Sergiu Natra has been living among us for over three decades since his immigration from Romania. Deceptively modest, his presence is yet both noticeable and influential. Being no rebel or maverick, he establishes definite standards: Professionalism, thoroughness, sincerity and personal integrity to be found both in the man and his works.

These may well serve as a model for every composer seeking his way in the mind boggling maze of present day musical writing. For Natra composition is, almost like the title of one of his works, a sacred task: it comprises dedication, diligence, perseverance; and giving of one's best. It is backed up by the belief that musical activity is a spiritual act of the highest order; beyond any immediate use, pursuit of fame and glory; above even personal expression. The tempo of his composition creation is moderate but consistent. New works appear several times every year; there are neither outbursts of frantic activity nor creative blocks or empty spaces. We are aware that writing music is a spiritual need as well as a professional skill: the need is there and so is" the facility. His music bears a clear personal stamp but his works do not give the impression of being a result of momentary moods. In them we find different aspects of his personality which appear and disappear, yet give the impression of permanence. 

The various genres are represented in his work fairly evenly: orchestral music, vocal works, chamber music, works for solo instruments — he seems to have preference for chamber music. One of his outstanding feature is, the ‘talent’ for economy and the ability to use unusual groupings of instruments which, to the surprise of all, sound exceedingly well together: voice, violin, cello, harp and organ (SACRED SERVICE); trombone and harp (ANCIENT WALLS); clarinet, trombone, cello and organ (CONCERTO A QUATTRO). There are also, of course, the more usual combinations like the TRIO IN ONE MOVEMENT or his compositions for solo instruments, almost in manner of Gebrauchsmusik by Hindemith - the SONATINA for trumpet and the SONATINA for trombone. Even at the level of a genre, his music is totally free of theatricality and pompousness.

His preference for the harp is clearly noticeable - ten works for harp written since 1960 - either for harp solo or as an important partner in ensembles. There is more to it than simply a response to actual creative drive for composing for the harp as a result of strong personal ties that have developed between the composer and the contestants, jurors and others connected with the international Harp Contest and congress. For Natra the draw is the instrument itself. He identifies with it and it appears to provoke special creative efforts and ideas; its fluidity, liquid smoothness; the mysterious reverberations and the halo of biblical antiquity which hovers over the harp are the appeal. More: because the instrument requires special playing technique, Natra’s writing takes a specific direction: it is difficult to achieve total chromatics on the harp but it does not demand an obvious tonal language – it lends itself for the construction of various moduses: tonal and even atonal which can color an entire piece or parts thereof in uniform or complementary hues. 

Indeed, as can be seen in his earliest compositions, atonality is, surprisingly, Natra’s natural language. Yet there is nothing provocative or rebellious in his writing such as could be found in the music of the earlier atonal composers. No conflict between atonality, melodiousness or expressiveness can be found in his music. In fact, the constant melodic line is the identifying mark of most of his compositions, some deliberately homophonic, some polyphonic in which the melodic flow occurs coincidentally in several voices. Natra’s melodies display a clear emotional profile, achieved by the relations between intervals and between rhythms, without relying on a tonal centr. His atonality does not demand abstinence from harmony. The chords and their correlations are built with great regard for the individual sound and the tensions between them, without enforcing any obligatory tonal ties.

Natra's atonal writing is not necessarily connected to serial writing. It is quite obvious, however, that he went through the dodecaphonic melting pot and as a result acquired a mastery in atonal composition. But he does not usually require its support and seems capable to free himself of it with relative ease.

In spite of his familiarity with atonal medium, Natra often and effortlessly ventures back into the tonal realm, wherever the genre of the piece requires it. His vocal sacred music, like SACRED SERVICE, the cantata NES AMIM or BOOK OF HEBREW SONGS for harp contain four movements of considerable length, written in modal language with clear tonal centers, yet there does not appear to be a deep stylistic rift between them and the rest of his oeuvre.

Metric stability prevails in his works. Practically most of them rely on steady beat and some on changing beat. Even passages marked "senza misura" appear well ordered in their metric aspects and in this his music is utterly ‘tonal’. The use of syncope is also restrained and does not overshadow the basic meter. Its meter exists even in those passages (like in the final movement of his DIVERTIMENTO for harp and string quartet) in which Natra is inspired by Balkan dances he has heard in his youth, where the asymmetrical meters are a natural phenomenon. This metric stability contributes to the direct approach ability of his works and helps the melodic flow mentioned above. It also enhances the air of serenity which emanates from his music even in parts in which expressiveness is the strongest.

Natra makes use of an exceedingly rich palette of sound-colors, we have already mentioned the unusual instrumental combinations he uses. He makes use of central and non-central registers of instruments (and voices) and of the playing techniques which are natural and comfortable and succeed in producing optimal sound. There is not an impression that tone - colors are the preeminent objective of the composer or that they are the starting point, a frequent occurrence in some music of the 20th century. For Natra, tone colors are a ‘means to an end or simply a result: as a means - the differentiation between the instruments accentuates the different idioms which acquire expressiveness and contribute to the polyphonic texture; the result is rich textures which ensue from the motivic activity, complex yet delicate, turn into colors themselves. We should mention that Natra avoids using sound effects which attract particular attention and the use of percussion instruments in his works is marginal. Anything that may distance the listener from the basically abstract central musical idea is rejected.

Natra prefers linear shapes: constant development drawn from a small number of basic motifs. This is a technique of perpetual variation and unlimited development which end only when they have been used to the full. There are only a few cyclic forms and in general very few exact repetitions. Nevertheless, the movements are uniform and tightly knit and there is a correct balance between a sense of ease which allows full expression to every musical idea and between the tightly controlled musical time which allows no superfluous delays. As a result, the duration of the movements tends toward the middle: there are no fleeting miniatures, nor are there hours-long tonal monuments. Every work creates its own specific structure, determined by its instrumental combination, by the text or by its particular genre. Thus it is difficult to ascribe regular or typical structures to many of his works.

It is worthwhile to trace the development of Natra’s style during the past decades. The impression one gains is that his style was shaped and formed prior to his arrival in Israel — sometime at the middle of the 40s. His SYMPHONY for strings (1960) proves the point — this is a mature work in which all of Natra’s particular style can be found: the melodic flow, the atonal language, the polyphonic idea, the gradual development and shaping of motive material and the classic three-movement construction. Immigration to Israel opened new horizons, such as the use of texts also in  new languages (such as Hebrew), with its fresh rhythms and sonorities and the wealth of traditions of the various Jewish communities. But there was no crack-up in his style and the specifics remained. Natra did not become a 'Mediterranean' composer, or a folklorist and his European orientation, in its widest sense, persisted and remained dominant in his writing. He did absorb into his fully formed creative system many new colors and scents which enriched it without damaging its roots.

To be more precise about Natra's European orientation it must be seen to be rooted rather in the Baroque tradition than in any other period of history. The sharp and shining optimism of the classical period does not suit Natra's temperament and the excitability and refinements of romanticism seem even less compatible. The combination of supreme professionalism with devout labor in the service of an idea might best describe the Baroque ideal and relate to Natra’s composition. But the resemblance does not end with these basic traits: the inclination to polyphony, to linear construction and Fortspinnung through perpetual variation; the uniform Affekt which dominates the entire movement, all are symptomatic of the Baroque and all are to be found in Natra's music.

Yet Natra is wholly a 20th century man and it is rather interesting to try and see to what extent has he been affected by the contemporary mainstreams in music. There are the traces of the dodecaphonic technique which can be found in his work, yet he is far removed from the radical expressionism of the Viennese School. Neither was he affected by the mystical colorization line which leads from Debussy, through Messiaen, to Boulez. The demonic rhythms of Stravinsky never entered his sphere of creativity. A greater affinity can be found between him and ’the Six’ who were active from the 20s to the 50s. He may be thought particular close to Honegger and Milhaud. Their pragmatic and determined avoidance of sentimentality and impressionism; their reliance on past traditions and metric stability - all contributed to the shaping of Natra's musical world. However, other traits which are pan of the style of ‘the Six’ were not adopted by Natra; direct neoclassicism in melodic matter and harmony, the tendency to parody and use of sarcasm find no expression in his musical language.

The musical avant-garde of the 60s and 70s can be found here and there in his music in which a greater fragmentation of the melody, heterogeneity of sections in certain works and some blurring of the metre can be discerned. That is the case with his TRIO, the first movement of the DIVERTIMENTO for harp and string quartet and MUSIC for harp and brass instruments. These are not, however, permanent or predominant tendencies in his style, but occasional sallies, enriching experiences from which Natra returns to the core of his musical style.

Natra's position in the music-world of Israel today is unique. He can hardly be connected to any group of composers among those active today. Two poles in Israeli music are clearly discernible: one which draws upon the folklore of various Jewish communities, and the other, which bases itself on European music of the last decades. Natra is equally distant from either one, although their influence is not completely absent from his works.

This summing up shows Natra to be one of the major composers active in Israel today whose work well deserves to be heard more often and whose influence should be brought to bear more strongly on the generation of our young composers.

By Benjamin Perl

Dr. Benjamin Perl is a musicologist and pianist, was a senior faculty member of the Open University. Perl has been working for years on developing educational material for the University on theory of music and history of music. His doctoral work deals with the orchestration of Berlioz operas. Dr. Perl has been researching the orchestration of the early works of Mozart. He concertizes with chamber ensembles in Israel and abroad, mainly in classical, modern and Israeli repertoire.