By Olga Llano Kuehl-White

*This article originally appeared in Clavier Companion magazine.

Spain. The land of enchantment, of dreamers and doers. The land of Cervantes and his brave knight Don Quixote, of the great painters Goya, Picasso, and Dali. The land where Christians and Muslims fought epic battles, the land whose music has charmed the world. Historians have claimed that Spanish music is the richest in the world due to the wide variety of civilizations that have inhabited Spain. Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) believed the most important influences were the Byzantine, Moor, Gypsy, and Jewish cultures. Over a period of centuries, a fusion occurred from the folk elements of those cultures to create the Spanish idiom. Spain is a land where music sprang from the soil, a land whose soul provided Spanish composers with artistic inspiration that bestowed on musicians an endearing enchantment. For pianists, the essence of Spain is embodied in the music of Isaac Albéniz.

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual was born on May 29, 1860, in Camprodón, in the region of Catalonia. At the age of four he was performing concerts, composing, and being compared to Mozart. His first compositions reflected the musical taste in Spain at the time: short character pieces resembling the music of Romantic-era composers. Biographical information on Albéniz has included fabricated accounts of him studying with Franz Liszt and stowing away on ships and traveling as far as the United States and South America. None of these things is true. In 1880 he did travel to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest in an effort to study with Liszt, only to repeatedly find that Liszt was away. Not to disappoint his father, who had subsidized the trip, Albéniz concocted a story about studying with this great musician. Albéniz often exaggerated facts to embellish his career, which in retrospect was unnecessary—in reality, he led a charmed life as a composer, teacher, and well-known concert pianist.

A major turning point in his life occurred in 1883 when he met Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922). Pedrell has been called the father of Spanish music: he researched Spain’s indigenous folk music and transcribed hundreds of musical examples. As an ardent nationalist, he espoused the conviction that Spanish composers should write music based on Spanish history and culture. Pedrell was convinced that the heart of Spanish music was in its songs and dances. He is also remembered as the teacher and spiritual leader of his three famous disciples: Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla.

The Piano Music of Isaac Albéniz

Albéniz’s music mirrors his life—both are colorful and passionate. His love of the sea, travel, and adventure suited his extroverted and gregarious nature, and his compositions reflect personal life experiences ranging from extreme joy to deepest sorrow. With his wife and three children, he lived in Spain, England, and France. Wherever they resided, their family home became a mecca for writers, composers, and artists. As a virtuoso pianist he toured frequently and successfully in his country and abroad, including performances in Puerto Rico and Cuba, where his father held government positions. In the last two decades of his short life, Albéniz’s interest turned more intensively to the composition of operas, zarzuelas (operettas), vocal and choral works, orchestral works, and chamber works, as well as music for the piano. A discography of the commercial recordings of his compositions provides convincing evidence of the enduring worldwide popularity of his music. As one of Spain’s greatest composers, his works for piano, especially those in the Spanish idiom, are indisputably his lasting legacy.

The Element of Dance

Albéniz composed in many genres, but of major importance are his collections of pieces for the piano: Suite Española, España, Cantos de España, Ruerdos de Viaje, and his masterpieces Iberia, the latter with a new and enriched harmonic vocabulary that embraced French influences and propelled Spanish music into the twentieth century. His music evokes particular dances, such as the jota in “Aragón” (Suite Española) with its castanet-like recurring triplets, the swaying bolero in “Cádiz” (Suite Española), and the “Tango” from España.

Spanish Places

The music of Albéniz also evokes scenes and places in Spain’s cultural and historical heritage as well as events that reflect his personal life. Cities known for their Moorish past are represented by “Granada” (Suite Española) and “Córdoba” (Cantos de España), where a compellingly sad trumpet-call confirms the reality of a battle scene. “Malagueña” (España) creates a Gypsy scene, and in the poignant “En la Playa” (On the Beach) from Travel Remembrances, Albéniz coaxes the listener to his place of refuge, the sea. This work was composed after the deaths of his two sisters and his daughter, and it reflects both joy and deep sorrow. His final work, Quatre Melodies for solo voice and piano, was written in collaboration with his lyricist, benefactor, and loyal English friend Francis Money-Coutts. It was composed a year before Albéniz succumbed to kidney failure (Bright’s disease) on May 18, 1909, just eleven days before his forty-ninth birthday. After his death in France, his body was sent by train to Barcelona where he was buried, as he had requested in Montjuïc, on the side of the famous mountain facing the sea.

What exactly is the Spanish idiom?

Performing Spanish music requires an understanding of the musical components that are integral to an authentic and artistic interpretation. Albéniz was more than a Spanish nationalistic composer. He was the progenitor of a new musical language: a pianistic stylization that combined elements of neo-romanticism with the folk idioms found in Spain’s indigenous music. At the heart of Spanish music are its songs and dances, with the appropriate interpretive treatment requiring the spirit of a rhythmic dance or a lingering, deeply expressive song.

Although the Spanish idiom isn’t all about flamenco music, Albéniz was particularly drawn to the exotic cante flamenco of southern Spain. Flamenco is an artistic expression of the sorrows and joys of life accompanied by castanets and guitar. Singing expressively and passionately is also an integral part of the flamenco idiom. With no strict choreography, flamenco dancers improvise from the basic movements, following the guitar and their own personal feelings. Suggesting the guitar and the castanets as his instrumental models, and drawing his inspiration from Andalucía (the land of cante flamenco), Albéniz captured the emotional pathos and rhythmic vitality of this exiting and exotic music.

Cante flamenco (Gypsy song)

Cante flamenco (Gypsy song) developed from an early nineteenth-century cante hondo (deep song), an emotionally rendered song with Middle Eastern origins. Its characteristics include a narrow range, repetition of short phrases, expressive ornamentation, and absence of strict meter. Andalucían music was the fusion of Arabic, Hebraic, and Gypsy elements. Towards the end of the nineteenth century cante hondo was adopted and renamed cante flamenco by the Gypsies, who made it even more florid and passionately expressive.

The song-like cante flamenco is more often found in the middle or B sections (Copla) of Spanish music, and it represents the dramatic nature of a Gypsy song, channeling moods of deep despair with a fiery spirit and heartfelt passion. These melodic interludes can also occur intermittently throughout a composition, alternating with dance-like passages. Changes of mood and character require subtle changes in tempo. The melodic phrases require a slower tempo utilizing rubato for freedom of expression, while rhythmically dance-like phrases require a faster, steady tempo. Also integral to the cante flamenco genre are the culturally appropriate accompanying instruments including guitars and castanets, and the sounds of hand clapping (palmadas), finger snapping (pitos), and rapid foot-heel-and-toe movements (taconeos). All of these effects culminate in a brilliant display of jubilant exhilaration (jaleo)!

The Spirit and the Character of “Prélude” from España

The “Prélude” from the collection of pieces called España is an excellent piece for intermediate piano students. It evokes the songs and dances of Gypsy flamenco music by utilizing the musical elements inherent in the Spanish idiom. With the discovery of the character of the piece and the appropriate treatment of its musical components, students will be emboldened to achieve an authentic interpretation. Students can easily envision that the participants in “Prélude” would include a singer a guitarist, and dancers.

Form: Spanish pieces are typically in ternary or three-part form, but some are in a free, more improvisatory style and form, like the “Prélude.” This depicts the spontaneity of a typical Gypsy scene where music would be performed on guitars with singers and dancers playing castanets.

Harmony: The harmonies in Spanish music sound “exotic” to our ears, since they are not based on traditional major or minor scales. The “Prélude” has a key signature of one flat, but it is based on a modal derivative: an Arab-Andalucían mode similar to an A Phyrgian mode, with other pitch modifications such as the raised third (C#) used intermittently. The Arab-Andalucían modes originated from a fusion of the Arab modes and a Gypsy scale based on tetrachords and augmented seconds offering a great diversity of patterns. For “Prélude” a scale pattern can be constructed utilizing Albéniz’s compositional procedure. Students could even play this scale at auditions. This scale-like pattern provides an exotic Middle Eastern flavor as the scene unfolds for this colorful work (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1

Song: Typical of Spanish music, the opening four measures of the “Prélude” introduce the singer and the song. The singer also plays castanets, represented by the inverted mordents of mm. 2 and 4. In this three-note ornament, the first two notes are played before the beat (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 2

This song-like phrase is an example of the cante hondo (deep song) typical of flamenco style, which by its very nature requires rubato for expressive freedom. These song-like phrases alternate with an arpeggiated phrase.

Guitar effects: These measures imitate rasgueado, a guitar technique of playing arpeggiated or rolled chords with strumming effects. The guitarist’s response is musically empathetic (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3

Castanet effects: The next section actually extends to m. 28. The repeated triplet rhythms suggest the sound of castanets played by Gypsy dancers. It should be performed with absolute precision and clarity, without rubato (see Excerpt 4).

Excerpt 4

Song returns:  Measures 29-36 again employ the song-like cante hondo melody, which by its impassioned nature would require the use of rubato (see Excerpt 5).

Excerpt 5

Change of mood: The crescendo in m. 33 implies a quicker tempo, or a gradual accelerando, arriving at the note on the second beat of m. 24. Holding that note longer with an agogic inflection provides a dramatic and climactic effect. Gypsy singers channel their despair and always perform with passion and unrestrained emotion. Allowing the damper pedal to blend sonorities in mm. 29-36 creates a magical, shimmering, and slightly blurred effect conducive to the music’s mood and ambiance.

A very slight pause or delay after m. 36 would heighten the suspense and prepare the scene for a change of mood and the return of the dancers and castanets (mm. 37-44).

Singer and guitar: Measures 45-58 provide a musically expressive conclusion, with the last page belonging to the singer and guitarist.

Students of the piano love Spanish music. This rich collection of piano literature provides pedagogically rewarding results in all areas of musical endeavor and, in addition, it requires an empathetic response to the music’s emotional demands. This is emotionally charged flamenco music that will jolt students out of the common practice of performance complacency (dull playing) and hold their interest throughout the high school years. The transformative power of music is clearly evident in the Spanish repertoire. Music helps us understand things with our hearts that we can’t understand with our minds. Music taught with imagery and imagination inspires students to get in touch with their own feelings and communicate all levels of human emotion.

Applying musical discernment, imagery, and imagination and performing with confidence, passionate excitement, and deeply felt emotion communicates the very heart of Spanish music! Olé!