René Gerber was born in Travers on 29th June 1908. He did not initially seem destined for a career as a composer: after a scientific Matura at Neuchâtel’s gymnasium, he began dentistry studies in Zurich; once finished, these were to enable him to take over his uncle’s practice. As a passionate music lover, however, he was already composing and assiduously following the Tonhalle concerts conducted by Volkmar Andreae. In 1929, the premiere of the latter’s Musik für Orchester electrified Gerber, convincing him to devote himself entirely to music. He studied at the Zurich Conservatoire with Paul Müller and Andreae (composition), completing the course in three years. Alemannic musical life, though, marked by Germanic post-romanticism, did not correspond to his ideals, and increasingly he looked towards France.
In 1934 he left for Paris, where he spent several months at the Ecole Normale de Musique under Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger; he also worked with composer and conductor Robert Siohan and with Pierre Dupont, musical director of the Republican Guard. With the latter, he refined his knowledge of those instruments which would remain favourites during his working life.
Back in Neuchâtel, Gerber taught music at the Collège latin from 1940 to 1947; from then until 1951, he was director of the Conservatoire. Almost as passionate about painting as about music, with a friend he co-founded the Galerie Pro Arte in Peseux (later in Bevaix), where he organized remarkable exhibitions prominently featuring artists from the Neuchâtel region. From then on, he combined work as a gallery owner with composition. His seventy year-long creative career ended in 2001. Dying on 21st November 2006, he left an impressive body of work for all genres, sacred music excepted.
The first works René Gerber listed in his catalogue date from 1931; he immediately found his own style. Unlike Henri Gagnebin, Gerber did not draw inspiration from Vincent d’Indy and the pupils of César Franck, but from a post-Ravelian source that favours simple, concise forms and prioritizes the melodic line, with essentially diatonic harmonies – tonal but tinged with modality and even polytonality. In spirit he seems quite close to the likes of Francis Poulenc, Jean-Michel Damase and Jean Françaix, unreservedly subscribing to Debussy’s axiom that “music must humbly seek to give pleasure”. He excels at creating atmospheres by turns joyful, melancholy or sentimental; lightness and gaiety remain the common denominator of most of his works.
Gerber’s melodic material is based on brief themes, often akin to popular songs, worked into very transparent counterpoint. An excellent orchestrator, he has an innate feel for timbre, particularly evident in his chamber music and symphonic works.
Translation: Anne de Dadelsen