The Kennedy Center

Noches en los jardines de España

About the Work

Manuel de Falla Composer: Manuel de Falla
© Thomas May

It's not an unusual irony in the history of Spanish (or even Latin-American) music: Manuel de Falla came to truly appreciate the essence of his homeland's musical heritage only while he was living away from it, over the border in Paris. Later his country would honor him by depicting his image on one of the old peseta banknotes (though Falla chose to flee Franco's Spain and settled in Argentina). Falla's career exemplifies the powerful role of cultural cross-pollination-in this case, from a Spanish point of view. It was in 1907 that Falla, a native of the port city of Cádiz in Andalusian Spain, moved to Paris, then ground zero for the new-music scene. In Paris Falla became closely associated with Debussy and Ravel, as well as with fellow expatriate Spanish composers; Stravinsky also became a prominent influence.

At the same time, Debussy and Ravel were experimenting with form and texture in piano and orchestral compositions in ways that drew inspiration from Spanish sources. Their musical circle included the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, a good friend of Ravel in particular. For Viñes Falla decided to write a set of evocative nocturnes titled Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain). Viñes and other advised Falla to expand his work into an orchestral triptych, which he did after returning to Spain as a result of the outbreak of the First World War. The score is dedicated to Viñes, and E. Fernandez Arbós conducted the premiere.

Falla had shown interest in his early years in investigating the musical traits that characterized Andalusia, but his time in Paris triggered what called be called an epiphany. Rather than recast folk materials straightforwardly, he realized, the most effective way to compose "Spanish music" was to evoke and elicit its referents. Debussy's sensual manipulation of atmosphere and impression had lit the way forward for this approach. Noches en los jardines de España demonstrates the confidence with which Falla had learned from this insight and applied it to a composition that on one level is a thinly disguised piano concerto and another a tone poem depicting images of Spanish gardens. Falla himself described Noches as "symphonic impressions" whose object is "to evoke places, sensations, and feelings."

Falla actually made a distinction between "expressive" and "descriptive" music. He insisted that Noches is an example of the former rather than a work of merely "descriptive," programmatic illustration. Sounds that conjure images of festivals and celebrations are interwoven with subjectively shifting moods: "for melancholy and mystery have their part also." Similarly, Falla adapts idioms from the popular music of Andalusia - idioms from dance styles to the "deep" flamenco singing known as cante jondo - but he colors these with his extraordinary orchestral artistry and develops his ideas in complex ways. The first part, En el Generalife, refers to the Alhambra Palace in Granada and underscores Falla's fondness for a sense of "mystery." The exotic turns of the first theme are further elaborated by the solo piano part. Another more exuberant theme evokes sparkling fountains amid the shadowy garden scene.

Danza lejana (Distant Dance), the shortest part, stirs and flutters to the pulse of a dance in an unnamed garden. The pianist joins in with captivating rhythmic motifs; its pas de deux with the orchestra builds in excitement, leading without pause to the final part: En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba). Here Falla allots his pianist the role of a Gypsy musician whose passionate singing is encouraged by the surrounding onlookers. The sense of collective festivity is amplified by the orchestration-above all in the magic ending of the piece, which matches the nocturnal beauty of the setting with an air of gentle melancholy, of past joys recalled.