Issac Albeniz and the Guitar part 1

An Essay on the man, his music, and his relationship to the guitar

Part 1
by Daniel Wolff

Isaac Albéniz, one of the most important Spanish composers, regarded as the founder of the Modern Spanish School, was born in Camprodon, Spain, in 1860, and died in Cambo-les-Bains, France, in 1909. A precocious piano virtuoso, he had his first lessons with his elder sister Clementine and appeared in public recitals playing duets with her as early as age four.

In 1866, after studies with Narciso Oliveros in Barcelona, his mother took him to Paris to study with Antoine Francois Marmontel, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire who also counted Bizet and Debussy among his students. After a few months under his private guidance Albéniz was accepted as a student at the Conservatoire, but he spoiled the opportunity by breaking one of its large mirrors while playing with a ball (we must not forget that he was only a six year old child). His mother then took him back to Spain and shortly after he went on a concert tour around Catalonia with his father, in which he would use the same kind of tricks as the young Mozart, such as covering the keyboard so that he had to play without looking at the keys.

The Albéniz family then moved to Madrid, and Isaac started attending the conservatory under Mendizabal. By this time he was a prolific reader of Jules Verne’s tales, and through them felt the enticements of adventure up to the point when, in 1870, he ran away from home to travel around Spain on his own, playing wherever he could. He went through all sorts of incidents over this time, being once even robbed by highway bandits. Upon reaching Cadiz, the local governor threatened to arrest Albéniz and have him sent back to his parents. Albéniz’s solution was to hide himself on the steamship España, bound for Puerto Rico. He expected to entertain the passengers by playing the piano in exchange for his ticket, but was forced to land in Buenos Ayres, the first port on call.

In Argentina Albéniz experienced hunger for the first time, and had to spend a while sleeping on the streets. But shortly after he was playing at cafes and cabarets, being able to save enough money to start traveling north to Central America. By the time he was thirteen he reached Cuba where, by coincidence, his father had just been transferred as collector of taxes. The elder Albéniz’s first reaction after knowing that his son was to arrive in Cuba for a series of performances was to force him to settle down and put an end to his nomadic life. But when he met Albéniz and saw that he was now a mature and experienced man, although still in his teens, he decided to let him follow his own way, which was now to go to the United States.

America did not welcome Albéniz as well as he expected, and in 1874 he returned to Europe, this time willing to seriously develop his skills as a musician. He attended the Leipzig Conservatory under Jadassohn and Reinecke, and later studied with Louis Brassin (piano) and Auguste Gevaert (composition) at the Brussels Conservatory. In 1880 Albéniz met Franz Liszt and became his student, having traveled with him from Weimar to Rome. The same year he started touring Europe and South America as a mature virtuoso.

The year 1883 marked the end of Albéniz’s Bohemian life style. He married Rosina Jordana and settled in Barcelona, dedicating himself entirely to his family and his music. Little by little he gave up his concert career, concentrating on teaching and composing. At about the same time Albéniz met the Spanish musicologist Felipe Pedrell, who made a strong impact on his compositional style by directing him towards the creation of music based on Spanish roots.

By the end of the decade Albéniz decided to leave Spain and, after spending some time in Paris studying with Dukas and D’Indy, settled in London in 1890, where he agreed to set to music the libretti of British banker Francis Money-Counts in exchange of financial support. This gave light to operatic works such as Pepita Jimenez, Merlin and Henry Clifford. Returning to Paris in 1893 Albéniz established a close relationship with the French impressionist composers, being in 1896 appointed assistant piano teacher at the Schola Cantorum.

In 1898 Albéniz left Paris and lived in Barcelona and later in Nice, finally settling in Cambo-les-Bains, where he died two months later. After his death he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government.
Musical Style

Albéniz’s style, although basically Spanish oriented, is still considerably eclectic and embodied with a popular flavor. This is doubtlessly connected to his early experience playing at cabarets, as well as to the extensive traveling in which he was involved during his youth, when he had the chance to listen to music from several countries and diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though such influences, along with others that appeared latter on his life, are clearly present in his music, Albéniz was able to create his own personal style and his relationship with Liszt might also have contributed to this process. As pointed out by Livermore: “The Hungarian, though moving in the Germanic circles of Schumann and Wagner, had managed to create his own climate by the side of theirs, and this Albéniz needed to do in Paris, where his own unique musical experience required a similar independence of expression if its opening success was to mature unspoilt.”[1]

In order to acquire such an independence of expression Albéniz turned to the musical sources of his native Spain, being first attracted by the Spanish anonymous songs. Those were collected by church organists in times gone, and organized in cancioneros by Felipe Pedrell during the second half of the nineteenth century. The teachings of Pedrell influenced other major Spanish composers such as Falla and Granados, and they all used specimens of Spanish anonymous songs in re-creating the native idiom through their own compositions.

It must be observed that the late nineteenth century saw the growth of Nationalism, especially in countries like Spain, whose musical tradition was overshadowed by a powerful Germanic preponderance. Nationalism sought vivid emotional expression, achieved by the introduction into music of a greater variety of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic phraseology, mostly derived from folk music. Albéniz was the first exponent of Nationalism in Spanish music, being therefore regarded as the founder of the Modern Spanish School, as stressed by Baker: “Almost all of the works of Albéniz are written for piano, and all without exception are inspired by Spanish folklore. He thus established the modern school of Spanish piano literature, derived from original rhythms and melodic patterns, rather than imitating the imitations of national Spanish music by French and Russian composers.”[2] A link may therefore be established from Albéniz all the way back to Scarlatti, whose hundreds of keyboard sonatas were permeated by Spanish musical elements. But Albéniz was also interested in “accomplishing a spiritual transfiguration of the [Spain’s] landscape, to transform it into creative abstract material,”[3] and so he adopted pictorial programs for his piano suites, much on the same way as Mendelssohn on his Scottish and Italian Symphonies.

However, it should be noticed that the Spanish musical idiom, which served as a source for most Spanish composers, is itself a convergence of diverse influences easily observed on three major events in Spain’s history, namely the adoption by the Spanish church of Byzantine liturgical music, the Muslim invasion (responsible for the inclusion of Moorish elements on all levels of music making) and the immigration of numerous bands of Gypsies, the later acknowledged as the major step towards the creation of a style nowadays regarded as the core of Spanish music: the flamenco.

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