Born on St. Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) in 1901 in Valencia, Spain, Joaquín Rodrigo lost most of his sight to diphtheria at the age of three. This inclined him toward music, and he began to study solfège, piano and violin at the age of eight. At age sixteen, he entered the conservatory at Valencia to study harmony and composition, writing his compositions in braille for later transcription.
In 1927 Rodrigo enrolled at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. There he studied with Paul Dukas and Manuel de Falla, who strongly encouraged their Spanish pupil. In 1939, he returned to Spain to settle permanently in Madrid.
The Concierto de Aranjuez, a definitive example of Rodrigo’s musical personality and a work which would bring him world-wide fame, premiered in Barcelona in 1940. It was inspired by the gardens at Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the spring resort palace built by Philip II in the 16th century. Rodrigo described the music as capturing “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains” in the gardens of Aranjuez. The instrumentation is restrained: the guitar is only rarely asked to face the forces of the full orchestra, remaining instead a solo instrument throughout.
According to the composer, the first movement is “animated by a rhythmic spirit and vigor without either of the two themes . . . interrupting its relentless pace.” The last movement “recalls a courtly dance in which the combination of double and triple time maintains a taut tempo right to the closing bar.”
The contemplative second movement is the best-known of the three. Rodrigo gave no indication as to the inspiration for the theme, but his wife Victoria said, in her autobiography, that it was both a memory of the happy days of their honeymoon and an expression of grief at the miscarriage of their first pregnancy.
In 1996 Joaquín Rodrigo received Spain’s greatest honor, the Prince of Asturias Prize, awarded for the first time to a composer. The citation named Rodrigo, in company with Falla, Granados and Albéniz, as one of the greatest exemplars of Spanish music, and called special attention to Rodrigo’s achievement of raising the Spanish guitar to the dignity of a concert instrument.
“Deep inside Joaquín Rodrigo, there was a man from the Golden Age, Spanish to the core. His personality and figure always reminded me of one of those plebeian noblemen that Velazquez, Ribera or Murillo liked to paint. He was shrewd, rapid, and witty in the same way as many of Cervantes’ characters. Traits of the protagonists of picaresque novels, that most hispanic of genres, seem to hover throughout certain Rodrigo passages. Isn’t there something of the bittersweet tenderness, the ancestral wisdom, the slightly soured skepticism, the sly roguishness of Lázaro, Rinconete or Estebanillo in Rodrigo’s works? Perhaps for that reason, his music is light but not commonplace, it is full of joy and at the same time full of melancholy, it is fresh but not ingenuous. Perhaps for that reason, the most immortal of his immortal music goes hand in hand with the most deeply rooted Spanish traditions.” -Alvaro Marías, Madrid, 1999
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Capriccio Espagnol.
Like many Russian masters, Rimsky-Korsakov was drawn to the folk songs of the Orient and entranced by the music of Spain, with its Moorish and mid-Eastern influences. Gifted in the art of orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that “the Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for putting in use multiform orchestral effects.”
He intended for the Capriccio Espagnol to “glitter with dazzling orchestral color,” capturing the essence and verve of Spanish music. In a written critique of his own music, he insisted that the piece was no mere “orchestrated piece,” but was in fact a “brilliant composition for orchestra,” explaining that the “change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for solo instruments, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration.”
The work has five continuous movements. The first is an alborada, a festive dance from Spain’s northern Asturian region, which is reprised in the third movement. The second movement is a theme with variations begun by the horn section, then repeated by other instruments and sections of the orchestra. The fourth movement features a “scene and gypsy song,” followed by a dance in triple time leading into the fandango of the fifth movement. The Capriccio ends with a coda, a rousing and final restatement of the alborada.
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), España.
In the spring of 1883, Emmanuel Chabrier, a Frenchman, toured Spain with his wife. Notebook in hand, he jotted down songs and dances that intrigued him, thrilled by their exotic melodies and complex rhythms. This music became the inspiration for his rhapsody, España, which was first performed in Paris in November 1883, and which brought the self-taught composer world-wide renown. The rhapsody’s principal themes come from two Spanish dances, the jota and the malagueña, while a third theme, loudly proclaimed by the trombones, is original with Chabrier. The work has become one of the most popular representatives of Spanish music, and has been warmly praised even by Spaniards. Manuel de Falla wrote, “I venture to say that no Spaniard has succeeded better than Chabrier in giving us, with such authenticity and genius, the version of the jota as it is shouted by the peasants of Aragon.”
Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), Requiebros.
The Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó enjoyed a dual career as a composer and a performing artist, performing with such notable figures as Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Rubinstein. He gave his first public performance at the age of nine to an audience which included the great Pablo Casals. On hearing him play, Casals offered to teach the young cellist, thus beginning an artistic collaboration which, though strained by the politics of World War II, would last a lifetime. Cassado studied composition with Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel, but dedicated his Requiebros, or “flirtations,” to Casals. A tour de force for the cello, the Requiebros combines strumming guitar effects, fiery dance rhythms and bold melodies to paint a dazzling tone picture of a Spanish gallant wooing his lady.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Carmen.
Carmen is Georges Bizet’s sultry gypsy heroine, whose fiery temper and passionate love triangle lead to her murder at the bull-ring in Seville—but not before her immortality is sealed by many of the world’s best-loved operatic arias.
The Habañera shows Carmen, the seductress, telling the men of the cigarette factory that her interest in them is on her own terms. The Habañera’s famous chorus (“L’amour! L’amour!”) is part of her warning: “Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame. If you don’t love me, I love you. If I love you, watch yourself!”
In the Seguidilla, Carmen, whose hands have been bound following her part in a knife fight, uses her powers of seduction to trick the soldier Don José into releasing her. Fittingly, the Seguidilla is named for a dance performed in pairs with footwork reflecting the rhythm of the guitar, but with restrained upper body movement.
Bizet’s score is celebrated for its rhythmic and melodic vitality, which vividly evokes Andalusian Spain, but the opera’s most lasting achievement lies in its dramatic innovation of flesh-and-blood character and conflict, making it the culminating opera in its genre.
© 2012 Heidi Rodeback