The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Isaac Albéniz Composer: Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz
© Thomas May

Like so many creative figures, Isaac Albéniz embodied a host of contradictions. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the fact that Albéniz lived for much of his life outside his native Spain. He has come to be regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of a modern Spanish musical identity, yet Albéniz mostly chose to make his home abroad. Though buried in Barcelona, at the height of his career he lived first in London and then mostly in Paris and southern France until his premature death from Bright's disease-not long after he had completed his acknowledged masterpiece, the four-volume collection Iberia.

"Variety within logic was his motto, but variety at the expense of logic was often his way of life," writes Walter Aaron Clark, author of the major English biography of the composer. According to Clark, "the classic and romantic waged a constant struggle within [Albéniz]. Iberia certainly exemplifies his desire to contain the incessant flow of ideas in some rational formal context."

Albéniz came from a non-musical family and was born in northeastern Spain, in the town of Camprodón in Catalonia (in the Pyrenees, near the French border). A remarkable child prodigy who became a touring pianist even before his teens, Albéniz was fond of embellishing stories about his early travels and exploits-claiming, for example, that he stowed away on a steamer across the Atlantic. (His father, a customs agent, in fact did travel widely and accompanied his son on tours.) By the last decades of the nineteenth century Albéniz was also earning a reputation as a composer of salon pieces and "musical travelogues" (Clark) evoking Spain.

But Albéniz's own understanding of his native country was enhanced by his self-imposed exile in London and Paris. He gained new perspectives not only from geographical distance (think of the Irish James Joyce in Zurich) but also from his interactions with such French composers as Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d'Indy, and Paul Dukas. Despite his contradictory attitudes toward Claude Debussy, the late-period Iberia reveals important influences from Debussy's modernism. Clark points out that while Albéniz objected to being associated with musical Impressionism (a label Debussy himself disdained), "he did not help his case by referring to his collection as ‘impressions'" and that Debussy's first book of Images from 1905 "may have provided the inspiration" for his own first Iberia pieces.

French composers in turn have expressed considerable admiration for what Albéniz achieved in Iberia. Debussy himself noted that "one's eyes close, dazzled by such wealth of imagery." Olivier Messiaen later deemed it "the wonder of the piano, the masterpiece of Spanish music which takes its place-and perhaps the highest-among the stars of first magnitude of the king of instruments." And the French proved especially receptive to the music of Albéniz while his original homeland remained indifferent to his many attempts to write for the musical stage.

It was in part out of frustration over his unstaged operas that the ailing Albéniz began to focus his creative energy on the gigantic project of Iberia, which occupied him from 1905 to 1908. Eventually he published four separate books, each containing three "impressions." The total of twelve pieces lasts some 80 to 90 minutes in performance, though they do not constitute a continuous suite, according to Clark, because "they can be played in any sequence" and "it is clear that the composer expected they would be programmed piecemeal and in variable order." Each of the four books received its premiere on a different date by the French pianist Blanche Selva. These premieres took place between 1906 and 1909-all in France (three of them in Paris). Albéniz's writing style here, with its fiendishly complex rhythmic structures and crossing of hands, for example, calls for extreme virtuosity. The composer himself believed his ideal interpreter was Joaquín Malats (1872-1912), a virtuoso and composer from Barcelona.

Regarding the orchestrations of Iberia, Albéniz envisioned a multi-movement "Iberia Suite d'orchestre" but only got as far as orchestrating El puerto. Displeased with the result, he asked his friend, the celebrity violinist Enrique Fernández Arbós (1863-1939), to try his hand at orchestrating the music. A composer and conductor as well (among his credits were conducting the Spanish premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), Arbós eventually orchestrated five of the twelve pieces by 1925. Because of copyright restrictions, Ravel abandoned his initial impulse to create his own orchestrations of Iberia as part of a ballet commission near the end of his career. That great loss for music history, however, resulted in his decision to write Boléro. Decades later another Spanish composer-conductor, Carlos Surinach (1915-1997), orchestrated the remaining eight pieces from Iberia. Other orchestrations have since published as well, but those by Arbós retain a high ranking as exemplars of evocative painting with the orchestra's full colors.

The five pieces we hear show how in Iberia the northern Spanish Albéniz gravitates in musical terms to the legend-enshrouded realm of Andalusian southern Spain: two of these pieces evoke Seville, while Albéniz's musical language draws on archetypal southern Spanish idioms such as the Andalusian version of fandango, the zapateado dance (with its heavily accented 6/8 meter), and the saeta, a type of religious song associated with the Lenten Holy Week that involves elements of flamenco music.

The first three pieces come from Book I. The nostalgia-tinged Evocación ("Evocation"), in sonata form, is set in the unusual key of A-flat minor (with its hard-to-read seven flats). Clark aptly sums up the musical synthesis Albéniz sustains as a whole in Iberia: "Impressionist harmonies, especially the use of whole-tone scales; Lisztian virtuosity taken to the limits of human ability; and the Spanish nationalism [the composer] himself had developed and defined."

El puerto refers to the port city Cádiz in southwestern Spain and conveys a largerthan-life sense of event. Albéniz instructs the original piano part to be played in a way that sounds "always joyous." The longest piece in Iberia, El Corpus en Sevilla (also known as Fête-dieu à Seville, i.e., "The Feast of Corpus Christi in Seville") is almost cinematic in its sweep, depicting the varied emotions conjured by this important liturgical celebration in the Roman Catholic Church. In staunchly Catholic cities like Seville, Corpus Christi, which takes place 60 days after Easter (late May/early June), is a feast day that features a solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament, accompanied a statue of the Virgin. Musicians and penitents process, and it is just this conflation of a marching band and mournful, penitent religious singing (the saeta) that Albéniz juxtaposes. The music reaches a massive climax but ends quietly.

Triana (from Book II) is also centered in Seville-here, in the eponymous "Gypsy" neighborhood on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, traditionally known for its enclave of Romani people living in shared communities. This is one of the areas which nurtured the flamenco idiom. The tonality is, like that of El Corpus en Sevilla, also in Fsharp minor. The last piece, El Albaicín (from Book III), also evokes the Romani world, but in another Andalusian city: Granada, with its winding, medieval streets (and an official World Heritage Site).

Describing the uniqueness of Albéniz's music, his compatriot Enrique Granados declared that "it is of an elegance that smiles with sadness and progresses by degrees until it achieves a mastery both commanding and serene, like Goya's Maja. Iberia evokes memories of our ‘golden century.'"