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Composed: 1986
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, percussion, and strings

First LA Phil performances (West Coast premiere)

Cristóbal Halffter has always had an interest in the traditional roots of Spanish music, but in the early 1980s he began engaging in extended conversations with music of past eras. The most widely performed work from that period is this Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial, a polystylistic confrontation with pieces by two giants of earlier Spanish keyboard music, Antonio de Cabezón (c. 1510-1566) and Juan Bautista José Cabanilles (1644-1712).

Tientos were instrumental solos in the style of a toccata or ricercar. The tientos by Cabezón, a blind organist and músico de la cámara to the Spanish royal family, form one of the high points of the genre. They are more tightly structured and contrapuntal than more improvisatory examples, and usually reference liturgical chants. His Tiento on the first tone (or mode) is a dark masterpiece in four-part imitative counterpoint, first published in 1557 in tablature.

“Battle” music is a genre of descriptive pieces depicting a battle, sometimes a specific event. The earliest ones were primarily vocal, but in the 17th and 18th centuries they became more commonly solo or instrumental works, filled with fanfares and effects suggesting pipes and drums, even on instruments with relatively slender sonic resources, such as the Baroque guitar. Cabanilles was an heir to traditions begun or standardized by Cabezón – he wrote some 90 tientos – and his music circulated widely. The Batalla imperial attributed to him – a blazing fanfare fest – may however be by Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693), a much-admired German organist who was the source for many of Handel’s famous “borrowings.”

Halffter takes over these pieces basically complete, beginning with the Cabezón tiento in a warm but austere orchestration. He builds it up through layered repetition and expansion, adding instruments and dissonant probes until the antique music explodes in glittering shards, from which the anticipated battle music bursts in bold and brassy triumph.

The orchestration is rich in affect as well as effect. But brilliant as it is, creating an orchestral showpiece was not Halffter’s primary goal in bringing the past into present. “Our society tends to confuse culture and spectacle. Culture can be spectacle, but spectacle is often anything but culture,” the composer said in receiving an award in 2009. However construed, Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial succeeds as a festive celebration of culture. It was written for the prominent and influential Swiss musician and patron Paul Sacher and his 80th birthday, and premiered in February 1986 by the Basel Symphony Orchestra, the composer conducting.

— John Henken