Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain presents a moody and remarkably diverse look at the composer's homeland - but then again, Falla was a diverse composer in general. Although an avowed nationalist in musical tone (he collected and arranged Spanish folk songs), Falla composed works that range in subject from ballet to opera to a remarkable 1926 concerto for harpsichord and five instruments.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain was completed in Spain during the First World War, but it was conceived during one of the composer's stays in France. Despite Falla's overt connection to the music of his homeland, he considered his best periods as an artist to be the ones he spent in Paris.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a pure flight of fancy, rich, dark, and mysterious. Formally, the work consists of three connected nocturnes much in the style of Debussy, whom Falla admired; yet they are Debussy-like only in suggestions of structure - the notes themselves are permeated by Falla's own voice.
With such an evocative title, the question must be asked: is Nights in the Gardens of Spain program music, music for its own sake, or something in between? Falla himself devoted some thought to the question of Nights as program music, writing that "If these 'symphonic impressions' have achieved their object, the mere enumeration of their titles should be a sufficient guide to the hearer. Although in this work - as in all which have a legitimate claim to be considered as music - the composer has allowed a definite design… the end for which it was written is no other than to evoke places, sensations, and sentiments. The music has no pretensions to being descriptive; it is merely expressive. But something more than the sound of festivals and dances has inspired these 'evocations in sound,' for melancholy and mystery have their part also."
That said, we are left to view the work as a dramatic portrait of the Andalusia the composer so loved. The first movement could well stand alone, its writing elegant while still retaining heavy influences of flamenco form and guitar writing. But standing the first movement on its own feet would neglect the dramatic, sensual intensity of the second - a brief, darkly playful dance that acts almost as a bridge between sections - and its segue into the devilishly dramatic third movement. After an all-out orchestral storm in the opening, a remarkably crystalline, guitar-inspired series of phrases appears, set for piano over hazy strings. The drama returns, and the piece roars through its final five minutes with a mixture of harsh full-orchestra interruptions and expansive romances for piano and strings, fading quickly into an elegant, quiet close.
- Music writer Jessica Schilling served as the Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.