The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Isaac Albéniz Composer: Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Isaac Albéniz, a seminal figure in the musical life of his native Spain, was born in 1860 in Camprodón, in the northeast corner of the country, near the French border. He learned the piano from his older sister when he was still an infant, and gave his first concert at the remarkable age of four. (Some accused him of being a dwarf.) In 1867 his mother took him to Paris, where he studied for nine months with the noted pedagogue Antoine-François Marmontel, but he was refused admittance to the Conservatoire because of his age. Back in Spain Albéniz toured Catalonia with his father and sister before the family moved in 1869 to Madrid, where he was enrolled at the Conservatory and appeared frequently in concert. At the age of ten the precocious Albéniz ran away from home to northern Spain, living by his wits and his talent, and astounding his auditors by playing with the backs of his fingers while facing away from the piano. The death of his sister brought him home temporarily, but he again fled, heading this time for Cádiz, where the local governor threatened to return him to his family. Panicked by the thought, he stowed away on a steamer bound for Cuba. The passengers learned of his plight and took up a collection to pay his fare, but only enough money was raised to get him to the ship's first stop, Buenos Aires. There he lived hand-tomouth for a while, but he soon found work playing in cafés and eventually undertook a serendipitous concert tour through Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the United States, traveling as far as San Francisco, before saving enough money to sail to England for more appearances. He ended up in Leipzig for some study at the city's conservatory with Jadassohn and Reinecke.

Albéniz returned to Madrid in 1877 just long enough to secure a royal scholarship for study at the Brussels Conservatory. After winning the school's first prize for piano in 1878, he took a few lessons with Franz Liszt and began another long tour of South America and the United States in 1880. In 1883 he returned to Barcelona to play and teach, and there met Felipe Pedrell, the composer and pioneering scholar of Spanish music who inspired him to use native songs and dances as the basis of his original compositions. Albéniz married one of Pedrell's students in 1883, and he moved to Madrid two years later, but found life as a pianist in Spain difficult, and again went abroad to further his career. He gave a concert of his own compositions in Paris in 1889 to much acclaim, and there met such prominent musicians as d'Indy, Dukas, Fauré and Chausson.

From 1890 to 1893 Albéniz lived in London where he abandoned piano playing in favor of composition. He settled in Paris in 1893, composing, renewing friendships, and teaching piano at the Schola Cantorum. The death of his mother in 1900 brought him back to Barcelona, but his own ill health (he suffered for years from kidney disease) and his failure to arrange performances of his works sent him again to Paris in 1902. A year later he moved to Nice, and there wrote his masterpiece, Iberia. Just one week before his death on May 18, 1909 at Cambô-les-Bains in the French Pyrenees, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor by the French government. Enrique Granados brought the news to his bedside.

Albéniz's Asturias, one of the most atmospheric creations in all of Spanish music (its alternate title is Leyenda-"Legend"), is modeled on a type of indigenous music native to that northern region.