orchestra.

The next step in Bernaola's life came in 1960 when he won the Gran Premio Roma which brought a two-year sojourn in the Academia de Bellas Artes de España (where there was a spectacular view over Rome down from San Pietro in Montorio) and informal composition classes with Goffredo Petrassi. He spent those two summers at the new-music course in Darmstadt, where he studied with Bruno Maderna and, in Messiaen's class, was introduced to the music of Boulez, Nono, Pousseur and Stockhausen.

He found time, too, to attend courses at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, meeting a number of important compatriots, among them Segovia, Cassado and Zabaleta, and taking two classes that were to be of particular importance: film music with Francesco Lavagnino and conducting with Sergiu Celibidache, from whose fiercely analytical approach Bernaola learned a good deal.

The music of this period shows a growing interest in serialism: the Piccolo Concerto for violin and strings of 1960 marries concerto-grosso form with serial procedures, applied more rigorously in Constantes of the same year. And with Superficie No 1 (1961), which elevates timbre over thematicism, he felt he had at last attained a mature musical language.

Returning to Madrid in 1962, he found himself in the agreeable company of other avant-gardist composers, among them Cristóbal Halffter and Luis de Pablo, who were roundly rejected by a conservative musical establishment: the 1962 premiere of Espacios variados, his first work for full orchestra, attracted opprobrium in the press, which didn't obstruct the flow of further compositions, one of them, Jarraipen (1967), his only electronic work. Among musicians, though, his status was secure, and he soon became a sought-after teacher, appreciated by younger composers for his open mind.

It was in 1964 that Bernaola while continuing to experiment in his concert works, with collage, block scoring, aleatory began to write the music that was to make him a household name in Spain: over one hundred film scores (covering a range of genres, including comedy and horror) and incidental music for television, stage and radio. His soundtrack for one of Spain's most popular TV series of the 1980s, Verano Azul, is a tune that almost any Spaniard over the age of 30 will whistle without hesitation.

He wouldn't have been able to produce the sheer quantity of music required without the craftsmanship he had learned the hard way. And, if that weren't enough to prove that, despite his modernist enthusiasms, he was no ivory-tower abstractionist, his Polivalentes (1978) would have done so: it united his own mature orchestral style with the sound of the banda of his youth. He returned to his own Basque country in the early 1980s when he was appointed director of the Conservatorio de Vitoria, where he established the electro-acoustic laboratory and continued his much-esteemed teaching many of Spain's most promising young composers were students of his.

Bernaola was a colourful man, with a lively sense of humour (and occasional bad temper), and fond of decorating his conversations with swear-words. But his talk would as happily encompass gastronomy or ancient history as music and football: he was an ardent enthusiast, and composed the anthem for Athletic de Bilbao.

Martin Anderson

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1961 (3?) Superficie No 1 4.00 stars LP
New Music I Comments:

Contemporary Music Ensemble Of Madrid cond. Enrice Garcia Asensio