Born in Cadiz, which in ancient times was the edge of the known world and the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) moved with his family to Madrid in 1896. Though Spain still had a vital and authentic folk music tradition, the cultural scene was hopelessly provincial for an aspiring composer of Falla’s caliber. In 1904 Falla won a national composition contest with his opera La vida breve and hoped this would lead to performances of the work, thereby making him enough money to move to Paris. The organizers of the competition failed to secure a performance, so a frustrated Falla took off on a European tour as a pianist for a mime troupe. In 1907, the not-quite-so-young but not-yet-mature composer finally found himself on his own in the French capital.
Musical Paris was bubbling with things Spanish at the time. Debussy was composing Ibéria, Ravel was working on Rapsodie espagnole and L’heure espagnole, and Falla’s compatriot Albéniz had just completed the fourth book of his Iberia for piano. Falla soon earned the respect and affection of Paul Dukas using the score of La vida breve as his calling card, and Dukas introduced Falla to the other great musicians in town. Falla remained in Paris for seven years before returning to Spain in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I.
It was in Paris that Falla wrote his Siete canciones. Using a combination of authentic and “retouched” folk melodies, Falla succeeded in elevating what were simple, popular tunes to a higher artistic level by crafting truly integrated and original piano accompaniments, bringing to life the infectious melodies and rhythms inherent in the folk songs.
El paño moruno is a song from Murcia. It is interesting to note that Falla later reproduced the opening bass line of this number to characterize the Murcian miller in his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. Seguidilla murciana is a dance-song in a quick triple time which relates some rather interesting words of wisdom. The Asturiana, as the name implies, comes from the Asturias, a region in the north of Spain, and is a sad lament. The Jota is a popular dance form which makes dramatic use of an active rhythmic introduction giving way to the voice, intoning with expressive rubato. Nana is a brief Andalusian lullaby which uses oriental modal inflections, placing it somewhere between E major and E minor. Canción begins with a light-hearted lilt, but the naive melody takes an anguishing bend on the word “madre.” Polo, also an Andalusian melody, uses violent guitar-like strumming to accompany the singer’s love-related despair.
Siete canciones received their premiere in Madrid in 1915 to great public and critical acclaim, helping gain Falla international recognition and attention.
-- Ryan Dorin is currently working towards completion of a Ph.D. in Music Composition at New York University. He is currently composing and drawing an animated opera.