In This Article Isaac Albéniz

  • Introduction
  • Historical Studies and Historiographies
  • Correspondence and Writings
  • Dissertations and Theses
  • Orchestral Works

Music Isaac Albéniz
by
Walter A. Clark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0221

Introduction

Isaac Albéniz y Pascual (b. 29 May 1860–d. 18 May 1909) was born and flourished during a period of simultaneous imperial decline and cultural florescence in Spain, one in which Spanish music, literature, and visual arts re-entered the mainstream of European culture for the first time since the 1600s, even as the country lost what was left of a once-global empire. Another irony is this: though we rightly regard Albéniz as the oracular voice of Spanish nationalism in music, one whose assorted collections of piano pieces evoke with vivid color Spain’s many regional styles of folklore, especially of Andalusia, he himself spent most of his career as an expatriate, first in London and then in Paris. Widely traveled and cosmopolitan in outlook, Albéniz was as uncomfortable with Spain’s conservative politics and religion as he was deeply conversant with its folklore. Indeed, yet another irony in his life story is that though his musical style was thoroughly grounded in the traditional music of his native land, he evoked it in concert works remarkable for the influence they reveal of French impressionism, particularly of Debussy. Albéniz summarized his international brand of nationalism in the dictum that “Spanish composers should make Spanish music with a universal accent” (see Víctor Ruiz Albéniz, Isaac Albéniz. Madrid: Comisaria General de Música, 1948, p. 102), meaning with an awareness and assimilation of trends beyond the Iberian Peninsula, in France and Germany especially. Albéniz’s music and the philosophy that underlay it thus became the guiding light for those composers who would dominate Spanish concert music during the middle decades of the 20th century, especially Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina, and Joaquín Rodrigo. As Turina rightly observed, Albéniz “showed us the road we had to follow” (see Joaquín Turina, “Sobre Granados,” Revista Musical Hispano-Americana 3, 30 April 1916, p. 7). Albéniz did not achieve this stature overnight, of course. He went through a long evolution, from child prodigy and internationally acclaimed concert pianist to a composer of increasingly sophisticated works. And though he specialized in and is best remembered for his piano solos, he developed considerable range as a composer and branched out into the realms of English operetta, Spanish zarzuela, and full-scale opera, concertos and symphonic poems, as well as choral music and numerous works for solo voice. In the absence of modern editions and recordings of most of these works, it was difficult to assay their quality. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a surge of serious interest in Albéniz that has closed these gaps in our knowledge.

Biographies

The 1990s witnessed the advent of serious musicological research in this area, correcting a biographical record shot through with errors and providing serious analyses of his music and the social, political, and cultural context in which he composed it. Research into the life and music of Isaac Albéniz has always been complicated, if not impeded, by the composer’s self-mythologizing. In other words, he exaggerated or fabricated stories about his childhood and adolescence that made for good press copy but would plague all biographical accounts from Guerra y Alarcón 1990 onwards. Ever creative, he was not content to dispense only one exaggerated or fabricated incident to journalists but routinely spun variations on themes such as stowing away on a steamer bound for Cuba or studying with Franz Liszt in Budapest. Later biographers unquestioningly adopted some version of these colorful stories, placing Albéniz in Buenos Aires or San Francisco or even Manila, locales there is no reason to believe he ever visited. Exposing these fictions has required acknowledging the obvious and ferreting out documentation to establish the actual course of events, independently of his fertile imagination.

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