Iberia – Lust in the Dust


Mahlerman guides you through the development of serious music in Spain…

After a turbulent history of invasion and occupation by Romans, Visigoths and Moors (British pensioners don’t count – yet) it is perhaps not surprising that by the time the nineteenth century rolled around, Spain was one of the most backward and reactionary countries in Europe. Intellectual life was limited, and ‘culture’ as we understand the term today, barely existed: Francisco Goya is the only name that springs into the frame. In fact, the famous phrase by Richard Ford, the travel writer, seems to embrace the problem perfectly: ‘a bundle of local units, tied together by a rope of sand’.

Music, was there none – save the vibrant folk songs of the villages. Juan Arriaga was, I suppose, the earliest modern ‘serious’ composer but, dying in Paris at the age of nineteen (in 1826), his output is slight.

The country needed a gatherer, somebody who could purloin the rich heritage of malaguenas, soledas and zapateados, the earthy sexuality of the common man and woman, and fashion it into something wonderful – and lasting. The Frenchman Emmanuel Chabrier set the bar with his still popular Espana and then, within the space of a few years, three composers appeared and made their mark upon a nation that, as recently as 1814 in Paris, had been called un cour secondaire.

Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz (below) are often, with good reason, bracketed together. They were both born in the 1860’s, both were highly gifted concert pianists, and both attempted, with varying success, to create a nationalistic musical language. The music of Granados possesses strongly marked rhythmic figures that are, along with the modal scales, Moorish in origin – and therefore typical of Andalusia. And if, by some misfortune, the whole of his oeuvre were to be lost, except his magical piano masterpiece Goyescas, his immortality would still be secure. We visited a movement from the original version in January of this year in The Birds Of My Youth, with the late lamented Alicia de Larrocha offering her definitive exposition of The Lover and The Nightingale. Today, the Intermezzo from the short opera of the same name, with the seventeen year old Jacqueline du Pre ripping fearlessly (when did she ever do otherwise?) into the difficult solo part, accompanied by her mother Iris.

If Goyescas was based upon and inspired by the etchings and paintings of Francisco Goya, Iberia, composed at around the same time (1906 – 1909) by Isaac Albeniz is almost entirely drawn from Andalucian folk melody. The aroma – I can think of no better word – of the south of Spain, that I know so well, simply oozes from this extraordinary Suite, and I hope that I am not being unfair to the composer when I say that nothing else in his output suggests the staggering scope of these knuckle-breaking pieces that, at the time of their release, were considered almost unplayable. This talented Catalan had an interesting life, as a virtuoso (he was a pupil of Liszt for a while), and as a composer of, mostly, salon pieces, facile to the point of vulgarity, leaving the listener with the distinct impression that his ‘style’ does not suggest a self-critical mind, this being true of Iberia, undoubtedly his masterpiece, but possessing too many notes, and too much decorative detail. Too many notes and ‘unplayable’ music is contemptuously dismissed by the Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang, a performer that, to put it mildly, divides opinion. Personally I have moved towards him, not away. The rolling body movement, the popping eyes and knowing smiles I found rather alienating when I first saw and heard him.  And then I just listened to him, and ‘discovered’ not just an amazing technique, but a thought-through approach to almost every piece in his already vast repertoire (he is still only 30). To lovers of this music, brought up over a lifetime with Alicia de Larrocha, this upstart will simply have too much ‘technicolor’, but I am seduced by his touch, and the fact that he seems to live ‘inside’ the piece he is playing, seems to have no fear of appearing to enjoy the sounds he can make, and invites the listener to join him in his reverie – and I do here, in El Puerto, the second movement from Book One.

Small but perfectly formed. The entire output of the Andalucian Manuel de Falla, could be described thus, and though he lived to be almost seventy, all his music could be played through in a day. And what music it is, jewel-like in its workmanship, but with a distinctive overlay of impressionism. His fame rests mainly upon four masterworks, all composed around or during the Great War. The two-act opera La Vida Breve (The Brief Life) was first produced in Nice in 1913; El Amor Brujo (Love The Magician), a gipsy ballet, followed in 1915, and was the first work to reveal the full power and originality of Falla’s talent; a year later in 1916 came the magical nocturne for piano and orchestra, Noches en los jardines de Espana (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), and in 1917 a further ballet El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), which was first produced at London’s Alhambra by Diaghilev, choreographed by Massine, with costumes and set design by Pablo Picasso. I wouldn’t have minded a seat in the theatre on that evening! Today we have four marvellous numbers from El Amor Brujo, reeking of love, passion and forbidden sex, and sung here by the Spanish actress Nati Mistral in a totally idiomatic performance from 1979, directed by the late Mexican conductor Eduardo Mata, who died in 1995 when his self-piloted Piper aircraft came down in Mexico en route to Texas. No 3, of 13, is Cancion del amor dolido (‘Song of suffering love’); No 10. is Cancion del fuego fatuo (‘Song of the will-o’-the-wisp’), and is followed by 12 and 13, Danza del juego del amor (‘Dance of the game of love’) and the final Las campanas del amanecer (‘The bells of sunrise’).

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

5 thoughts on “Iberia – Lust in the Dust

  1. jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
    John Halliwell
    June 9, 2013 at 09:43

    Marvelous, MM. Loved it all! How it helped me recall:

    “Mam, have you seen my three cornered hat?” “No, last time I checked it was on your three cornered head.” Thus answered mother all those years ago when I was trying to locate my cherished LP of Falla’s glorious evocation of Spain. “Very funny! You didn’t include it with the records I agreed you could give to Tony down the road, did you? Oh no! You did, didn’t you?” In that moment I realised the jewel in my meagre collection was probably revolving at 33 and a third times per minute on a back gate somewhere while Tony and his mates used it for target practice. If Tony had checked the disc carefully before driving a nail through the hole in the centre, he would have spotted that one track was almost worn smooth: The Miller’s Dance, that truly brilliant Fandango. Years later, trying to impress my new boss, who I’d invited home for a couple of drinks, I played The Miller’s Dance – I simply had to share Falla’s musical depiction of his homeland. Not a sausage, only a blank, bemused look. I could read his thoughts: ‘What the bloody hell have I recruited here?’ Philistine!


  2. Worm
    June 9, 2013 at 17:49

    Interesting that spain has always lagged behind its neighbours in terms of famous composers – these are all lovely though MM!

    • grahamandrewsmith@gmail.com'
      June 9, 2013 at 18:34

      No shortage of excellent folk music, though! I have an Andalucian friend who is very fond of Paco de Lucia, whom I know you know!

  3. grahamandrewsmith@gmail.com'
    June 9, 2013 at 18:26

    I always enjoy very much these Sunday posts. Just thought I’d say.

  4. info@ShopCurious.com'
    June 11, 2013 at 21:39

    Jacqueline du Pre is mesmerising. Another great selection, Mm

Comments are closed.