Music Post: Music from the gardens of Spain


When we speak of classical music history, we speak mostly of Italy, Germany and France. When we discuss the roots of jazz, we speak mostly of America and Africa. Yet Jelly Roll Morton, breaking jazz down into component parts, said one was “the Spanish tinge.” And Spain has been an influence on classical music for centuries. Spanish music, itself influenced by Middle Eastern music, was an established tradition at least 200 years before Bach, probably longer.

The Spanish Baroque and early classical period included three composers we still listen to. Only one was born and raised in Spain. The others migrated to Spain and stayed.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), a second generation Italian composer, was born in Sicily and worked in Rome but spent most of his career at the Madrid royal court, where he wrote hundreds of one movement harpsichord sonatas, the variety and quality of which astonish to this day. Several seem influenced by guitar music.


Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Soler.

Antonio Soler (1729-1783) was actually born in Spain and is thought to have lived his entire life in Spain, a musician who took holy orders. He might have studied with Scarlatti, based on his sonatas and the fact that both were associated with the Madrid royal court.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), who studied and worked in Rome and Vienna, is often associated with the music and age of Haydn. But he worked in Madrid from 1761, four years after Scarlatti’s death, through the end of his own life more than four decades later, and composed several guitar quintets, one subtitled “Fandango.”

Descendents of Scarlatti and Boccherini still live in Spain today.


Luigi Boccherini.

In the 1800s, four Spanish virtuosi became famous worldwide, and spread Spanish music in their globetrotting performances. One was a violinist, one a guitarist, and two were pianists.

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was born in Pamplona, where the running of the bulls is held. His father was a bandleader. He played violin from five and attended Paris Conservatory at 12. He traveled the world, including the Americas.


Pablo de Sarasate.

Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) was the son of a flamenco guitarist. Proficient from an early age, he frequently ran away from home and made a living while still a child. In his twenties he acquired a far better guitar than he was used to playing, and was inspired to enroll in the Madrid Conservatory. Billed on tour as the Sarasate of the guitar, he made guitar arrangements of famous piano works (including compositions by Albeniz) and wrote the famous “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.”


Francisco Tarrega.

Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) was a globe-trotting pianist, many of whose piano compositions are in the guitar repertory through transcriptions by other people. He never wrote for the guitar himself. A story that he stowed away on a ship as a child and supported himself with concerts is wrong. He didn’t stow away, he accompanied his father, a customs agent, on trips to the Americas. He did indeed concertize as a child, though, including on those voyages. He died in France of kidney disease at 58.


Isaac Albeniz.

Enrique Granados (1867-1916), seven years the junior of Albeniz, was also a famous pianist of his day. He studied in Paris, not at the conservatory but under a conservatory professor who was half-Spanish (the teacher’s mother was the Spanish diva Maria Malibran.) Granados’ masterpiece “Goyescas” premiered in 1911. Granados drowned when a German U-boat torpedoed a passenger ship in the English Channel.


Enrique Granados.

By the late 1800s the epicenter of music was shifting from Germany to France, and promising Spanish composers went to Paris to study and to make the scene.

Manuel De Falla (1876-1946), conservatory-trained in Madrid, moved to Paris for seven years starting in 1907. He met Paul Dukas (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), Debussy and Ravel, along with Stravinsky, and he composed “La vida breve.” Returning to Spain during World War I he wrote “El amor brujo” in 1915 and “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” in 1916. “The Three-Cornered Hat” premiered in Paris with Sergei Diaghilev in 1917.


Manuel da Falla.

In 1939 when Francisco Franco became dictator of Spain, Falla moved to Argentina, where he died in 1946.

Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville and studied in Madrid and Paris, living in Paris for nine years from 1904. Like Falla he knew Debussy and Ravel. Turina wrote a great deal of what might fairly be called Impressionist music – you could imagine it having been composed by a Frenchman – but with encouragement from his French friends he began consciously writing a more Spanish-sounding music, which turned out to be just as good. In later life he was a conservatory professor in Madrid. Turina’s music is underexposed and awaits classical fans as a welcome surprise.


Joaquin Turina.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) was blind from diphtheria at the age of three. His family secured lessons in piano and violin from age eight so he would have skills that would enable a blind man to earn a living. He studied in Paris under Paul Dukas and Maurice Emmanuel. His first major composition was an instant hit that remains in the repertory, the Concierto de Aranjuez. Rodrigo wrote a flute concerto for James Galway, a cello concerto for Julian Lloyd Weber, the Concierto para una Gentilhombre for Andres Segovia, and the Concierto para una fiesta for Pepe Romero. One cannot complain that his guitar concertos are insufficiently appreciated but his many concertos for other instruments are just as good and should be heard more often.


Joaquin Rodrigo.

Spain and its music have always fascinated musicians from other countries. You can name Spanish-inspired works by non-Spanish composers: Bizet’s “Carmen,” Chabrier’s “Espana,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnole” and several works by Ravel and Debussy. I was surprised to find, when I built the following chronology of well-known works, that most works by actual Spanish composers came after the first wave of Spanish-influenced works by non-Spaniards.

  • 1863 – Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.” Written for Pablo Sarasate.
  • 1875 – Lalo’s* “Symphonie espagnole.” Written for Pablo Sarasate.
  • 1875 – Bizet’s “Carmen.”
  • 1882 – Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.”
  • 1883 – Chabrier’s* “Espana.”
  • 1887 – Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnole.”
  • 1887 – Albeniz’ “Suite espagnole.”
  • 1890 – Granados’ “12 danzas espanolas.”
  • 1890 – Albeniz’ “Espana.”
  • 1895 – Ravel’s “Habanera.”
  • 1896 – Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.”
  • 1903 – Granados’ “Allegro de concierto.”
  • 1905 – Falla’s “La vida breve.”
  • 1907 – Ravel’s opera “L’Heure espagnole.”
  • 1907 – Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole.”
  • 1908 – Debussy’s “Iberia.”
  • 1909 – Albeniz’ “Iberia.”
  • 1911 – Granados’ “Goyescas.”
  • 1915 – Falla’s “El amor brujo.”
  • 1916 – Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”
  • 1917 – Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat.”
  • 1919 – Turina’s “Danzas fantasticas.”
  • 1923 – Turina’s “Seviliana.”
  • 1928 – Ravel’s* “Bolero” premieres. First title: “Fandango.”
  • 1939 – Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.”

* Lalo was half-Spanish, but born and raised in Lille, in northern France, and did not appear to have any more exposure to Spanish music than anybody else born out of Spain. Chabrier was also northern French but actually vacationed in Spain and imbibed the local music. Ravel’s mother was Basque and he had an interest in Basque culture, but still was Parisian to his core.

I have done an entire show on Spanish music by non-Spaniards before, and doubtless will again, but this week’s program focuses on works by actual Spaniards.

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