The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Emmanuel Chabrier Composer: Emmanuel Chabrier
© Thomas May

The ease of travel-both physically and in terms of ready access to the library of world music-has spoiled us. Or at least it makes it harder for us to imagine how merely journeying to neighboring countries could have left such a deep impact on a nineteenth century composer such as Emmanuel Chabrier. Chabrier is a great place to start-not just because España is a fabulous concert-opener, but because its instant popularity underscores the pivotal role of French composers in codifying many of the images of "Spanishness" that have become central to the classical repertoire. And French composers are the focus of this edition of IBERIAN SUITE: global arts remix.

Before he came to writing España, Chabrier's encounter with Wagnerian opera in Germany changed his life. Although a civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior for years (where he found time in off hours to compose), Chabrier was so overwhelmed by the experience that he decided to drop his day job and immerse himself in an existence dedicated to music full-time. It helped that he had a supportive circle of artistic friends including some leading painters of the day-Chabrier in fact became a pioneering collector of the work of his Impressionist colleagues-along with significant literary figures such as Mallarmé and Verlaine (who wrote librettos for the composer).

Chabrier's travels throughout Spain in 1882 inspired him to write España, which had to be encored at its premiere in 1883. And how could it not be a hit? The music percolates with bubbling energy and high spirits that continue to make España among the best-loved scores documenting French musical impressions of Spain.

The Iberian peninsula's zestful variety inspired Chabrier to assemble his impressions of Spanish dances and folk music. He kept a kind of musical travelogue that tracked details of local color and the diversity of dance idioms. Initially-like several of his compatriots' Iberian-influenced compositions, España was conceived as a piano piece. Chabrier then decided to amplify his material into a "rhapsody for orchestra."

From the evidence of Chabrier's letters, it's clear that what fascinated him included not only the music he encountered in cafes and plazas but the sexiness of Spanish dancers as well. In España the vogue for evoking "exotic," sultry Spanish atmospheres that started taking root with the work by Édouard Lalo next on the program is evident. In España this is embodied in an irrepressibly and irresistibly joyful fantasia of rhythms and orchestral colors. In the opening moments, Chabrier resorts to the cliché of the ensemble imagined as a giant guitar, but he makes it sound fresh-you can imagine a group of dancers lining up to perform. The harmonic palette is simple and mostly static, which shifts the focus to rhythmic and instrumental patterns. Remember how they accrue and gather energy-an idea Ravel will push to extremes in the work that ends this program.