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Isaac Albeniz (Composer)

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albeniz i Pascual (May 29, 1860 – May 18, 1909) was a Spanish pianist and composer best known for his piano works based on Spanish folk music.

Born in Camprodon (Girona, Catalonia, Spain), Albeniz was a child prodigy who first performed at the age of four. At age seven he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but he was refused admission because he took out a ball from his pocket and broke a glass window while playing with it. By age fifteen, he had already given concerts worldwide. After a short stay at the Leipzig Conservatory, in 1876 he went to study in Brussels. In 1880, he went to Budapest to study with Franz Liszt, only to find out that Liszt was in Weimar, Germany.

In 1883, he met the teacher and composer Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to write Spanish music such as the Suite Espanola, Op. 47. The fifth movement of that suite, called Asturias (Leyenda), is probably most famous these days as part of the classical guitar repertoire, even though it was originally composed for piano and only later transcribed to guitar. Many of his other compositions were also transcribed to guitar, notably by Francisco Tarrega — Albeniz once declared that he preferred Tarrega‘s guitar transcriptions to his original piano works.

During the 1890s Albeniz lived in London and Paris and wrote mainly theatrical works. In 1900 he started to suffer from Bright‘s disease and returned to writing piano music. Between 1905 and 1909 he composed his most famous work, Iberia (1908), a suite of twelve piano "impressions".

His orchestral works include Spanish Rhapsody (1887) and Catalonia (1899).

In 1883, the composer married his student Rosina Jordana. They had three children, Blanca (who died in 1886), Laura (a painter), and Alfonso (who played for Real Madrid in the early 1900s before embarking on a career as a diplomat).

Albeniz died on 18th May 1909 at age 48 in Cambo-les-Bains and is buried in the Cementiri del Sudoest, Barcelona.

Cecilia Sarkozy, the (second) wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is the great-granddaughter of Isaac Albeniz.

Middle Period and "Chants d‘Espagne"
While Albeniz is best known for his crowning achievement, Iberia, written in the last years of his life in France, the works leading up to that famous final collection are also worthy of a closer look. The five pieces in Chants d’Espagne, (Songs of Spain) are a solid example of the compositional ideas he was exploring in the “middle period” of his life. A thorough examination of the suite of five pieces shows what Albeniz biographer Walter Aaron Clark describes as the “first flowering of his unique creative genius”, and the beginnings of compositional exploration that became the hallmark of his later works.

Born in 1860, Albeniz was known as a “bohemian” as he traveled the world as a young child and then independently as a teenager. His concert career began at the young age of nine when his father toured both Isaac and his sister, Clementina, throughout northern Spain. The apex of his concert career was considered 1889 to 1892 when he had concert tours throughout Europe.

Early works
His first recorded composition, Marcha Militar, was published in 1868, and he continued composing in the traditional styles ranging from Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt until the mid-1880s. Albeniz scholars write about his three compositional periods known as “early works”, “middle period” and “mature compositions”. While dates vary depending on the biographer, it is generally agreed that early works were most influenced by the popular “salon style” music, inspired by Chopin, Schubert and Brahms. The middle period works were mostly composed in the late 1880s and the mature compositions came after he had almost completely retired from his concert career and moved to France in the early 1890s.

Spanish influence
During the late 1880s, the middle period, the strong influence of Spanish style is evident in his music. Felipe Pedrell was a major influence on Albeniz’s style at this time. Pedrell, a composer and teacher, was a leading figure in the development of nationalist Spanish music. Gilbert Chase, in his book The Music of Spain, describes Pedrell’s influence on Albeniz: “What Albeniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music.”

In addition to the Spanish spirit infused in Albeniz’s music, he incorporated other qualities as well. In Pola Baytleman’s biography on Albeniz, she describes four characteristics of the music from the middle period. She writes, “1. The dance rhythms of Spain, of which there are a wide variety. 2. The use of cante jondo, which means deep or profound song. It is the most serious and moving variety of flamenco or Spanish gypsy song, often dealing with themes of death, anguish, or religion. 3. The use of exotic scales also associated with flamenco music. The Phrygian mode is the most prominent in Albeniz’s music, although he also used the Aeolian and Mixolydian modes as well as the whole-tone scale. 4. The transfer of guitar idioms into piano writing.

Another Albeniz biographer, Walter A. Clark, explains how the pieces of this period received enthusiastic reception in his many concerts. He goes on to explain how many of the pieces have found a permanent place in the guitar repertoire. Chase describes music from this period, “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 — Albeniz achieves a stylization of Spanish traditional idioms that while thoroughly artistic, gives a captivating impression of spontaneous improvisation... Cordoba is the piece that best represents the style of Albeniz in this period, with its hauntingly beautiful melody, set against the acrid dissonances of the plucked accompaniment imitating the notes of the Moorish guzlas. Here is the heady scent of jasmines amid the swaying palm tress, the dream fantasy of an Andalusian “Arabian Nights” in which Albeniz loved to let his imagination dwell.”

The ‘dream fantasy’ Cordoba, is one of the pieces in Chants d’Espagne, which represents the middle period at it height. The suite contains the five pieces: Prelude, Orientale, Sous le Palmier, Cordoba, and Sequidillas. Sources conflict on the date of the compositions — but it is likely pieces 1, 2 and 3 were written between 1891-2 and pieces 4 and 5 were written in 1897. Both Prelude and Sequidillas are also found in the work Suite Espanola Opus 47. Clark describes the pieces in Chants d’Espagne as “some of the most celebrated and widely performed of his works”. The pieces “capture the diverse aspects of Spanish life in Andulasia”, according to Daniel Ericourt — a major authority on Spanish piano music.

Perhaps the best source on the works is Albeniz himself. He is quoted as commenting on his earlier period works as, “there are among them a few things that are not completely worthless. The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited; but in the end, the people, our Spanish people, are something of all that. I believe that the people are right when they continue to be moved by Cordoba, Mallorca, by the copla of the Sevillanas, by the Serenata, and Granada. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation…appears to me like the carvings in the Alhambra, those peculiar arabesques that sway nothing with their turns and shapes, but which are like the air, like the sun, like the blackbirds or like the nightingales of its gardens. They are more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which though we may not like it, it the true Spain.”

Chants d‘Espagne
Moving to the micro level of examination, it is appropriate to begin with the Prelude. Clark calls the Prelude “a warhorse in the guitar repertoire.” He describes the piece as “pure Andalusian flamenco” with a main theme that mimics the guitar technique of alternating the thumb and fingers of the rights hand, playing a pedal-note open string with the index finger and a bass melody with the thumb. The theme itself suggests the rhythm of the buleria — a song from the flamenco repertoire. The ‘marcato’/’staccato’ markings suggest both guitar sounds and the footwork of a flamenco dancer. The piece sounds as though it is written in the Phrygian mode which is typical of bulerias. The B section is a reminiscent of a copla — a sung verse following a specific form. Clark states that it is written in typical Albeniz form as it is “presented monophonically but doubled at the fifteenth for more fullness of sound. The music alters between a solo and accompaniment that is typical of flamenco. The short of middle section of the piece is written in the style of a malaguena — another flamenco style piece. The malaguena borrows two motives from the previous copla and builds on them. True to its Da Capo form, we return to the A theme until a slow “hymn-like” passage before the piece finishes.

Orientale is the second piece in the suite. Opening with a dissonant clash of chords, the Phrygian mode is established quickly and it too is based on the songs and dances of Andalusia in spite of its Asian name. It is a melocholic, reflective piece of music. The main theme is also based on an octosyllabic copla. Sous le Palmier (Under the Palm Tree), also known as Danse Espagnole (Spanish Dance). As the piece has two names, it also has two feelings as it progresses. The gentle swaying of the palm trees coincides with the swaying of the Gypsy tango. When Ericourt describes how the rhythm should be played in these pieces, he writes, “First, the rhythm is to be steady, with even beats throughout, but at the same time, give a supple and relaxed, even languid or voluptuous impression. The ‘marcato‘ indication at the beginning means exactness, rather than a rigidity of rhythm. The music must flow uninterruptedly.” Ericourt also emphasizes the importance of moderation in expression: “Any exaggeration, tonal or otherwise, could easily bring vulgarity to this composition.”

At measure 17 in Sous le Palmier, the music moves to the parallel minor, a move seen in other pieces by Albeniz. Clark describes the power the shift creates when he writes, “(it) expresses a sadness that we can fully understand only if we recall the depression that underlay his outward sanguinity.” This sadness is touched on sparingly in the biographical works on Albeniz. Exactly how much he suffered from depression is unknown, but his music has the ability to touch on a melancholy and longing that is truly genuine. The next piece in the suite demonstrates the same major to minor shift, among the many features that makes it the most recorded and well known of the five pieces.

Cordoba celebrates one of Albeniz’s favorite cities. In the heart of Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to Spain’s famous “great Mosque”. The city is rich in history, but Christian and Moorish, and Albeniz captures the mood and feel of both in Cordoba. Clark states that the name of the piece may have been inspired by Albeniz’s namesake, St. Isaac of Cordoba, who died defending his faith in this southern Andalusian city.

The piece begins with the sound of tolling church bells. The sound of a g dorian hymn plays in a faux bourdon style, rhythmically ambiguous so as to resemble liturgical singing. The A section ends in contrasting character, reminiscent of a guzla playing a serenade in a more Moorish sound. The B section sounds of flamenco dancers and Spanish folk song rhythms as it mounts to a moving climax. There is a repeat of the A section and a brief Coda before the end. Ericourt states, “In view of the multifaceted nature of this piece, it would not be improper to consider this evocative composition a tone poem for the piano.”

The final piece of the collection is Seguidillas. A seguidilla is a popular song or dance form composed from four to seven verses. The form is explained as, “based on strong flamenco rhythms. Its seven “verses” are tied together by the similarity of the first three verses, the fact that the 4th and 5th verses begin in the same way as the first three, and that the 6th is based on their endings; the 7th verse is a free mixture of the beginning and ending materials just mentioned. The seven verses are enclosed by a four-bar introduction, which set the rhythm, and a 13-bar Coda which provides a brilliant ending.” Exact rhythm is paramount in the performance of this piece to be true to the typical Spanish dance form.

Looking at the five pieces as a whole, Chants d’Espagne demonstrates new forms and new harmonies that Albeniz had not shown previously. Clark writes, “The suite represents the furthest advance in Albeniz’s Spanish style to date in its seriousness, harmonic richness, and formal variety.” It was after the composing this suite that Albeniz redirected his compositional energy toward musical drama, opera and theatre.

Albeniz’s influence on the future of Spanish music was profound. When studying the composers that followed, Albeniz and his works are often mentioned. While Iberia, is considered the masterpiece, the pieces that led up it were thoroughly embraced and enjoyed by people throughout Europe. During his lifetime and after his death, it was said that “in his own country, no one met with greater success.” In an article in the Musical Times, G. Jean-Aubry writes about the value of the pieces written earlier in Albeniz’s life: “I do not like the opinions of those who set too little store by his early output in order to esteem only the later. In the middle of the works in his first manner will appear suddenly in many places an unexpected intonation at the turning of a facile phrase. One is conscious not so much of hasty workmanship as of too great a facility; but in all that he produced, what joie de vivre, and still more, what voluptuous beauty!” In the end, the beauty of the pieces for both listening and playing is perhaps their greatest value of all.

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