Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Albeniz and Granados

The first two CD's in my cabinet contain a suite of music entitled Iberia by the Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albeniz. One of the CDs is a recording by Trio Campanella, a Scandanavian guitar trio, of Iberia transcribed for three guitars by Christophe Dejour, one of the members. The second CD is a two disc collection containing both Iberia as well as the Goyescas of Enrique Granados, both played on the piano (the original instrument for these works) by the famed pianist Alicia De Larrocha. Trio Campanella has also recorded the Goyescas, and so I'm going to talk about that disc as well.

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albeniz was born in 1860 in the northern Spanish town of Camprodon (according the the disc notes). A bit of a child prodigy, he performed in public for the first time at the age of four. As the years went by, he bounced around various conservatories, and in 1883 came under the tutelage of Felipe Pedrell, a specialist in Spanish music. Pedrell instilled in Albeniz the importance of writing Spanish music, based on native folk music and dances.

Albeniz toured Europe as a successful pianist, though his last years found him in Paris, where he composed Iberia in the years before his death in 1909.

Iberia is composed of four "books" of movements, twelve in all. Each is a kind of tone poem depicting Spanish locales (most in Andalusia). Taken as a whole, the suite is considered a masterwork of Spanish piano music. However, the transcription into a work for three guitars works quite well, and, for my own taste, this is the form which I prefer (not taking anything away from Ms. De Larrocha). I was surprised to learn that most of Albeniz music was written on and for the piano, as I have most often encountered it played on guitar (by such masters as Andres Segovia). Apparently guitar transcriptions of his music are not rare, and they play so well due to the music idiom and style associated with Spanish music.

(Incidently, Albeniz wrote an opera entitled Merlin, which has a very modern sound and I couldn't finish it.)

I suppose I could list all twelve movements and explain their contents, but I've found that, ignorant as I am of Spanish geography, not to mention Spanish culture, the explanations don't add to my enjoyment of the music; so, I'll only mention one or two.

I'm particularly drawn to the opening movement, "Evocacion." It has a dreamy, slightly dissonant sound, over which a melody which evokes the Spanish guitar (and hence sounds pretty neat when played by the trio). "El Corpus Christi en Sevilla" depicts a celebrational procession, starting out low, building to a frenzy, and then gets quiet in the distance as the procession passes. "Malaga" is a malaguena, written about an old Spanish town in the south.

The piano collection includes an additional work, entitled Navarra, that was to be the last movement in the suite, but Albeniz replaced it with "Jerez" (the town known as the center of sherry wine-making. Navarra was not complete when Albeniz died, so the last twenty-six bars were added by a friend, the composer Deodat de Severac.

Like one domino downing its neighbor in a long chain of clacks and stacks, I came upon Iberia through the Trio Campanella's recording of Goyescas by Enrique Granados (1867-1916). This recording was recommended by the fine folks at, a great source for classical music recordings and DVDs. (If Arkiv doesn't have it, it probably doesn't exist.) In any event, the Goyescas led me to their recording of Iberia, which in turn led me De Larrocha's disc set. As luck would have it, Goyescas is also on that disc set.

Goyescas, subtitled "Los majos enamorados" (Young Men in Love), is inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828). A quick Google did not net me any of the pictures on which the music is based (if a reader finds them, a comment with the location would be appreciated). What Granados found interesting was the way the paintings depicted the character of Spanish life.

This suite consists of two sets of movements. The first set consists of the sections entitled Flattery; Dialog at the Window; Fandango by Candlelight; and Lament, or the Young Man and the Nightingale. This last movement Granados dedicated to his wife.

The second set has two movements, entitled Love and Death; and Epilogue: The Ghost's Serenade.

Granados wrote other Goyescas not grouped or entitled such. Trio Campanella included one, El Pelele, as the final work on the disc. El pelele is a life-sized "straw man", and an image of women throwing a him up in the air from a bedsheet trampoline is on the cover of the CD.


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