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Obituary: Anatol Vieru

ANATOL VIERU's music occupies an unusual middle ground between the age-old and the ultra-new: his initial musical impulses were born of the Romanian folksong he heard around him as he grew up, though he soon evolved towards the mainstream of European modernism.

Vieru was born in Iasi, in 1926, where, during the Second World War, he and his family, as Jews, were interned in the ghetto. Although they were beaten up, they were not shipped to the concentration camps. After the war, Vieru was able to resume his interrupted education and attended the Bucharest Conservatory between 1946 and 1951. The list of his teachers there features some of the most important names in Romanian music: he studied harmony with Paul Constaninescu, orchestration with Theodor Rogalski, composition with Leon Klepper and conducting with Constantin Silvestri.

In 1951 he went to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, where for three years he took composition lessons with Aram Khachaturian. In spite of this rosy academic trajectory, it was not until 1978 that Vieru, aged 52, obtained his doctorate, from the G. Dima Conservatory in Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania. But he had been extremely busy in the meantime, as his catalogue - over 130 works strong - demonstrates.

The first piece that Vieru acknowledged was a Suite in the Ancient Style for strings, which he wrote in 1945, at the age of 19 (before beginning his formal studies), and which won the George Enescu Prize a year later. He was to garner a number of prizes in the course of his life: his Cello Concerto won the Reine Marie-Jose Prize in Geneva in 1962, and four years later he won a Serge Koussevitzky Prize in Washington. Among Vieru's other distinctions were a Romanian State Prize (1949), another George Enescu Prize (1967), that of the Union of Composers and Musicologists three times (1975, 1977, 1979) and the Herder Prize (1986).

His early works manifest an interest in combining modality with folk elements, but his language soon began to take on a more radical accent, even as early as the oratorio Miorita ("The Ewe", 1957). And from around 1964 Vieru began to apply serial techniques more explicitly to his Romanian inheritance. The result, a method of composition he adhered to for the rest of his life, he called the "sieve principle", using it to generate a soundblock of 61 notes. Vieru systematised his approach to composition in two theoretical treatises: Cartea modurilor ("Book of Modes", 1980) and Dela moduri la timpul muzical ("From Modes towards Musical Time", 1990). Cartea modurilor, Vieru said, "gives coherence of system to my findings and offers new suggestions for the future".

The music which results - often using rapid foreground textures built over a basic underlying pulse - sounds both modern and ancient. Vieru said of himself:

I refuse to be called a "vanguard" composer (sometimes I am ahead of the vanguard and sometimes behind it). . . Starting from the neo-modal example of the new generation of Romanian composers, I have developed and built out of it the microstructures of my own music. . . My ambition in my mature work is to generate complex musics with an ever-restricted vocabulary.

Henry Louis de la Grange, the French Mahler specialist, described Vieru's music as "a combination of spontaneous charm, acute sensitivity and consummate technique with an original orchestral style". Indeed, his orchestration, mirroring his marriage of ancient modes and avant-gardism, often integrates traditional Romanian instruments, such as pan-pipes and dulcimer, into the modern symphony orchestra.

Vieru was not afraid of the larger forms. His worklist includes four operas: Iona ("Jonah", 1972-76), Praznicul Calicilor ("The Feast of the Cadgers", 1978-81), Telegrame, Tema si Variatiuni ("Telegrams, Themes and Variations", 1982-83) and The Last Days, The Last Hours (1990-95). There are six symphonies (1967-89), much chamber music (including eight string quartets), many concertante pieces (including, most recently, a concerto for the rare combination of two cellos and orchestra), and a generous quantity of cantatas and other vocal music.

Vieru was active in a number of other capacities. In his earliest adulthood he was a conductor at the Bucharest National Theatre (1947-50) and immediately thereafter (1950-51) took over the editorship of the journal Muzica. In 1970 he founded the concert series "Parallel Musics", and was to conduct its concerts for many years, presenting an enormous range of music, from Lassus via Ives, Scriabin and Schoenberg to Varese and Schnittke. He also wrote on a wide range of musical topics, often on aspects of the theory of modern music.

Teaching was another thread that ran through his life: he taught at the Bucharest Conservatoire for 35 years, from 1950. Guest lecturing took him abroad, too: he spoke at the Sarah Lawrence College, in the Bronx, and the Juilliard School (1968), in West Berlin (1972-73), in Israel (1982- 83) and in the high temple of modernism, Darmstadt (1992-93). In 1992 he was composer-in- residence at New York University and lectured at Laval University in Canada.

Three of Vieru's symphonies (Nos 2, 3 and 4) and his Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra are available on CD from the British label Olympia; apart from that, and the odd festival appearance, his music hasn't had much exposure in the West. Whether it can make the jump now that its creator is dead (from heart failure after surgery) remains to be seen. It can be very lovely, and dramatically effective, too - but there are times when one wonders whether Vieru hasn't sacrificed a sense of harmonic direction to the requirements of his theory.

Anatol Vieru, composer, conductor and teacher: born Iasi, Romania 8 June 1926; married 1954 Nina Shutikova (one son, one daughter); died Bucharest 8 October 1998.