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A Synthesis of Styles: The Music of Isaac Albeniz

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A Synthesis of Styles: The Music of Isaac Albeniz

Isaac Albeniz was a nationalist composer, and one of the greatest musicians Spain has ever produced.  Among the many musicologists who have researched and written about the music of  Albeniz, and the many pianists who have had occasion to comment on it, there is universal agreement regarding the artistic merit of his magnum opus, Iberia.  Its rich harmonic vocabulary, rhythmic complexity, extensive dynamic range, and the ambitiousness of its architectural design are indeed praiseworthy; and in most respects, Iberia is a quantum leap forward from Albeniz's earlier works in the nationalist style.  However, if � as the vast majority of the aforementioned commentators have done � we were to focus most of our attention on this one work, we would undoubtedly fail to come to terms with that which is the very essence of Albeniz's music.  

Iberia, after all, is a synthesis of several music styles, including the sophisticated compositional techniques that Albeniz learned in Paris, and the virtuosic piano writing he inherited from Liszt.  His earlier works, on the other hand, are a relatively simple amalgamation of folk idioms and European salon style which stick closer to the source of Albeniz's inspiration, that being the Andalusian musical idiom. 

The Evolution of the Andalusian Musical Idiom

With the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711 A.D. came Arabic cultural influences that would profoundly effect Spanish music and architecture for centuries to come; especially that of Andalusia, the southern-most region of Spain from where Isaac Albeniz drew most of his artistic inspiration.  Unlike Christian music of the same time period, whose function was primarily liturgical, the "religious spirit did not apply to Arabian music.  According to the teachings of the Koran, wine women and song were forbidden pleasures unworthy of a pure and sincere follower of Allah."39  But the Arabs and Syrians who settled in Spain were not so puritanical.  Since the time of Abderrahman I (d. 788), the first caliph of Cordoba, the palaces of the rich were wholly given up to these delights.  Large numbers of musicians, singers, poets, and dancers were maintained at court, and the palaces of the wealthy became gathering places for the great profusion of singers and musicians who achieved considerable prominence throughout Arab Spain.40

During the whole of the Moorish period (711-1492 and after) music was primarily monodic, meaning that a single melodic line predominated, as in a folk melody.  In melismatic passages, where singers would sing more floridly (several notes to a syllable), the music became heterophonic; that is, the accompanists were permitted to embellish the melodic line by introducing a simultaneous fourth, fifth or octave.41

The musical form of these pieces was dictated by the poetical form, the most favored of which, the zajal and the muwashshah, were characterized by the alteration of a refrain and various stanzas, with the refrain coming first.42  In all vocal music of this type there was an obligatory, and sometimes rather lengthy, instrumental prelude, and after each refrain and stanza came an instrumental interlude that served to emphasize the formal structural of the poetry.  At the end of the song, a closing postlude would follow.43  This practice of alternating the vocal content with preludes, interludes, and postludes is omnipresent in Andalusian music, even today.  The accompaniment to these songs was performed on a variety of string instruments, both plucked (lutes) and bowed (rebec), along with percussion (tambourines).

The next major development in Andalusian music was largely brought about by the Gypsies who first arrived in Barcelona in 1477.  Fanning out across the Peninsula, they established colonies in those provinces most congenial to their way of life.  Chief among these was Andalusia, and in particular the kingdom of Nasrid Granada, at that time the last Moslem stronghold on the Iberian peninsula.  Here, in what has since come to be regarded as the well-spring on Spanish Gypsy culture, the Gitanos  dwelled with relative impunity until 1499, when the Spanish monarchy began enacting laws designed to inhibit their freewheeling lifestyle.  "In spite of the fact that many of these laws were framed during the same period that the Spanish Inquisition was striving to destroy all vestiges of Moslem, Jewish and Protestant influence in Spain, the Gypsies, notorious for their contempt of religious observances, were never persecuted on that score."44  But when the expulsions and conversions of the Moslems began in 1525, and the subsequent prohibition of nearly everything of Eastern origin was affected, the Gypsies, who had adopted much of the Moorish music idiom as their own, had to quickly adapt to the change.  As a result, percussion shifted from metallophones and membranophones (e.g., tambourines) to castanets, hand clapping, and guitars.  Over a period of time the Gypsies � along with other members of the Andalusian underclass that dwelled in and around Gypsy communities � impressed enough of their personality on the Arab rhythms and vocal style to radically transform them.  In effecting these changes they created a musical style of their own.  This transformation gave birth to what is called the cante jondo style, which in turn gave rise to the more modern cante flamenco45that is still popular today.

Contrary to Arabic music, the rhythms of cante jondo and cante flamenco are derived from dances.  In flamenco music, songs and dances are usually combined by the group of singers, dancers, and guitarists that performs them.  While most songs are accompanied and danced, others are not.  In either case, the rhythms are almost always ternary and the phrases are generally four measures long.  Within these basic twelve-beat rhythmic units, each dance has a different pattern of accents known as a comp�s.  These patterns, like identical links in a chain, form the rhythmic ostinato that is the basis of the dance.  Twelve-beat comp�ses, or "rhythmic cycles", as they are sometimes called, are the foundation of many of the most famous Andalusian songs and dances, including those which Alb�niz emulated. 

Isaac Albeniz and the Andalusian Musical Idiom

Albeniz incorporated a number of elements of Andalusian music into his compositional style, including dance rhythms, cante jondo-type melodies progressing in conjunct motion within a restricted range, usually a sixth; the use of the Phrygian mode and coloristic Phrygian inflections in non-modal contexts; characteristic ornamentation; and guitar idioms which he transferred to the piano.  The formal construction of most of Albeniz's music is also shaped by Andalusian folk music. 

Unlike most of his earlier pieces which have the guitar as their instrumental model, Iberia is largely pianistic.  While the guitar's spirit may permeate this work, its technique has - for the most part - been relegated to characteristic effects.  The earlier works of Albeniz also differ from Iberia in terms of formal construction.  Whereas almost all of the earlier Spanish compositions utilize rather simple ternary structures (sometimes with an introduction or coda), the twelve pieces in Iberia are architecturally quite complex.  "They employ characteristic dance rhythms, many of which alternate with a lyrical vocal refrain, or copla, and often are combined contrapuntally with the copla toward the end of the movement."46  In this way, Alb�niz is able to develop his themes and thereby achieve a synthesis of the principals of sonata form and the Andalusian practice of alternating coplas with instrumental interludes and/or dance music. 

The earlier works also utilize characteristic coplas and dance music.  However, prior to Iberia, the juxtaposition of this material is limited to the confines of an ABA form, and little, if any, development ever occurs.

Various commentators have equated this absence of development with a lack of sophistication, and in doing so they betray their ignorance of both Albeniz and Andalusian music.  To begin with, the development of themes, as in a typical eighteenth or nineteenth-century sonata form, was completely alien to the Andalusian musical idiom prior to Alb�niz; and the fact that he chose not to develop his themes during this stage of his career, speaks not of his inability to do so, but rather his adherence to the nationalist doctrine.  One need only look to his Concierto fantastico, Op. 78, to realize the truth in this statement, for in this work Albeniz demonstrates considerable skill in developing his themes in the European tradition.47  To suggest that he should have assimilated more foreign influence into his early works in the national style is a contradiction in terms. 

Alb�niz's initial avoidance of such complexities in his stylization of the Andalusian idiom was likewise a product of the socio-cultural conditions of late nineteenth-century Spain.  The matter is well summarized by an unidentified Spanish musician in an interview with the novelist James Michener:

"When you demand that Falla and Albeniz take Spanish themes and build from them what Brahms and Dvor�k built from theirs, you're out of your mind.  Germany and Austria of that day had orchestras and opera companies and string ensembles that needed the music these men were writing.  Spain did not.  One small orchestra here, another there, a visiting opera company from Milan, and an audience who only wanted to hear Carmen and La Bohem.  The Spanish audience still doesn't want a symphony or an opera featuring a large ensemble and a complicated structure.  It wants a short, individualized work and that's what the Spanish composer learned to supply.  Zarzuela, not opera.  Because symphonies and operas are not within our pattern.  Besides, the material that Pedrell resurrected for these men was ideally suited to individual types of presentation.  In criticizing Falla and Albeniz for not having produced in the grand manner, you are criticizing not the composer but the Spanish people, and you are betraying your own lack of understanding."

"But do you agree," I asked this Barcelona expert, "that the themes themselves, those soaring, passionate Spanish statements we find in Granados and Falla . . . they're better than what Brahms and Dvorak had to work with, aren't they?"

"Much better.  But if you ask me next, 'then why didn't Spanish composers build better with those building blocks?'  I'll have to repeat that your question makes no sense.  It just doesn't relate to the facts."48

With Iberia, Albeniz brought Spanish music into the twentieth-century.  By greatly enriching its harmonic vocabulary he was able to sustain the listener's interest for longer periods of time, thus expanding his architectural possibilities.49  Because he never lost sight of the source of his inspiration, Albeniz was able to produce an original work of art that combines elements of contempory European music with the Andalusian musical idiom. Despite having foreign elements, this work would readily be accepted by his fellow countrymen as their own.

Iberia: Twelve New �Impressions� in Four Books

An analysis of the individual works that comprise Iberia shows that eight of twelve pieces are in some variant of sonata form; that all but one piece (Lavapi�s) were inspired by Andalusian music; and that Albeniz�s use of folk idioms is suggestive.  He draws inspiration from various types of songs or dances � and often utilizes particular rhythmic and melodic elements of a given genre � but never quotes anything verbatim.  As an artist Alb�niz preferred to create his own themes.

Book One of Iberia opens with Evocaci�n, a nostalgic reminiscence of the composer�s native land.  Its two principal themes utilize elements of afandanguillo and jota navarra, respectively.  In Evocaci�n we can hear the distinctly French sound of the whole-tone scale, which gives the piece its impressionistic flavor.  El Puerto was inspired by the little fishing-port town of Santa Maria on the Bay of Cadiz.  Its principal theme is in the style of a zapateado, a lively dance with intricate footwork.  Albeniz�s genius for emulating the sound of the guitar is apparent in this piece, and where and when he elects to utilize this is significant.  Here, as in many of his works, the introduction, interludes, and flourishes are all very guitaristic, and very Andalusian.  El Corpus Christi en Sevilla is one Albeniz�s most programmatic piano works.  It describes the Corpus Christi Day procession in Seville, during which a statue of the Virgin is carried through the streets accompanied by marching bands, singers, and penitential flagellants.  The piece opens with the sound of drum rolls followed by a march-like theme that grows louder and noisier as the procession continues.  Toward the middle of El Corpus Christi en Sevilla Albeniz inserts a saeta (literally �arrow of song�), a powerfully religious lament sung in free rhythm during the procession by solo singers perched on balconies overlooking the narrow streets.  The saeta first appears beneath a brilliant setting of the opening theme that is soon replaced by a more sedate accompaniment, also in the upper register.  A return of the opening theme (much elaborated) is followed by the pensive coda that concludes the piece.

Book Two begins with Ronde�a, named for the Andalusian town of Ronda and the local genre of the fandango that bears its name.  There is much disagreement regarding the appropriateness of this title because Alb�niz�s ronde�a is rhythmically different from its namesake.  This shouldn�t come as surprise to anyone because, as previously stated, Albeniz was a creative artist, not a purist or a folk musician.  Whether this piece most resembles a malague�abuler�as, or guajiras (a flamenco form with Cuban roots) is purely academic.  What must be noted here is thatRonde�a�s �A� section is built upon a dance rhythm comprised of short two measure phrases in alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4; that the �B� section is a languid copla which relies on the technique of iterance, the repetition of a note common to cante jondo singing; and that the piece is in quasi sonata form (ABAB�A� w/coda).  In Almer�a the 6/8 - 3/4 metric alternation appears mostly in the left hand, while the right hand plays mostly in 6/8.  The rhythmic accents (comp�s) are similar to that of a siguiriyas, the most jondo of all flamenco rhythms.  The secondary theme is that of a copla in 4/4.  Like the Ronde�a copla, this cante jondo theme stresses a repeated note. Triana � the third and last piece of Book Two � is named after the famous Gypsy quarter of Seville.  Its principal themes are derived from a pasodoble (two step) and a sevillanas in triple meter in which Alb�niz imitates the sound of castanets and taconeo (heelwork).  Ornamental variations on a lovely copla (secondary) theme are followed by a restatement of the two principal themes, at this point brilliantly transformed and contrapuntally combined.  A quiet coda brings the piece to its conclusion � a final, vociferous statement of the second principal theme.

The third book of Iberia opens with El Albaic�n, named after the famous Gypsy quarter of Granada.  This is one of the most remarkable �impressions� in the collection.  Built on two alternating themes � a dance-like principal theme (buler�as) and a sinuous copla in the cante jondo style � it captures the very essence of Andalusian music. Alb�niz�s uncanny ability to simulate the sound and accompanying technique of a flamenco guitar and his treatment of the copla theme in this piece are brilliant, as is his adaptation of the typical flamenco song and dance form.  With El Polo we return to sonata form.  This piece has the emotional intensity of the flamenco song/dance of the same name, but none of the rhythmic qualities.  Alb�niz directs that his polo be played �toujors dans l�espirit du sanglot� (�always in the spirit of a sob�), and these �sobs� are suggested by the broken phrases and syncopated accents that occur throughout the work.  Lavapi�s is named after a lively, working-class quarter of Madrid known for its dancehalls and noisy street life.  The density of this score and the sheer profusion of notes and dissonance are intended to characterize the sights and sounds of that district.  The two principal themes are based on the Cuban habanera, a wildly popular dance of late nineteenth Madrid.  This is the most complex piece in Iberia and the only one not directly inspired by Andalusian music and culture.

The fourth and final book of Iberia begins with M�laga, named for the Mediterranean seaport in southwestern Spain.  There are two thematic ideas in this piece: A complex, heavily syncopated rhythm derived from the malague�a, a rhythmically free cante descended from the fandango; and a copla theme in the cante jondo style.  Like the three pieces that comprise Book Two of Iberia, the copla of this piece relies on the technique of iterance. Here the copla is presented against an accompaniment of lively arabesques.  Jerez is named after the Andalusian town of that name renowned for its sherry wine.  Although the underlying comp�s of Jerez is different from that of a soleares, a genre of song and dance whose name means loneliness (sole�), the characteristic mood associated with certain forms of that genre prevails.  Once again, the copla is a typical cante jondo-style melody moving primarily in stepwise motion within a limited range.  The toque (guitar-like interjections) is based on the rhythmic motive from the tail end of the first principal theme.  And finally we come to Erita�a, named for a tavern on the outskirts of Seville, a tavern notable for flamenco music.  In stark contrast to JerezErita�a is gay, festive and permeated by the rhythms of the sevillanas.  The piece is in sonata form, but there is no contrasting copla section.  Instead there are two interrelated and thoroughly intertwined instrumental themes.

Unsurpassed in its evocativeness, regional character, and the ingeniousness of its design, Iberia stands today as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano repertoire.


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