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Born in the Spanish town Cádiz, which in ancient times was the edge of the known world and the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, Falla moved with his family to Madrid in 1896. At the end of the 19th century, Spain had a vital and still authentic folk music tradition, and much of Falla’s music elevates this folk music tradition into serious art. Taking the music of the people into the concert hall seems to be a recurring theme in the development of modern Spanish music, and much of it is to be found in The Three-Cornered Hat.
The Three-Cornered Hat received its premiere by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with decor by Picasso in London on July 22, 1919. The story takes place in Andalusia, and from the opening of the ballet we are presented with a world where the love of life as expressed by the common people is a strong force. Influences from the tapestry cartoons of Goya might be found in the images of couples dancing to the sounds of the guitar; some young boys are flying a kite, while others pretend to be bullfighters.
In 1919, Diaghilev was struggling to keep his Ballets Russes afloat. Though largely responsible for commissioning some of the greatest musical works of the 20th century, Diaghilev and his troupe were nearly in financial ruin by the end of the First World War. Once the war ended, Diaghilev strove to recreate the lavish splendor for which his productions were known, and "The Three-Cornered Hat" proved to be a big part of the new post-war musical culture.
Though much of the work, and indeed much of Falla’s compositional style, is in an international musical language, the sophisticated rhythms and melodies help create a highly stylized depiction of Spanish life. Falla incorporates both authentic and newly composed folk melodies and tosses them around the orchestra with a suave grace. The tone is decidedly light throughout in stark contrast to the dark depiction of Spain in Falla’s earlier masterpiece "El amor brujo."
Ryan Dorin is a Ph.D. composition student at New York University and annotates program notes for the Washington Square Contemporary Music Series.