Mediterranean ImagesXavier Montsalvatge 1912-2002

Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002)

Originally trained as a violinist, Catalan composer, critic and musicologist Xavier Montsalvatge was one of Spain’s most eclectic composers, combining the diverting style of France’s Les Six with some of Stravinsky’s – and anyone else’s – structural innovations. He also was interested in the habanera, the musical styles imported into Spain from the West Indies, and composed a number of musical fables and children’s operas.

Montsalvatge composed Sortilegis (magic spells), on a commission from the Spanish Center for the Diffusion of Contemporary Music, for a work to be conducted by the finalists in the International Competition for Orchestral Conductors in 1992. In keeping with the requirements of the competition, he incorporated into Sortilegis varied sections that would present the contestants with different technical challenges, alternating with others that demonstrated the contestants’ interpretive abilities. Solos and section solos give the orchestra a workout as well.

As a composite etude for conductor, Sortilegis is rather disjointed. Not only does the conductor get a workout, but the orchestra itself must also participate in the challenges. The only recurring theme in the work is the initial string riff in composite meter. Example 1 A long, romantic middle section obviously features interpretation. Example 2 And a subsequent section is characterized by irregular groups of rapid, staccato repeated notes. Example 3

Joaquin Rodrigo 1901-1999

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez

Like his fellow Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo traveled to Paris to study composition and piano. Although he had lost his eyesight to a severe illness at age three, he became an accomplished pianist and a star composition student of Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In the early 1930s Rodrigo had to return to Spain when the family’s wine business went bankrupt, but he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship and returning to Paris for further studies. During the Spanish Civil War he traveled extensively in Europe, especially through France and Germany, finally returning home in 1939 to settle in Madrid. The premiere in 1940 of his Concierto de Aranjuez catapulted him to world recognition. In 1947 the Manuel de Falla chair was created for him at Madrid University where he composed and taught for the rest of his long life.

Rodrigo’s style is far removed from the major currents of European musical development in the twentieth century. Rather, it reflects Spain’s classical and folk music, art and literature, frequently using old Spanish melodies as his themes. His harmonic language is so conservative that the eighteenth-century composer to the Spanish court, Domenico Scarlatti beats him hands down in the use of dissonance and adventurous harmonies. Rodrigo composed about 170 works, including eleven concertos, 60 songs and music for the ballet, theater and film.

The Concierto de Aranjuez has remained Rodrigo’s most popular work. While he maintained that there was no program implied, the title refers to a famous royal enclave on the road to Andalusia on the Tagus river near Madrid. According to the composer, the music “…seems to bring to life the essence of eighteenth-century court life, where aristocratic distinction blends with popular culture. …The Concerto is meant to sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks; it should only be as strong as a butterfly and as delicate as a veronica [a pass with the cape at a bullfight].”

The guitar solo that opens the Concerto sets up a series of strummed chords that promise, but delay, the arrival of the principal theme. Example 1 Only a full minute later, after the orchestra has repeated the pattern, does the theme actually appear, played by the violins with the orchestra and soloist engaging in a musical dialogue. Example 2

The Adagio is truly the heart of the Concerto, capturing for the concert hall the brooding Flamenco strains in a late-night bar. Here a mournful, modal theme is introduced by that most quintessentially melancholy instrument, the English horn. Example 3 But it is the guitar that sinuously, even lovingly, embellishes the melody like an example of fine decorative Moorish calligraphy. Example 4 The melody has morphed into everything from elevator music to the award-winning jazz recording for trumpet and flugelhorn by Miles Davis.

The final movement comes like a splash of cold water on a smoldering sunburn. Again the guitar soloist begins the movement in accordance with the usual classical concerto structure. Example 5 The movement is a series of free variations based on a lively sixteenth-century folksong. The transformations of the theme become the topic of discussion between the soloist and various members of the orchestra, as well as a vehicle for some charming orchestral color. Just as it had the first word, the lone voice of the guitar has the last one.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
“Ibéria” (Part 2 from Images for Orchestra

One of Claude Debussy’s largest orchestral works, the three parts of Images are self-contained compositions that share only the evocation of particular scenes; their order, as published, was arbitrary. The first, Gigues, is a Frenchman’s grotesque view of the English; the second is Ibéria, his view of Spain; and the third, Rondes de printemps, is a sympathetic national self-portrait.

For a composer whose acquaintance with Spain was a cross-the-border foray to San Sebastian to see a bullfight, Claude Debussy got the flavor of Spanish music just right, even according to that zealous Spanish nationalist composer, Manuel de Falla.

Composed in 1906-08, originally for two pianos but immediately orchestrated, Iberia does not use existing folk tunes, but its popular Hispanic character is obvious. It conveys everything that our imagination conjures up about Spain: bright and sunny skies and colors, fiery Spanish dance rhythms, the sound of heels and castanets and mysterious Moorish modes. It is to Debussy’s credit that he avoids most of the clichés of Spanish music while still maintaining the essential ambience. Ibéria is in three movements depicting three times of the day – midday, night and early morning. The last two are played without a pause:

  1. Par les rues et par les chemins” (In the streets and byways). This section features the woodwinds and brasses, containing some lovely solos for oboe, clarinet and English horn. It opens with a bright authentic sounding dance melody introduced on the clarinet and oboe accompanied by castanets and tambourine. Example 1 A quieter middle section transforms the melody on the English horn, with a little accompanying pizzicato chinoiserie and North African color on the oboe. Example 2 A fanfare for the brass ushers in a section of competing melodies Example 3 before the music gradually fades into silence.
  2. Les parfums de la nuit” (The fragrances of the night). This is one of Debussy’s most sensuous creations, mysterious and magical, opening with an oboe solo with violin, celesta and timpani(!) accompaniment. Example 4 It is like a pointillist painting, an agglomeration of short evocative motives that create an ephemeral ambience. Here, there are only subtle hints of Spanish motives, a habanera rhythm in the strings against an extension of the oboe solo Example 5 and a snatch of a “Spanish” melody. Example 6 A descending four-note motive recurs throughout this section. Example 7 Distant church bells herald the dawn of the festival day, and the music continues without pause.
  3. Le matin d’un jour de fête” (The morning of a festival day). The day starts quietly and slowly, with a pulsing rhythm in the distance and the bells getting louder. Example 8 The mood becoming increasingly excited. Example 9 Seemingly haphazard fragments of “Spanish” tunes weave in and out of focus, suggesting the melee of merry makers. Example 10 A lone violin tries to start a tune, but it gets stolen by a viola and an oboe. Example 11 After a review of all the competing tunes, the whole cacophony explodes.



Ottorino Respighi 1879-1936

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite using eighteenth-century keyboard works imitating birdsongs. Indeed, most of his works are based on the music of the past.

Composed in 1924, Pini di Roma is the second in Respighi's trilogy of tone poems inspired by different aspects of the city of Rome and its history. The score, describing four widely separated locations in the city, contains a detailed description of this programmatic music:

  • The Pines of the Villa Borghese (a country estate with enormous grounds belonging to one of Rome’s most notable Renaissance families): Example 1 Children playing in what are now public gardens, they mimic marching soldiers and battles, Example 2 twittering and shrieking like swallows, then they swarm away and the scene changes abruptly to...
  • Pines near a Catacomb (the underground burial sites for the early Christians): “We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance to a catacomb. From the depths rises a mournful chant which reechoes solemnly, like a hymn, and then dies away mysteriously.” A long trumpet solo Example 3 is followed by a more military sounding theme combined with the chant, suggesting the tension between the ancient Roman empire and its Christian martyrs. Example 4
  • The Pines of the Janiculum (the highest hill in Rome, but not one of the famous seven, the location of a cult worshiping the god Janus): "Moonlight and the song of a nightingale enfold the pines on the Janiculum hill with mystery.” This movement features a beautiful clarinet solo Example 5 The voice of the nightingale is provided by a recording.
  • The Pines of the Appian Way (one of the great Roman roads leading south from the city): "Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by the solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of innumerable steps....visions of past glories: trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul advances the rising sun...mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.” The English horn gets center stage in this movement Example 6 – that is until the rest of the brass crash onto the scene.

Ironically, while Respighi uses the giant pines as symbols of Rome’s ancient past, these trees are relative newcomers to the eternal city. The species was introduced from Sardinia, probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

There has been some controversy regarding Respighi’s political affiliation. The fact that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was particularly fond of the composer’s “Roman” tone poems and that Respighi accepted various honors from the Fascist government has led to the conclusion that Respighi was a Fascist supporter himself. His supporters, however, cite the composer’s intervention in 1931 to save Arturo Toscanini from a Fascist mob in Bologna, and his remarks against the regime for threatening the conductor. There is also an allegedly hidden anti-Fascist message in the final scene of his opera Lucrezia, written in 1935-6, when Fascism was at its height: "Death to the tyrants, you be leader, Brutus! - Freedom, to Rome!"

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn