South Africa’s true musical spokesman has passed. The youngest of an influential triumvirate known as the ‘founding fathers’ of South African Art Music,* Stefans Grové certainly received a more consistent international presence as a composer than his two colleagues. This is due to the characteristic energy and rhythmic drive that is such a common feature in his compositional oeuvre. Indeed, it is no secret that Grové suffered from a mild form of Tourette-syndrome. In fact, in an interview with Stephanus Muller some years ago,** the composer admitted the possibility of his ailment contributing to the distinguishingly indelible features of his own music.
Born into a family of some cultural distinction, his uncles, Professors Daniel and Maarten Roode, were the directors of the Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom music conservatoires respectively; and certainly such familial conditions would incite Grové to be a musician. As a boy, he was shy, and found much solace at the piano where he would spend many hours composing. Such prodigious musical ability culminated in him being appointed, at the age of twenty, as a music teacher and organist in the small town of Klerksdorp.
His compositional career firmly began upon the recommendation of Professor Eric Grant, Dean and Director of the Faculty of Music at the University of Cape Town. Here he studied composition with WH Bell, and after his death, with the Scotsman Erik Chisholm. J. Cameron Taylor and Harold Rubens were his piano teachers.
A pivotal moment in his career was in 1953 when he was awarded the Fulbright scholarship – he was the first South African recipient. Such a prestigious award enabled him to study with Walter Piston at Harvard University, and later with Copland. This early period in the young composer’s life would serve as a decisive moment in the codification of his compositional style. The assimilation of neoclassicism, Bachian counterpoint and the music of Hindemith led to one of his first successful works, the Flute Sonata of 1955. Interestingly, the composer later remarked on the latter as ‘fairly inaccessible’. Certainly, ‘inaccessible’ music was not uncommon in the contemporary classical music scene of that period—a time in which the identity of music itself was questioned and pushed into new directions.
Upon his return to South Africa in 1972, Grové was appointed Professor of Music at Pretoria University. At this stage, he was a distinguished South African composer with a significant international presence. However, he must have been shocked at the South Africa he returned to. Just as he had matured as a composer and as a person, the country’s ideals of racial segregation and policies of apartheid were firmly rooted within its society, and had been so for many years. Though it is indisputable that he had been visiting South Africa quite often during his stay in America, the increased political unfairness and hostility to non-whites surely made an impression only after he had settled permanently in his home country.
However, Grové’s return to the troubled country was certainly not in vain. Indeed, it was a homecoming in the truest sense of the term; and certainly it was following his return to South Africa that some of his best music was written. This was due to a stylistic change of his music in 1984, when, on one morning, he heard the singing of a black African streetworker. This tune consumed his thoughts for the rest of the morning, but when he tried to find the streetworker, he had gone. Such a physical encounter served as a catalyst for him to write music with ‘African’ musical aesthetics, just as Priaulx Rainier (another South African-born composer) had done. The first work to reflect such sentiments was his violin sonata titled Music from Africa no.1.
Since then, a stream of Africa-inspired works followed, such as his monumental piano etudes Songs and Dances from Africa, Nonyana: the ceremonial dancer for piano, Afrika Hymnus for organ, and Dance rhapsody: an African city for orchestra; the African city being Pretoria, where he lived for many years.
Certainly this stylistic shift can be seen as a very significant step for the music of Stefans Grové. Not only does it place him as one of the first South African composers to have a serious commitment to the indigenous music of his country (already showing this in the height of apartheid); he also achieved to write music that was certainly more accessible and familiar to South Africans than that of his compositional peers.
Stefans Grové was born in Bethlehem, in the Orange Free State, South Africa on 23 July 1922. He died in Pretoria, South Africa on 29 May 2014. He was composer-in-residence at Pretoria University. At the time of his death he was completing a viola concerto.
* The others were Arnold van Wyk (1916-83) and Hubert du Plessis (1922-2011).
** This interview was published in Tempo, Vol. 61 no.240 (April 2007).
Dominic Daula is a student in composition at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town. Research interests include British music of the 20th century – particularly the music of John Ireland, Alan Bush, and Benjamin Britten; South African classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries; French Baroque music; and the music of Priaulx Rainier and Helen Perkin. Currently he is studying piano with Francois du Toit, harpsichord with Grant Bräsler, and composition with Martin Watt.