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Reconnecting with Spanish Modernism — and The Problem of de Larrocha

The incontrovertible premise of “Beyond Flamenco: Finding Spain in Music,” recently presented at the University of Chicago, was that in the early twentieth century Spain produced formidably important music that is little known or understood. Few remember that Berg’s Violin Concerto was premiered in Barcelona. Or that Schoenberg composed most of Moses und Aron there. Or that Albeniz’s Iberia (1906-1908), the summit of the Spanish keyboard literature, was considered by Messiaen “the wonder of the piano, the masterpiece of Spanish music which takes its place – and perhaps the highest – among the stars of first magnitude of the king of instruments.” Or that Ravel called the slow movement of Falla’s Concerto (1926) the century’s “greatest chamber music.”
There are three reasons for our ignorance. The first is that the brief efflorescence of Spanish modernism – a moment embracing much more than music – was terminated by Franco’s dictatorship. Far more than, say, Stalin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain lost its leading artists and intellectuals, including Falla (who died in Argentina) and
his likely successor Oscar Espla (who left for Belgium), not to mention Pablo Casals.
The second reason for our ignorance is the tenacity of certain postcard stereotypes – “the Spain of Carmen: bullfighters, poverty, flies, and passion,” writes the eminent Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz-Molina in the program book for the Chicago festival. “A Spain that remained aloof from European intellectual and political trends: too passionate and too Catholic to be rational and too backward to be anything other than exotic.”
The third reason – which I mention hesitantly, not meaning to seem gratuitous – is the Spanish pianist who most disseminated Albeniz and Falla in my lifetime: Alicia de Larrocha. The defining austerities of these composers were irrelevant to her cushioned, dangerously uncontroversial readings. Her fabled fluency better served lesser music, like Granados’ Goyescas (no one trilled the maja’s nightingale as she did).
A relentless theme of the Chicago festival was that Spanish music must not sound French. For Munoz-Molina – as for the pianist Pedro Carbone and the conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez, who also took part – Bizet, Debussy, and Ravel misrepresent Spain. What complicates this opinion, of course, is that these composers were inspired by “Spain” (a country they did not know) to compose great music, intoxicating for its pungency and fragrance. And there are Gallic Spaniards, like Joaquin Turina, who similarly seduce. Falla once lived in Paris. Albeniz composed Iberia there. But works like the Falla Concerto and Iberia inhabit a darker, more textured Spain than any glimpsed by Debussy or Ravel, by Turina or de Larrocha. Gil-Ordonez made the same point with regard to Palestina’s Spanish contemporary Tomas Luis de Victoria — that Victoria evokes the severity of the Escorial.
I first came to Iberia via the touristic orchestrations of Enrique Arbos – which so trivialize the keyboard originals as to actually seem laughable. Performed by Carbone in Chicago, the Iberias are unforgivably dissonant and dense. As a 90-minute totality, they comprise an epic odyssey. Both Carbone and Munoz-Molina stressed that these are urban landscapes. “Lavapies,” with its raucous street noises and hand organs, is even subtitled “Working Class Neighborhood in Madrid.”
As for Falla’s Concerto for Piano or Harpsichord plus five instruments (each treated soloistically) – this music will always be relatively esoteric, even in Spain. It took three years to compose and lasts 13 minutes. As a timbral exercise, it’s a subtle tour de force. As a complex project of cultural reclamation, the Concerto – as Carbone puts it — “encapsulates the history of Spanish music.”
Some years ago, Carbone, Gil-Ordonez, and I recognized the futility of programming the Falla Concerto and attempted to do something about it. We concocted a program around it, including two motets by Victoria, religious poetry by John of the Cross, a Soler sonata, and a popular song. We offer the Concerto twice – before and after citing these eclectic “sources.” What this exercise in contextualization (the Chicago performance was our fifth try) clarifies is that the first movement of the Concerto fractures the Renaissance madrigal “De los alamos vengo, madre,” that the second is an ascetic l epiphany, and the third pays homage to the keyboard school of Scarlatti.
The Chicago festival also included a performance of Falla’s SpainNights in the Gardens of Spain broader (the Falla Concerto, too, must not be rushed) and (in the finale), grittier than any given by de Larrocha, a performance, minimally perfumed, in which the allusions to Moorish Spain seemed profound as well as nostalgic.
Fortunately, certain Albeniz and Falla mysteries will never be solved. Prior to Iberia, Albeniz was a salon composer. Prior to the Concerto, Falla composed Andalusian music infused with flamenco. Doubtless Albeniz’s late surge (he died shortly after finishing book four of his masterpiece) was partly powered by valedictory aspirations. Falla’s “late style” was partly an electrifying response to the new music (including the Concerto for Piano and Winds of 1924) of his Parisian friend Stravinsky.
Carbone’s Chicago performances of the Falla Concerto and Iberia will shortly be aired by WFMT – and accessible via the web. Carbone and Gil-Ordonez perform Nights in the Gardens of Spain with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music April 17, with Post-Classical Ensemble at DC’s Harman Center April 23. Both programs include the American stage premiere of Falla’s El Corregidor y la Molinera – a ballet/pantomime misleadingly dismissed as an “early version” of his Diaghilev ballet The Three-Cornered Hat.


  1. gary panetta says:

    Thank you for posting this. Spanish culture and history aren’t well understand among non-Spaniards. Perhaps this blog entry is a first attempt at cracking open a closed door.

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