Sunday 22 April 2018

Classic talk: Triumph and tragedy - the music of Spain

Violin virtuoso: Pablo de Sarasate
Violin virtuoso: Pablo de Sarasate

George Hamilton

For feel-good factor, you can always depend on the music of Spain. It's woven its spell over many a composer, a good number of them French - think of Bizet's dazzling ­opera Carmen, the Symphonie Espagnole of Édouard Lalo, ­another from that part of the world, or the rhapsody that Emmanuel ­Chabrier entitled quite simply España.

Spain wasn't short of musical masters of its own, with particularly strong representation in the Romantic era. There's Fernando Sor, a Catalan guitarist best known for his compositions for that instrument, but in his day known for his operas and ballets, one of which, Cendrillon - his version of the Cinderella story - premièred in Moscow and was staged more than a hundred times.

Pablo de Sarasate was a violin virtuoso. Composers like Bruch and Saint-Saëns wrote for him, but he's also remembered for the music he wrote himself. The Carmen Fantasy is based on themes from the Bizet opera, and his Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Tunes) - a concert piece for violin and orchestra - is as popular today as it was when it was first heard in 1878.

Manuel de Falla was a master of melody, responsible for a whole range of beautiful music. His ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) features a series of magical dances. His reputation was such that his image was to be found on the old Spanish 100-peseta note.

Joaquín Rodrigo was the man behind what is quite possibly the most beloved of guitar pieces, the evocative Concierto de Aranjuez. Written in exile in Paris in 1939 in the midst of one of the world's most turbulent periods, with a second global conflict following the Civil War in Spain, it recalls an altogether more peaceful time two centuries before. The Aranjuez of the title is the summer palace just south of Madrid. The beautiful, slow movement captures the mood entirely.

The guitar may be the instrument of Spain, but there's some wonderful piano music from there as well. Isaac Albéniz produced a sizable catalogue drawing on local folk tunes, many of his pieces with easily recognisable titles like Granada and Sevilla. A lot of them ended up as transcriptions for guitar, though, interestingly, he never actually wrote anything specifically for that instrument.

Enrique Granados was another whose piano pieces are often heard in versions for the guitar, though he had a champion in the Catalan concert pianist Alicia de Larrocha, whose recordings rank among the finest interpretations of the composer.

Like Albéniz, Granados was a concert pianist of the first rank, and wrote principally for his own instrument. His Goyescas, a suite of pieces for piano, draw their inspiration from the pictures of the great Spanish artist Goya. These formed the basis for a one-act opera which had its première in New York in 1916. Granados was there with his wife Amparo for the opening night.

An invitation from the then President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, to give a piano recital delayed his trip home, which meant he missed the direct transatlantic sailing for Spain.

Re-routed through England, he and Amparo were on board the Sussex, a steamship bound for France, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.

Though it didn't sink, the lifeboats were launched. In the confusion, one of them ended up in the water, the attempt at rescue went wrong, and Enrique and Amparo Granados were lost.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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