Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Discreet Charm of Federico Mompou

Federico Mompou, 1893-1987, was a classical Spanish composer who concentrated primarily on the keyboard, producing a series of miniatures over a half-century's span, from the beginning of the Modernist Period right up through the post-Modernist period and beyond. From the first, his stylistic tendency was towards abbreviation, simplicity, and nativist Catalan thematic material presented with great flair and delicacy.
Because his works were almost always simple in design and execution, they've been keyboard favorites for decades, notably for talented amateurs. But their accessibility was never about accommodation. Rather, they capture the distilled essence of feeling, in shorthand: There is never any ostentation for its own sake, but a paring away of all extraneous decoration and elaboration. Perhaps it's not at all surprising, then, that he composed very little for multiple instruments, preferring to concentrate instead on perfecting his own generic gift. 

Those who know the work of Satie and Debussy will doubtless see influences in Mompou's work. On the one hand, though, Satie was often a trickster and clown, whereas Mompou is almost always seriously joyful, or gravely forlorn. On the other hand, Debussy's shimmering, layered, impressionistic effects are utilized, in Mompou, not to create an exotic, vague wash of sensation, but to score specific imitations of repeated figures, such as bells tolling. These tendencies, however, are expressed directly.  

After spending two decades in Paris entre les deux guerres, Mompou returned to his native Barcelona, preferring to live there, away from the limelight, to concentrate on his regional inspiration, where he lived to a great age. Despite the often cheerful and inebriated quality of many of his most popular pieces, there is throughout his oeuvre a somber, pious mood darkened by a mournful longing, the "deep song" of Andalusian lyricism. An air of resignation overcomes an effusive, light-spirited wit.

The simplest way to describe music is simply to listen to it. For those online, samples of his keyboard recordings are just a few short clicks away. Amazon.com sellers all furnish excerpted samples via iTunes or similar software. There's hardly an opus in his list that I don't find wonderful, but the Musica Callada ("Silent Music") is noticeably different from most of the rest of his pieces, being a foray, somewhat uncharacteristically, into polytonality--even atonality--  nevertheless, they are commonly regarded as the most important music of his later career.

Anyone wishing to find anger, or revolutionary declamation, need not apply to this music for that. Its predominant modes are joy, nostalgia, meditative irony, and mourning--you may find all these within the space of a work lasting no more than 3-6 minutes. That range within concision is probably what makes his work most Modernistic, though its deeper qualities are really timeless, going back to Medieval peasant song, church chant, etc.   


eddie watkins said...

Didn't he have a terrible fear of performing in public, at least in front of large crowds?

Curtis Faville said...

That's true.

I have the CD's of his performing all his own piano works, and some of the difficult passages are a bit shaky. This may have been because they were done when he was quite elderly, or it may indicate performance anxiety, probably both--?

I don't much care. I'm just grateful he composed them, and that I can play most of them!

eddie watkins said...

I'm surprised you can even find the piano keys, what with all the boozin you do!

Just kidding. I'm the boozer.

Thanks for bringing me back to Mompou. I have 4 Naxos discs of his works that I'll lend another ear to. As much as I like Satie, and the figure he cut through Paris, Mompou is much more muscially satisfying.

Curtis Faville said...

My habit, Eddie, is to take a cocktail before dinner (or late afternoon), then take a glass or two of wine with dinner.

I belonged to a scotch tasting group for a while, but it broke up.

Several new tapas bars have grown up around here--the point is really the food, but they're designed to go with drinks. True Spanish tapas is usually served with red wine, but cocktails work very well.

Virgil Thomson was asked once about the state of his health (he was in his eighties): "Oh, I'm so sorry for all my young friends, they have to exercise and eat dull healthy food and watch their weight--but I've reached the age when I don't have to worry about any of that anymore--I smoke cigars and sleep late, and eat pretty much anything i want, tee-hee-hee!"

I spent a lot of my young adulthood keeping in shape and dieting. Now no one has designs on my body (or my mind, I guess), so I can do pretty much as Thomson did.

eddie watkins said...

I learned through a friend how to appreciate Scotch, and by now I've sampled quite a few.

A bottle of Scotch is a deliciously evocative world.

I'd love to take a bicyle tour of Islay some day.

I only have one problem, and I'm being serious here - each subsequent dram tastes better than the one preceding it, at least up to three or four. It takes that long for all my taste and smell sensors to grapple with what I'm tasting, and to, I suspect, become somewhat numbed to the alcohol.

I've heard of people who love Scotch who barely even drink the stuff, just sniff it and swish it around, but I don't understand how they do it.

Still, it's a problem I can live with... when I have the money for the good stuff.

Curtis Faville said...

I probably have about 90 bottles of single malt on hand. Probably an equal number retired over the years. Scotch doesn't wear out or get stale, so you can keep drinking an open bottle for literally years.

The numbness problem is huge with me. The first two or three sips will be the most complex for me, as after that, only the sugar and heat will predominate over the subtler flavors.

We went to Scotland in '05, and had a rollicking good time. It's a very small country, you can literally drive around it in about two days if you want. Old builidings, lots of open country. You can take the "whisky trail" but not all the best distilleries are open to the public. Some of the remote ones are quite beautiful. We didn't make it over to Islay, as a festival was in progress and all the lodgings were taken. Maybe next time. The Islays are all favorites of mine.