Issac Albeniz and the Guitar part 2

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

Part 1
by Daniel Wolff

Comprised basically of dance movements such as the polo, the fandango and the seguidillas, on which Albéniz based most of his piano pieces, the flamenco is the modern successor of the cante jondo, through which it may be better understood. The cante jondo, a misspelling for canto hondo (in Spanish: deep chant), refers to a group of Andalucian folk-songs of Gypsy origin, characterized by two major aspects: “the compass which rarely surpasses a sixth; and the often obsessive repetition of the same note, frequently embellished by an appogiatura from above or below.”[4] In flamenco dance movements the cante jondo section functions as a cadenza, primarily due to its monodic and ametrical character. Albéniz used this feature in El Albaicín, from the Suite Ibéria, and in Asturias (from the Suite Española) expanded it to the whole first part of the slow section (see example 1).

Example 1: Albéniz, Asturias

Issac Albeniz Asturias

Example 1.b demonstrates also the presence of Arabic turns of phrase, a Moorish legacy connected with “an important Spanish artistic movement at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth known as alhambrismo, referring to the palace of Alhambra in Granada.”[5] Moorish melodic elements were frequently found in Albéniz’s music, who used to proudly state: “I am a Moor!”

In regard to the instrumental accompaniment, in flamenco music it is usually provided by the guitar, and one of its distinctive features, which Albéniz employed frequently in his music, is the use of minor second grids to accomplish rhythmic accents. Although the inclusion of such dissonant intervals over triadic chords led to the improvement of Albéniz’s tonal gamut, it is however not sufficient to completely understand his harmonic idiom. A frequent resource found in his pieces in the major mode is to modulate to triads of the parallel minor scale, as in Sevilla, from the Suite Española. Here, after an opening in G major, the theme reappears in E flat major and the entire slow section is in C minor. It is interesting to observe that the tonic notes of these three keys put together form a C minor chord, which is the key of the slow section, a common device in the nineteenth century’s quest for a higher level of tonal relationships.

Further harmonic achievements are found in Albéniz’s late works, especially after his studies in Paris. Typical impressionistic harmonic devices such as the use of modal harmonies and the whole-tone scale, as well as uncertain tonal centers, are frequently found in his Suite Ibéria, which he referred to as a set of “twelve impressions”. It should be mentioned that several scholars are of the opinion that Albéniz was not really influenced by the impressionist composers, but rather helped to create the so called “impressionist style”, as put by Marco: “Although the language of Ibéria is directly related to the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, it cannot be considered simply as a consequence of the French school. Its genius lies in its extraordinary technical complexity; years later Olivier Messiaen declared that it was his immediate antecedent.”[6]

In terms of form Albéniz wrote mostly short pieces, the so called “character” pieces of the Romantic period. Most of them were based on flamenco dance movements over which he superimposed traditional formal structures such as ABA. It is interesting to observe that the B section, which traditionally serves as a relief to the rather busy texture of the A section, often assumes the form of a cante jondo, which in flamenco music also works as textural and rhythmic break. But Albéniz was also aware of the needs for achieving a greater formal structure, something he accomplished by placing his pieces together in the form of suites, such as the Suite Ibéria, the Suite Española and Cantos de España.

Little has to be said about Albéniz’s orchestration since, like Chopin, almost all his pieces are written for solo piano. He did orchestrate Catalonia with help from Dukas but most of his orchestral scores, almost all of which are to be found in his operas, show a distinctive pianistic approach. Writing about the opera Pepita Jimenez, Chase states that “the score reveals that Albéniz thought primarily in terms of the piano rather than the orchestra, a medium he never thoroughly mastered” (italics mine).[7] The famous orchestral version of certain movements of the Suite Ibéria was done not by Albéniz but by his countryman Fernando Arbós, and part of the suite was also later orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Albéniz’s style changed considerably over the years. His early pieces carried no marked Spanish character, being rather miniatures written in the facile salon style (waltzes, mazurkas, barcaroles, etc.) so common in the late nineteenth century. French influences can be seen only in 1889, starting with La Vega, but the major step towards maturity can be traced back to 1883, the year he met Pedrell. “What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music.”[8]
Albéniz and the Guitar

“Throughout the veins of Spanish music, a profound rhythmic beat seems to be diffused by a strange, phantasmagoric, colossal and multiform instrument – an instrument idealized in the fiery imaginations of Albéniz, Granados, Falla and Turina. It is an imaginary instrument which might be said to possess the wings of the harp, the heart of the grand piano and the soul of the guitar” (italics mine).[9]

This statement by Joaquín Rodrigo demonstrates the high place the guitar holds in Spanish music, even if only on an unconscious level. That is to say, when trying to capture the Spanish musical idiom, Spanish composers pay tribute to the guitar’s characteristic sonorities even though they are writing for another instrument. Such is the case with Albéniz, as observed by Chase: “Taking the guitar as his instrumental model, and drawing his inspiration largely from the peculiar traits of Andalusian folk music – but without using actual folk themes – Albéniz achieves a stylization of Spanish traditional idioms that, while thoroughly artistic, gives a captivating impression of spontaneous improvisation.”[10]

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