Falla wrote his Harpsichord Concerto for Wanda Landowska, the pioneering Polish-French harpsichordist who had played the instrument for him in El Retablo de maese Pedro and had been urging her contemporaries to write new music for it. Landowska gave the premiere – insufficiently rehearsed, with hastily prepared and error-ridden parts – conducted by Falla in Barcelona in November 1926. Perhaps shaken by that experience, she declined further performance of this work dedicated to her, and Falla himself often played the harpsichord part subsequently.
A troubled premiere was perhaps to be expected, for this was unusual, radical music. In this Concerto for six solo instruments, “the composer felt no constraint to conform to the classic form of the concerto for a single instrument with the accompaniment of the orchestra,” Falla wrote in a note for the premiere. This austere, stripped down style – of “the esthetic which is ascetic,” in Alexis Roland-Manuel’s words – is similar to that of contemporary works such as Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Piano Concerto, or the chamber symphonies of Schoenberg.
Thematically, the Concerto is a reflection on Spanish musical history, universalized in a neo-classical context. The vigorous, spiky opening movement is built on fragments of “De los álamos, vengo madre,” a Castillian folk tune used in a 16th-century villancico by Juan Vásquez. The richly sonorous central movement – as long as the other two combined – is slow, but marked “jubilant and energetic.” It is based on the “Tantum ergo” by Tomás Luis de Victoria and suggests the grand religious processions of festival days in Spain. (Falla wrote at the end of the movement “In Festo Corporis Christi.”) The theme of the witty finale is derived from “De los Alamos” and cast in the style of Domenico Scarlatti. (This last movement is the only one to which Falla admits typical Baroque harpsichord ornamentation such as trills and mordants.)
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.