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Falla and Flamenco — “The Birth of Spanish Music”

According to my friend the remarkably loquacious Spanish pianist Pedro Carboné, the “birth of Spanish music” occurs during the third of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Pedro made this argument at length on our most recent “PostClassical” broadcast: “Falla and Flamenco.” And he clinched it by citing his distinctive live performance of this piece with PostClassical Ensemble.

You can hear what Pedro’s talking about by gong to 1:03:00 here. Bill McGlaughlin, who hosts “PostClassical,” was duly impressed. He called the birth-moment in question “heart-stopping.”

Like so much of Spanish culture, Falla (1876-1946) embodied a confluence of Moorish, North African, and Catholic ingredients. As Pedro experiences Nights in the Gardens of Spain, movement one – a fragrant tone poem evoking the Alhambra’s iconic Generalife gardens – shows “what Spain was”: Moorish. In movement two, “the gypsies arrive” with an exotic song juxtaposed with a Moorish dance. And movement three is a fusion: the music “never heard before.” The work’s exalted coda tracks the departure of the Moors. It’s an inspired reading – and so is Pedro’s actual performance.

Pedro’s gift for descriptive aplomb peaks with his detailed explication of another, more rarified Falla composition: the Concerto for harpsichord or piano. This is “late Falla,” meticulously and painstakingly composed in 1923-26 — by which time Falla had discarded the flamenco influence that previously impelled his ceaseless search for the Spanish soul. Here is a composition that usually makes no sense in performance. The reason, as Pedro shows, is that Falla is in fact undertaking an “encapsulation of the history of Spanish music.”

The concerto’s first movement fractures –almost as Stravinsky might – a famous medieval Spanish song: “De los alamos vengo, madre.” The second movement, called by Ravel the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century, is an austere religious epiphany – an homage to the stark Catholic grandeur of the siglo de oro. The finale celebrates the Spanish harpsichord school of the eighteenth century: Scarlatti and Soler. And of all of this, Pedro adds, is couched “in the language of the twentieth century.” Falla skips the nineteenth century – the century of zarzuela – because he disdains it.

PostClassical Ensemble has many times presented the Falla concerto with Pedro, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. We quickly discovered that audiences were clueless unless we contextualized this dense fifteen-minute identity quest precisely as Pedro does. So to introduce movement one we of course perform “De los alamos.” For movement two Angel conducts motets by Tomas Luis d Victoria. And we combine the finale with some Soler.

It’s all on our “PostClassical” broadcast.“ And you can hear Bill McGlaughlin discover the originality of this rarely performed masterpiece; responding to movement two, he exclaims: “I have to admit, that piece is really hard for me to understand. I hear about seven different directions in it” — ranging, Bill continues, from music resembling a Lutheran chorale, to mellifluous cascades he likens to Saint-Saens, to “some really cold, acerbic modern stuff.”

Pedro makes an even more revelatory statement, to my ears, in Falla’s Fantasia Betica, composed in 1919. It’s the last of his flamenco-inspired creations, and the most radically harsh in its quest for authenticity. As Pedro explains, Falla conceived it as a corrective to his “Ritual Fire Dance,” which he heard Artur Rubinstein perform as a flashy encore. He decided to give Rubinstein a virtuoso solo keyboard piece with more pianistic and musical substance. Rubinstein played the Betica once and never again – it’s not intended for popularity. Pedro’s rendition is weighty and hard; it treats flamenco with the same gravitas as Falla did. You can hear it on part two of our broadcast, at 12:41. If you’re interested in sampling an antithetical reading, swifter and wondrously refined, here is Alicia de Larrocha. But Pedro will have none of that: “Don’t rush!” he explodes.

The overall argument is that austerity defines Spain. For Pedro and Angel, the aestheticization of “Spain” by such French composers as Bizet, Debussy, Ravel, and Chabrier is precisely “French,” not “Spanish.” And their Falla performances follow suit. I have written about this before, in my 2010 blog, “The Problem with De Larrocha.” 

Angel therefore regards Victoria, not Falla, as Spain’s greatest composer: a musician as austere as the Escorial itself. Assessing the reinvention of Spanish music undertaken by Falla at the turn of the twentieth century, he references Spain’s loss of its colonial empire and the birth of “modernismo” – for Spanish artists and intellectuals, a striving to reconnect with mainstream European aesthetic innovation after a century of insular provincialism.

This topic is owned by the pre-eminent contemporary Spanish novelist: Antonio Munoz Molina, who happens to be a frequent participant in PostClassical’s ongoing “Search for Spain in Music.” Antonio emphasizes the initial energy of Spanish modernism, reminding us that Berg’s Violin Concerto was premiered in Spain and that Schoenberg composed some of Moses und Aron in Barcelona. Then came the elephant in the room – Francisco Franco. Modernismo was prematurely terminated. And Falla emigrated to Argentina, where his creative gift lapsed. He belongs in the company of Ives, Elgar, and Sibelius – all composers who stopped composing long before they stopped living. All of them, I would say, were estranged by twentieth century aesthetics. In Falla’s case, the impact of Stravinsky seems to have shattered his stylistic base. The Concerto was one result. His two final decades of relative silence were another.

Our broadcast ends with another Spanish composer Pedro Carboné re-understands: Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909). Like Falla, Albeniz undertook a renewed search for Spain. Like Falla, he embodies a confluence privileging flamenco. Like Falla, he is both popular and little understood, at least in theUS.

A central problem is Enrique Arbos – the eminent Spanish conductor who transcribed five movements from Albeniz’s solo piano masterpiece: Iberia (1905-1909). When I was young, the Arbos versions of Iberia were more heard than the Albeniz versions. And they are radically different: so simplified in texture and affect as to approximate a Hollywood reductionism.

The real Iberia is monumentally dense. Olivier Messiaen called it “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.”

And that’s the Iberia Pedro champions. No one makes this music sound more knotted or unrelenting. Again, the antithesis is de Larrocha. On our “PostClassical” broadcast, you can sample Arbos’s technicolored rendering of “Triana,” from Iberia book two. And you can hear Pedro’s “Triana.”

In the WWFM studio, Pedro collapsed in pain during our audition of Arbos’s Albeniz. He recuperated to introduce “Rondena,” also from Iberia book two. It is my favorite Carboné performance. Whether or not it captures the soul of Spain I cannot say. That it is authentically soulful I have no doubt.

Albeniz studied with Liszt. Falla was an appreciable keyboardist; you can hear his premiere recording of his Concerto on our radio show. They both wrote for the piano as only a pianist could. In the lineage of notable pianist/composers, Albeniz and Falla belong right up there with Mozart and Beethoven, with Liszt and Busoni, with Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. To my ears, their most singular – and most voluble — advocate is Pedro Carboné.

The “Falla and Flamenco” installment of“PostClassical,” lovingly produced by Dave Osenberg for the WWFM ClassicalNetwork, is here.

Listening Guide:


00:00: Flamenco as a source for Spanish cultural identity

7:30: “Austerity” as the “essence” of Spanish music, distinguishing it from the French “Spanish” style.

10:48: Falla’s El Amor Brujo (excerpts) with PCE and flamenco cantaora Esperanza Fernandez

21:20: Commentary on Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and “the birth of Spanish music”

26:32: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, movement one, with Pedro Carbone and PCE

44:45: Commentary on Nights, movements 2 and 3

49:44: Nights, movements 2 and 3, with Pedro Carbone and PCE

1:03:00: “The first Spanish tune”


00:00: Falla’s Fantasia Betica and the “quest for authenticity”

12:41: Fantasia Betica, performed by Pedro Carbone

27:24: Artur Rubinstein and the Fantasia Betica

33:44: Falla and the challenge of modernism; cf Ives, Elgar, Sibelius; the Falla keyboard concerto as the “encapsulation of the history of Spanish music”

35:41: Discussion of the Falla concerto, movement 2 as a religious epiphany

38:59: Falla concerto, movement 2, performed by Pedro Carbone and PCE

49:50: Spanish religious austerity — Tomas Luis de Victoria: “Caligaverunt oculi mei” conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez

55:40: “De los alamos vengo, madre” and the Falla concerto

56:40: Falla concerto, movement 1, performed by the composer

1:01:53: Falla concerto, movement 1, performed by Pedro Carbone and PCE

1:07:53: Soler and the Falla concerto

1:10:50: Falla concerto, movement 3, performed by Pedro Carbone and PCE


4:24: “Triana” by Abeniz, transcribed/performed by Enrique Arbos

15:26: “Triana” performed by Pedro Carbone

25:46: Francisco Franco as “the elephant in the room”

32:07: “Rondena” by Albeniz, performed by Pedro Carbone


  1. Evan Tucker says

    I look forward to hearing the podcast. Few composers are more underrated than Falla and Albeniz, but isn’t this a little unfair to Ravel and ADL? Ravel was part Basque and I don’t think he deserves to be in the same orientalizing camp as Chabrier and Rimsky-Korsakov, Falla himself called Ravel’s Spanish music ‘subtly authentic.’ I have no doubt that the real essence of Spain is very different from the flamboyance of so much Spanish music by non-Spaniards, but there were few performers more austere than De Larrocha, who did so much so well. Put on any performance of de Larrocha doing Corpus en Sevilla, then put on anybody else, there’s no comparison in the amount of personality ADL brings to it vs. any other famous pianist. There’s a youtube performance of her doing the whole Iberia cycle live and then doing Navarra as an encore! It would have been nice if Argerich or Arrau left us a complete Iberia, but I doubt they’d have ever mediated as deeply, as often, as long as de Larrocha did in this music. It would be nice to hear more pianists bring a more 20th century perspective on Iberia, but even at its most modern, this isn’t Ives… That’s not to say that it’s anything but great music, but in terms of its innovations, I have trouble believing it isn’t closer to Rachmaninov than to Scriabin or Busoni.

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