How does one think about classical Western music in 2018 in South Africa? And what place do the creators of such works occupy on the country’s cultural landscape? For me, these questions were prompted during the recent world premiere performances of three new piano works by Graham Newcater.

Newcater was born on 3 September 1941, and is South Africa’s most celebrated 12-tone composer. He studied composition in London with Humphrey Searle, who was himself a student of Anton Webern. Together with Arnold Schoenberg (the father of 12-tone music) and Alban Berg, Webern formed what is now known as the Second Viennese School.

Newcater was the creator of powerful apartheid-era high modernist musical works. He disappeared from public consciousness during the 1990s and first decade of the new century – a confluence of the end of an era during which the South African government supported Western art music and his own personal withdrawal from society. Since 2011 Newcater has been composing new piano music (10 works in all) in a burst of creative energy.

On 25 January the Africa Open Institute of Stellenbosch University presented an event entitled “Sapphires and Serpents” in the Stellenbosch University Museum featuring some of Newcater’s new works. A short film by Aryan Kaganof about the composer was also shown. Despite his fragile health, the 76-year-old Newcater travelled from Johannesburg to attend.

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