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"The Bullfighter's Prayer". First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 18, 1946, Leopold Stokowski conducting.
In what became a rather exclusive club of Spanish composers, a kind of early 20th century ‘Big Four,’ Joaquín Turina was the youngest of the group that counted as senior members Albéniz, Falla, and Granados. Like his colleagues, the Seville-born Turina was irresistibly drawn to Paris, the Paris at the turn of the century that was alive with the music of Debussy and Ravel, among other French luminaries. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Having received his early training in piano and composition in his native city, the young musician, with the score of an opera in hand, went to Madrid. In Madrid the opera gathered dust, but he did get a performance of his zarzuela, Fea y con gracia, though its success was decidedly moderate. Writing the zarzuela, however, and becoming absorbed in the musical life of Madrid lit the spark of nationalism that was to become a flame only some years later. In Paris in 1905 he studied piano with the Russian composer Moritz Moszkowski and had composition lessons with Vincent D’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. At an appearance as pianist and composer he performed his Piano Quintet, Op. 1, a work strongly influenced by César Franck by way of D’Indy. This turned out to be a decisive occasion in Turina’s career, for both Albéniz and Falla were present at the concert and as a result of their reaction to the Quintet they advised him to look to his native Spanish folk music for inspiration. (Needless to say, the Quintet was not much to their liking.)
Taking his friends’ advice to heart, Turina decided to “fight bravely for the national music of our country.” He returned to Spain in 1913 and set about to fight the good Spanish fight, and did so with very impressive results in works both large and small. In the latter category is La oración del torero. The flavor of the piece is thoroughly Spanish; the writing is thoroughly impressionistic. Written in 1925, almost a decade after Turina had returned to Madrid and had become a musician much honored in his native land, Oración makes clear that the influence of the composer’s French sojourn was still fully operative.
Considering the lush romantic impressionism of the work, it’s difficult to imagine how it sounded in its original scoring for four lutes, or for that matter in an arrangement for string quartet. No question that Turina’s decision to expand the quartet setting to one for full string orchestra was the right one. This is made perfectly clear immediately, as the strings pulsate and resound with the wonderfully insinuating contour that is so utterly Spanish. The mood here is properly reverential as Turina’s toreador tries to find inner peace. The scent of the bullring’s drama and tension rises briefly after the affecting main theme and its extensions have had their way. The prayer ends as it began, quietly and stoically, in a manner befitting a brave fighter.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving the Orchestra as Director of Publications and Archives, is currently the Philharmonic’s Archives Advisor. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.