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Composed: 1939
Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, strings, and solo guitar
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 16, 1964, Eleazar de Carvalho conducting, with soloist Angel Romero

Blind since the age of three, Rodrigo began musical training early and continued it long. He moved to Paris to study with Paul Dukas in 1927 and returned there after his marriage in 1933 to the Turkish pianist Victoria Kamhi, continuing his studies at the Conservatory and the Sorbonne. He came back to Spain only after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

He brought with him the Concierto de Aranjuez, a breakthrough work he had composed at the suggestion of guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza, to whom the concerto is dedicated. Aranjuez is the former summer palace of the Bourbon kings, outside Madrid on the road to Toledo. Using his thorough knowledge of the Spanish musical heritage, Rodrigo conjured the idealized essence of a Spain past, in what guitarist John Williams called Rodrigo’s “distinctive style of dissonant elegance.”

“It should sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks, as strong as a butterfly, as dainty as a verónica [a classic pass in bullfighting],” is how the composer described his concerto. The soloist launches it, strumming a characteristic pattern that plays with the fact that six beats can be either two groups of three or three groups of two. Balance is always an issue in writing for guitar with orchestra, and Rodrigo supports the guitarist with only soft sustained tonic Ds. (And he drops the guitar’s sixth string tuning from E to D, allowing maximum sonority for the tonic chord.) The orchestra repeats the guitar’s exposition, and this rhythmic pattern will be almost a constant presence in the movement. Rodrigo does not budge from the home key until many bars into the music.

The central Adagio presents one of the most memorable of melodies, the simplest of intervals over elemental harmony, but enriched with the inflections of cante jondo, the deep song of Andalusia. The guitar begins with strummed chords again, accompanying the English horn in that haunting melody, then embellishes the phrase, and the two instruments trade off again on the second half of the tune. The movement opens in B minor, but moves through a number of keys. The guitar gets not only an unaccompanied statement of the whole theme but a big cadenza as well, which leads into the orchestra’s chance at the tune in full voice. A brief coda, gently brightened in the major mode, ends with the guitar trilling like a bird greeting the dawn.

The finale is another robust dance movement and it too plays duple vs. triple games. The guitar states the main theme, the orchestra echoes it, and Rodrigo reprises the formal pattern of the first movement down to the soft, dry close.

— John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Publications.