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In Beethoven’s case, we might feel that Czerny was imposing a romantic fantasy on essentially abstract — albeit vehemently expressed – music. But “great tonal painting” is what Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) was all about in his most famous music. (He did compose five early sonatas.) A child prodigy in the classically exploited sense, Albéniz made his public debut in Barcelona at the age of four and at the age of seven applied for admission to the Paris Conservatory, where he was rejected as too immature (in behavior, not talent). A year later he was touring the Spanish provinces with his father and older sister. He subsequently stowed away on a ship headed for Cuba, and spent months on his own in South America and the U.S. His performances and studies eventually carried him half way around the world, from San Francisco to Leipzig.
In 1883 he moved to Barcelona, where he married one of his pupils and began composition studies with the musicologist Felipe Pedrell. After this time his music began to dig more deeply into Spanish traditions, going beyond its popular salon amusements. Suffering from the kidney condition then known as Bright’s disease, Albéniz had retired from performing and was concentrating largely on theater works when he began the composition of Iberia in 1905. This group of 12 “impressions” in four books is on one level a set of musical postcards, but the painting is of “spiritscapes” as much as it is of Spanish places and scenes, portraying character and feelings in deeply probing music.
The “Evocation” that serves as a prelude for the set is the only one of the 12 pieces without a regional title. It is dance-based nonetheless, like all the other pieces. In this case the dance is an Andalusian fandanguillo, very lightly expressed as variations in a soft-grained A-flat minor. It does swell to sudden outbursts, but soft and sweet are Albéniz’ main markings. After a shift to the major mode it fades away into still chords and little gestural wisps.
“El Puerto” presents the ruder bustle of the small Andalusian fishing port of Santa María. Brusque and joyful are the composer’s indications throughout most of this rhythmically complex piece, which intercuts three Andalusian dance types. For all its vigor and color, it ends as quietly as the “Evocation.”
“Fête-Dieu à Séville” depicts a Holy Week procession in Sevilla as it comes near, explodes in ecstasy, and then passes on. Albéniz summons drums and bells and little fife tunes from the piano in technically and emotionally extravagant music. Albéniz contrasts the march with a saeta, the improvised song to the Virgin that is passed along by people in balconies overlooking the procession. After the procession initially passes, the festivities break out again in fresh, major-mode exuberance, including a thunderous 3/8 acceleration that ends on a clangorous fffff diminished seventh chord. Albéniz again closes in stillness, with distant echoes of the saeta.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.