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Although Falla owed much to a formative sojourn in Paris, where he learned from colleagues such as Debussy, Ravel, and Dukas, his music remained firmly rooted in Spanish arts, both folk and classical. Moreover, the majority of his most important scores are music for the theater - zarzuelas, ballets, operas, incidental music. It was the two-act opera La vida breve that served as his introduction in Paris, and the sounds of his homeland were never long out of Falla's creative imagination; the principal work of his Paris years was the Siete canciones populares españolas.
Falla left Paris at the beginning of World War I. His first work back in Madrid was El amor brujo, in its original form a gitanería of dances, songs, and spoken texts. The work was requested by the great dancer Pastora Imperio, whose mother, Rosario la Mejorana, suggested an old Andalusian legend for the subject. Gregorio and María Martínez Sierra, with whom Falla was involved in several projects, wrote the scenario and texts, and the piece had its premiere at the Teatro Lara in Madrid in April 1915.
The music was generally well-received, some grumblings about French influence notwithstanding, but the production was not notably successful. Falla then rearranged the work, expanding the instrumentation and revising the scenario for performance in 1916 (on the program with the premiere of Nights in the Gardens of Spain). Later still, the larger orchestration served as the basis for another ballet version, published in 1921 and first played in concert in Paris in 1923. It has been a grateful vehicle for many dancers, beginning with La Argentinita in 1927.
The tale in its final version concerns Candelas, a young widowed gypsy haunted by the ghost of her jealous husband. To free her from his unwanted attention, Candelas and Carmelo, her new lover, must exchange a kiss of perfect love. In a series of dances the ghost first frightens the couple (Dance of Terror), Candelas tries to exorcise it (Ritual Fire Dance), and then her friend Lucia seduces it. While the ghost is distracted by Lucia, Candelas and Carmelo kiss, and then mock the ghost in the final dance (Dance of the Game of Love).
Falla was studying cante jondo, the deep song of Andalusia, at the time of El amor brujo, and every musical aspect of the work reveals the influence of that study. Falla did not quote actual folk songs, relying instead on his knowledge of the idiom to create original "folk art" stunning in its power and authenticity.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is the oft-transcribed "Ritual Fire Dance," the fierce central component of Candelas' midnight ritual. Equally impressive, however, are the songs and other dances. This is not the prettified orchestral Iberiana of many famous French and Russian "Spanish" scores, but rather an earthy distillation of native impulses. Although a vivid work of theater, El amor brujo is as much a series of intense musical reflections on the power of love as it is sheer story-telling. As the composer Charles Koechlin wrote in a review, "Purity of line in the writing, simplicity amid richness, and unexaggerated originality simply leap forth from this work."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.