18 April 2011
Eric Gross (1926-2011)
[Last updated 12 July - link to the SMH obituary]
Composer Eric Gross died peacefully on Sunday 17 April at his home in Sydney. He was 84.
Gross was born in Vienna in 1926. He emigrated to England in 1938 and studied at Trinity College of Music and, later, at the University of Aberdeen. From a relatively young age, Gross worked as a pianist in bands and orchestras, and as a studio accompanist for the BBC. He moved to Sydney in 1958, following professional engagements in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and New Caledonia.
Gross was a long-term staff member of the Department of Music at the University of Sydney, where he taught several generations of Australian composers from 1960 until his retirement (from the post as Associate Professor of Music) in 1991. He also held other teaching and honorary positions, including president of the Fellowship of Australian Composers and Treasurer and Executive Board Member of the Asian Composers' League (1981-1994).
Gross's compositions include two symphonies (completed in 1967 and 1980), vocal and choral works, a one-act opera The Amorous Judge, a piano concerto, concertos for mandolin, oboe, violin, trombone, and numerous chamber works and solo pieces. He wrote a number of film scores for Film Australia and TV scores for Screen Gems Columbia, as well as commissions from the ABC. Gross was also active as an arranger and conductor. While working as a conductor of the Pro Musica Society of Sydney University and the St. Andrew's Cathedral Choral Society, he wrote works for the orchestras and choirs associated with these societies.
Patrick Thomas conducted and recorded Gross's music and admired the way the composer mastered whatever forces he was writing for.
'I was privileged to perform and record a wide cross-section of his music both within Australia and overseas, and this ranged from many choral settings to a wide diversity of works for orchestra and other combinations. His oeuvre, in the hundreds, demonstrated his command of whatever his forces happened to be, and was remarkable. Indeed, it singled him out as a composer who handled the greatest range of repertoire.'
'He will be sorely missed by our profession and by the music-loving public, notably through his engaging personality, modesty and unfailing integrity', Thomas said.
One of Gross's many students was composer Matthew
Hindson. He, too, remembers his teacher as 'the consummate
professional - not just in his own music, but also in ensuring
that his students understood what was required of them should
they have any aspirations of success in the industry'.
'As a student composer, I remember Eric's astonishing command of technique. One week he presented to a composer workshop in the Music Department of Sydney University and played a recording of a 20-minute orchestral work composed for a dentists' conference. It demonstrated a composer in total control of his musical resources. When asked how long it took to write, Eric remarked that "it took longer than expected because I was trying out new things in this piece - so three days rather than two days". He was also not shy to put the boot in to his students when they were not seen as pulling their weight, or acting in a manner doing them credit, through their music or their work ethics. I can honestly say that Eric's support and guidance were instrumental in the success of entire generations of Australian composers', said Hindson.
Gross particularly enjoyed writing music with particular, virtuosic performers in mind - such as baritone Alan Light and trombonist Greg van der Struik.
'My first duty as a composer, in addition to maintaining professional and artistic integrity, is to my performers and interpreters: it is they who must invest time and energy in order to bring my music to life and place it before its audience', Gross said.
On occasion, Gross took a political stand through his music - for instance in the orchestral work Na Shledanou v Praze (premiered in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia during a period of Russian occupation) which used the Czech National Anthem as its main theme.
In 1998 Gross was made a Member of the Order of Australia.
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It is accurate to say that I grew up with Eric Gross’s music. Indeed, some of my earliest musical memories are of his music being rehearsed, quite literally in the room above mine, where the Sydney Mandolins (led by my father Adrian Hooper) came together. The group first commissioned him in 1983 (I was five at the time). Over the next three decades Gross composed another seventy works for the Sydney Mandolins, expanding immeasurably the mandolin’s repertoire. Such statistics point to the close collaboration between the ensemble and the composer, but more significantly indicate Gross’s generosity as a composer.
As a mandolinist my technique was honed through his music: this is a debt that I am fortunate to owe, since his music was composed specifically for the instrument’s capabilities with thorough attention and care. The challenges that he set were carefully calculated, defining new idioms for the instrument. Especially significant are his set of ten (and a half) solo Cadenzas that he composed between 1986 and 2007. They are, for example, the first set of works to make full use of the instrument’s dynamic range – ‘the mandolin has a very large dynamic range, at the quieter end of the spectrum,’ he would say. Writing solo works specifically enabled the full range to be used, and some of Gross’s mandolin music is very very quiet. His rhythmic language – the figure of a semi-quaver followed by dotted quaver in particular – makes the most of the tremolo‑sforzando. This in turn prompted changes to the way in which the plectrum is used, to make his sudden variations in dynamic level more dramatic, and his early cadenzas are the first works for mandolin to specify the angle at which the plectrum plucks the string.
I am fortunate that some of the later Cadenzas were written for me; the subtitle of Cadenza IX for bass guitar (‘no problems for Michael’) is very much indicative of his sense of humour, since it challenged me then as it does still. Indeed, one of the great strengths of his music is that its challenges are not easily exhausted: his ‘easier’ pieces as much as his ‘difficult’ works remain fresh to new interpretations. In the studio, the inevitable difficulties that one faces when recording his music were always greeted with his benevolent smile, the educator in him enjoying the struggle that leads to better work. Although he had retired by the time I arrived in the Music Department of the University of Sydney, he was nevertheless a significant figure in my education. His support of my musical endeavours is very much prized.
Remembering Associate Professor Eric Gross
Arriving at the appointed time for my weekly composition lesson, I ride the elevator to the fourth floor of the Music Department at the University of Sydney, tip-toe past the secretary’s office, turn left, walk along a quiet, carpeted corridor , then knock gently on the dark, heavy door.
“Come in”, says a clipped, accented voice. I lean on the door handle and step inside. The air is thick with an aromatic fog. There, at a wooden desk stacked with folders, records, books, music manuscripts and papers, sits Associate Professor Eric Gross, pipe in hand. He quickly waves both arms about his head to clear the haze. “Come on inside and sit down”, he says.
Handing over my music manuscript, I sit quietly as Eric carefully examines each page with his forensic eye. I hear him quietly singing the rhythm under his breath ... ta dum, ta dum, ta tee, ta tee... I watch as he identifies a missing dynamic here, an out-of-range note there, sometimes drawing a little pair of spectacles over a suspect bar deemed worthy of some reconsideration.
It is with much sadness that I learn of Eric’s passing. In remembering him, I call to mind his formidable skill as a composer. I think of Eric’s many years of teaching and marvel at the number of students he has taught, many of whom, no doubt, are today furthering Eric’s passion for music through their own careers as composers and musicians throughout the world. I recall his patience and sense of humour. Last, but not least, I pay tribute to him for his advocacy work, lobbying with great tenacity for the betterment of conditions for all Australian composers, particularly through his long and honorable association with the Fellowship of Australian Composers, Inc.
May his lifelong dedication to the art of music and his generosity towards his fellow composers be an inspiration to all of us, and may he rest in peace.
As President of the Music Teachers’ Association of NSW I would like to take the opportunity of expessing very deep sadness at the death of Eric Gross who has been a wonderful friend and benefactor to our Association over a period of many years. With his death the Australian music community has lost a true friend, a dedicated composer and supporter of organisations that work for and on behalf of Australian musicians, composers, teachers and students. My personal association with Eric goes back many years and I will remember him as an extraordinary friend and mentor, always willing to give of himself and tireless in his pursuit of musical excellence, a quality he passed on to all his students, myself included.
Eric, it has been a privilege to know you.
Requiescat in pacem.
Dr Rita Crews
Eric was a most wonderful friend and mentor to me. I cannot speak highly enough of his positive influence on my work. Nothing was ever too much and his constant ability to compose something new for me was amazing. Whether it was writing a new work, posting something in the mail or simply being at a concert to support me, he always fulfilled a promise.
I am very thankful for his committment to Australian music. He wrote many works for me which have received international acclaim. His Concerto for Alto Trombone was a great success at the St Riquier Festival in northern France. His ability to understand the intricacies of each instrument is matched by few. I not only value the works that he wrote for me but also for his many wise words of wisdom on a range of subjects.