18 July 2014 at 11.00am | Comment on this article
H.K. Gruber has never been afraid to be different. He has spent nearly fifty years at the forefront of European music successfully evading categorization. Whether madcap, melancholic, macabre, melodic or simply silly, Gruber’s music is always and absolutely individual.
Gruber’s musical life began in the Vienna Boys’ Choir. He knew from a young age that he would compose, but the choirmaster, inspired by the young Gruber’s musicality and sheer size, suggested he learn the double bass. After graduating from the Vienna Hochschule he played with two orchestras and by 1969 was principal with the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he stayed until 1997 – a decision, Gruber says, that enabled him always to remain independent as a composer.
The orchestra turned out to be the ideal environment in which to explore the extremes of his colleagues' instruments, while his double bass provided the perfect conduit through which to discover the inner workings of jazz. No less significant was Gruber's work as an actor and singer, experience that fuels both his text-based work and the sense of theatrical spectacle that pervades his output.
In the late 1960s Gruber and his friends Kurt Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan founded the musical ensemble MOB art & ton ART, to perform their own music and that of composers they admired. In all of their compositions they were reacting against the avant-garde ethos preached by the Darmstadt school of Stockhausen and Boulez – music that for Gruber and his friends had simply no appeal. Though the ensemble was short-lived, its performances were enough to firmly establish these young composers as a new school of contemporary music – jokingly termed ‘the Third Viennese School’, in affectionate homage to the Second of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
So what did Gruber and his 'school' do that was so distinctive? First and foremost was their move ‘forwards’ to tonality, as Gruber likes to term it – quite the opposite direction from the total serialism dictated by Darmstadt. Gruber's love of the sometimes cabaret-like music of Weill and Eisler, coupled with his particular talent as a melodist, have encouraged him to find ways of building tonal music on serialist scaffolding. The results, combining lyricism with a rewardingly intricate structure, often win Gruber's works comparisons to Berg's beloved Violin Concerto. This combination of melody, ingenious structuring and highly imaginative orchestration was enough to soon get Gruber noticed by the leading musical figures of our time.
Gruber rose to fame on the back of his 'pan-demonium' Frankenstein!!, first performed in 1978 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The work is an adaptation of a semi-improvisational suite Gruber created back in 1970 as an accompaniment to recorded extracts of Austrian poet H.C. Artmann's macabre children's collection allerleirausch ('All kinds of noise'). Gruber's music, especially in the tightened later version, is as subversive as the poetry, playful, childlike and innocent on the surface (with many of the instrumentalists required to double up on toy instruments such as the swanee whistle and harmonica horn) but with a deeply unsettling undercurrent. Frankenstein!! remains Gruber’s most popular work, while Gruber himself has performed the chansonnier role more than 1,000 times.
Amid concertos for violinist Ernst Kovacic (…aus schatten duft gewebt and Nebelsteinmusik), trumpeter Håken Hardenberger (Aerial and Busking) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, further Rattle commissions (Dancing in the Dark for the Vienna Philharmonic) and operas (Der Herr Nordwind for Zürich Opera and Tales from the Vienna Woods for the Bregenz Festival), Gruber continues to conduct and perform around the world. He champions not only his own work but also that of his favourite composers, including Weill, Eisler, Schwertsik, Gottfried von Einem and James MacMillan.
Gloria – A Pigtale is Amanda Holden’s translation of Gruber’s Gloria von Jaxtberg, first performed at the 1994 Huddersfield Festival. Like all Gruber's works, it melds a wide range of forms – cabaret, Strauss waltzes, jazz, burlesque – to create something that is unmistakeably Gruber. Vastly entertaining, beautifully structured and sharply subversive, Gloria is a characteristic work from this most idiosyncratic of composers.
The premiere of Gruber's new opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods, will be given at the Bregenz Festival on 23 July 2014. Find out more here.