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Professor Stefans Grové, arguably one of the greatest composers on the continent, died on Ascension Day at the age of 91. His creative urge, constantly honed by the passage of time, only subsided a couple of days before his death. Paul Boekkooi pays tribute to a very special human being who undeniably lived a richly fulfilled artistic life.
The last time I encountered Stefans Grové (pictured) in person was at a fascinating concert by Italian pianist Silvia Belfiore at Unisa’s Enoch Sontonga Hall, given on July 28 last year. The bulk of her programme, dedicated to piano works by African composers, consisted of three compositions by Grové: Invocation of the Water Spirits and Lamenting Birds from his Images from Africa (1999) and Nonyana (The Ceremonial Dancer), written in 1994.
Grové, tall as always, but frail, was enamoured by her interpretation and playing, his face and especially eyes gleaming with joy. Belfiore for years corresponded with the composer about his keyboard works’ technical aspects, but especially the African psyche underlying all of them since his so-called “Damascus moment” in the early 1980s when he finally realised that Africa would be both his sole and soul’s inspiration.
Every visit to either interview Grové or discuss new works which needed programme notes, was initially an adventure into the unknown, but soon became a revelation. He was a composer who could communicate in great, fully understandable detail about his work – from the origins of his inspiration, the formulation of themes, structure, orchestration and the particular sound textures and combinations which always managed to evoke recognisable programmatically linked pictures.
During his earlier professional life and after settling in the US for 18 years as a Fulbright scholarship winner and furthering his studies in composition under Walter Piston at Harvard and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, he produced among others a symphony and violin concerto.
After lecturing between 1957 and 1971 in composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, he decided that the time was right for a homecoming.
In 1972 he was appointed professor in composition and composer-in-residence at the University of Pretoria (UP).
During the next decade Grové was constantly productive. He completed among others some highly impressive orchestral scores for his ballet Waratha, Chain Rows and Vladimir’s Round Table. However, it was in his more Afrocentric period, lasting to the end, that he found his own, amazingly expressive voice.
Grové was an inspiring musician: pianist, organist, especially at the Lutheran Church in Arcadia, Pretoria, where he was the community’s musical director and choir master for decades, and conductor. Hundreds of students at UP lauded him as a lecturer, be it in composition or music history. His strict, but enlightened attitude drew them to him.
His life ended with the open score of an, alas, unfinished Viola Concerto, dedicated to Jean-Louise Moolman and commissioned by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This, perhaps the only aspect of his life that was incomplete, is above all also a predominant indication of the respect and admiration Professor Grové received from the international music world.