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Length: 23 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, and xylophone), celesta, harp, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: October 27, 1927, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting (Suite No. 2); August 15, 1968, Lawrence Foster conducting (Suites Nos. 1 and 2)
During World War I, neutral Spain received an invigorating influx of foreign artists looking for alternative markets to those along the usual Paris-Berlin-Vienna routes. Prominent among them was the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, which became particular favorites of King Alfonso XIII. Diaghilev and Falla discussed several potential projects, settling on an adaptation of the 19th-century writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón's comic novella El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). Falla brought this to the stage first as the pantomime El corregidor y la molinera, on a scenario in two scenes written by his usual collaborators, the husband-and-wife team of Gregorio Martínez Sierra and María Lejárraga.
Alarcón's novella contains a confusing amount of incident, but the central narrative line follows the traditional characters of a jealous miller, his beautiful young wife, and a lecherous corregidor (the local magistrate, whose position is symbolized by his three-cornered hat). The oafish but persistent corregidor is thwarted at every turn, mistakenly arrested by his own constables, and suffers the peasant justice of being tossed with a blanket in a finale of general merriment.
For Diaghilev, Falla increased the size of the orchestra and eliminated some incidentals from the second part, while adding a solo specifically for Leonid Massine, who choreographed the new ballet and danced the part of the miller. Pablo Picasso designed the sets and costumes, and at his request Falla wrote an introduction and solo song to be performed before Picasso's curtain went up. The ballet had a hugely successful premiere in London in 1919 (as Le tricorne), establishing Falla's international reputation. The composer extracted two orchestral suites corresponding to the principal numbers of the two parts.
The first suite opens with a brief flourish from the ballet's introduction, then moves to an afternoon scene in which the miller and his wife try to teach a blackbird to sing the hours of the day. Falla quotes traditional themes to identify the native provinces of the couple. Then the miller's wife has her big solo number, an abstract fandango retaining the dance's rhythmic characteristics in an evocative scoring with the strings imitating guitars. This ends abruptly when the wife sees the corregidor, who pompously waddles in to another traditional tune played by solo bassoon. The wife teases him with a bunch of grapes that she holds just out of his reach, circling him like a picador around a bull. The corregidor falls down, has great difficulty getting up again, and limps off to the derisive glee of the couple expressed in music that combines their themes.
The second suite opens with the miller's neighbors gathered to celebrate the Feast of St. John, dancing seguidillas based on more traditional themes, including one also popularized in Jerónimo Giménez' zarzuela La boda de Luis Alonso. The miller then has his solo, a dark and fiery flamenco farruca, the earthiest dance in the ballet. All of the ballet's many themes are combined in the final jota, chaotic climax and jubilant resolution in one.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.