Archive for May 11th, 2017

The Great Spanish Tradition (2/2)

The magnetism of Spanish music
Spain was burdened with monolithic political and religious structures; its rulers delighted in pageant and military might; when they sent their ships to invade England they placed such unwieldy cannon on their decks they couldn’t be armed and fired in time to ward off the English defenders. No surprise then that a country revelling in spectacle should develop a taste for great battle symphonies for organ or instrumental combinations. This even entered mass settings. Joan Cererols (1618-80) suffered, like all Spanish composers in the seventeenth century, from the absence of music printing in the Iberian peninsula, and his surviving scores are characteristically thin on musical specifics. However, they do include an accompaniment line, indicating the use of instruments. His Missa de Batalla (Battle Mass) is splendidly arranged for three choirs and may be (we will never know how authentically) accompanied to splendid effect by strings, wind and percussion.

No discussion of Spanish music would be complete without mention of the numerous foreign composers attracted to its native idioms. In his numerous keyboard sonatas Domenico Scarlatti was inspired by the strumming of the guitar, which by then dominated the plucked-string repertoire, and many years later nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers vied with each other in their works in the Spanish style. Some of the greatest music in this vast category was by Debussy and Ravel, whose achievements in their turn had a profound effect on Spanish composers.

Vernacular opera in Spain was, as in most countries, constantly threatened by Italian opera. However, the zarzuela proved resilient. It was Spanish opera with spoken dialogue, much like German Singspiel, but older (the earliest known specimens are by Juan Hidalgo and date from the end of the seventeenth century). In spite of various challenges mounted to it, native Spanish opera revived greatly in the nineteenth century and has been prospering ever since.

Nationalism was the key to Spain’s resurgence as a musical force to be reckoned with. While Lalo, Chabrier and numerous others were churning out superficially Spanish music, Felipe Pedrell was drawing some illustrious native pupils into his midst as he promoted his country’s rich literary and musical heritage; among them were the second great triumvirate of Spanish music – Albéniz, Granados and Falla.

The twentieth-century resurgence
Spanish regional idioms and dances, such as jota, habanera, fandango and seguidillas, again came into their own. All the warmth, the dazzling colour, the racy modal harmonies, the tempestuous vocal idioms were rekindled in the music of these composers. Alongside it one hears music of the greatest delicacy fully worthy of the Golden Age. Albéniz and Granados were truly sons of French impressionism; but their sensitivity to colour and effect in Iberia and Goyescas is quintessentially Spanish.

Falla went further in his often astringent harmonies and gaudy orchestration. He knew Stravinsky’s music intimately: one can hear Petrushka clearly in The Three-Cornered Hat. But unlike some of the others, Falla was not content with touristic Spanish effects: he wanted to distill the Spanish soul. As he grew older he abandoned the folk influence in pursuit of communion with the great masters of the Spanish Renaissance; his unfinished oratorio Atlántida was to have been the definitive expression of this.

In more recent years Spanish composers such as Roberto Gerhard finally recognised the New Viennese School, especially Schoenberg. Spain was and in some ways still is a conservative environment for its musicians. Its vitality owes everything to tradition: more than in almost any other European culture, the close union between popular and art music has nurtured and enriched the work of Spain’s many fine composers. That many of the names cited above are little known to music lovers suggests that we are only slowly unravelling one of music’s best kept secrets.

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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