Sunday, June 22, 2014

Granados - Master of the Late Romantic Spanish National Style

Previously, I have done blogs on Albeniz, Rodrigo, Montsalvatge, Mompou, and Lecuona. But it would be inconceivable to discuss 20th Century Spanish classical music without mentioning Enriques Granados

Like Albeniz, Granados [1867-1916] was a classical pianist, who came to maturity during the end of the 19th Century, in an era in which the grand piano-forte had come into its own as a solo instrument, and had developed its own separate tradition, dominated by a preoccupation with dramatic flourish and melodramatic display. Its great heroic figure was Franz Liszt, the Hungarian virtuoso, who composed and performed his keyboard works to rapt audiences, often in intimate settings. His approach was histrionic, meant to exploit the romantic potential excesses of music as hypnotic emotional feeling. This tradition of the keyboard luminary extended well into the 20th Century (think of Horowitz, Rubenstein, Van Cliburn, or Gould), and is still with us, though somewhat evolved. 

Liszt's influence on the pianistic performers and composers of his time, and on subsequent generations of players can't be overemphasized. 

In Spain, there hadn't been a strong classical music tradition, as there had been in Italy, France, and Germany. Spanish musicians and composers typically emulated the Italian, French or Viennese traditions, studying in Paris. Both Albeniz and Granados, as ambitious pianist/composers, emulated the virtuoso tradition. Their early compositions reflected this influence, and sounds to our ears today, not very original. 

During this same period--roughly between 1880 and 1920--there was a movement towards musical nationalism throughout Europe. In Spain, this was expressed through a resurgence of interest in traditional Spanish, Gypsy and Oriental folk music styles. Albeniz and Granados combined the resources of the romantic piano-forte with adaptations of Spanish folk material to produce lively compositions, suitable not only for the keyboard, but for the guitar (Spain's national instrument). 

These composers were consciously attempting to create a new tradition which would incorporate nativist themes and musical styles that expressed their country's flavor and character. There was nothing accidental about their campaign to establish this new tradition; it was an nothing less than a kind of declaration of independence and pride in their culture. 

Spanish court music had more or less followed the French and Italian examples, but the new nationalism drew on the music of the people, the peasant dances, the "deep song" of Andalusia. They were lively, and passionate, and very lyrical. Later, during the 1920's and after, Spanish composers such as Falla and Rodrigo, opted to exploit both kinds of traditions, mixing folk and court styles.    


In Granados's early piano compositions, such as the Escenas Romanticas--played here by Daniel Ligorio [1903] (you'll have to turn your sound up, the recording isn't quite loud enough)--the familiar Liszt style predominates. The material is softly romantic, and the flourishes and embellishments seem only to advertise the gently swooning quality of the inspiration. It's quite beautiful, but not particularly Spanish in its suggestiveness. On the other hand, it doesn't sound Germanic or French, either. You could say with justice, however, that the music asks to be played with indulgence. It has a late 19th Century feel to it. Granados had mastered the materials of the instrument, and clearly possessed the genius to make it speak in the new (or "old") musical language of his people. 

Granados's reputation rests largely on the Twelve Spanish Dances, and the Goyescas (1911, named after the great early 19th Century Spanish painter Francisco Goya). The 12 dances constitute perhaps the purest realization of the Spanish "deep song" lyricism, which has become nothing less than the stereotypical essence of Spanish music. Now, a century after they were composed, they sound as inspired and inevitable as any musical signature--as dependably Spanish as Brahms is German, or Copland is American. 

The Goyescas, though conceived as Spanish musical tableaux, are nevertheless more specifically virtuosic than the 12 dances--or for that matter, the Eight Valses Poeticos [1900], the Six Popular Spanish Songs [1915], or the Bocetos [1912]. 

From a purely musical point of view, Granados doesn't challenge the formal frameworks of traditional forms, though rhythmically many of the pieces employ tempi and effects that are clearly and obviously Spanish. The dances, in particular, have a rhythmic liveliness and quirkiness that are exotic and energetic. Though all of the dances are relatively short, they are distilled down to their simplest essence--unlike the Goyescas which are festooned with brilliant elaborations and decorative flourishes. 

It's always amusing to imagine what any artist might have done, had they lived longer. In Granados's case, we have an instance of an ironic and unexpected turn of fate. Returning from a successful concert tour in America in 1916, the boat that he and his wife were on was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. In the confusion of the disaster, Granados dove into the English Channel to save his wife from drowning, ultimately perishing himself (along with her) from drowning--a touching early end to a very promising career. He was only 48 when he died, virtually in the full flower of his creative life. 

The tendency among successful pianists in those days, was to extend their composing skills into full concert pieces, or operatic efforts, since solo instrumental compositions were then considered to be a limited application of talent. We will never know whether Granados would have created more ambitious instrumental pieces, but had he lived into the 1920's and 1930's, his fame would certainly have allowed him access to larger orchestral, perhaps even operatic, venues.  

As with the works of Albeniz, Granados's pieces lend themselves beautifully to adaptation on the Spanish guitar, since the figures and effects they employ are really guitarristic in character. Where the chords stack up too high, they can be played by two guitars in duet--an adaptation that is also used with pieces by Scarlatti, for instance, as with other the works of other non-guitar composers.

Everyone has favorites among Granados's works. Of the Dances, I've always loved #1, #2, #4 (Villanesca), the central section of #5, #7, #10, #11. Most of these pieces are easily fingered for the guitar, and #5, especially, has been more identified with that instrument than with the piano. 

I am also quite partial to certain of the pieces from the waltzes, and popular songs. They have an ardent, almost fatalistic quality that has always appealed to me, alternating between ecstatic, joyful release, and a fatal melancholy. If Albeniz was the impressionist, Granados is the poet of the dance, whose irresistible catchy tunes are immediately seductive and charming. 

Granados must have been quite the figure, with his big dark eyes, handlebar mustache, and natty corduroy jackets. In some ways, he seems part of an earlier era, who lived past his time, though he was still relatively young when he died in 1916. He seems a bridge figure, between the late romantic world of Liszt, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Bruckner, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Franck, and the early Modernist figures like Stravinsky, Ives, Hindemith, Bartok, Janacek, Prokofiev, etc. Though his musical palette is relatively simple and limited, its clarity and force have little in common with the late romanticism from which he emerged. And though I doubt that he would ever have evolved into a more subtle and intellectual composer such as Falla, I'm sure he would have produced more beautiful keyboard pieces. Alas, we shall never know, as that possibility died in the frigid waves of the English Channel, another casualty of World War I. 

YouTube furnishes a range of recordings of much of Granados's keyboard works. The simplest entry is Alicia de Larrocha's extended concert sequence here, in 19 parts, as follows:

1-3 & 4-6: Escenas Romanticas
7-10: Bocetos
11-15 & 16-18 & 19: Cuentos de la juventud (Scenes of Childhood)

Here she plays the Seis Piezas Sobre Cantos Populaires Espanoles

And here she is in an early recording of the 12 Spanish Dances, from 1954. 

And here she plays the Valses Poeticos.

I should say that though de Larrocha was a great pianist, justly recognized and appreciated around the world, I have usually found her playing a bit too brittle and hard. Spanish music from this period is emotionally flamboyant, but de Larrocha tends towards a classicist interpretation, with little modulation or variance in emphasis. Had she lived in the 19th Century, I'm convinced she would have had a more appropriate approach to the works of this period. Nevertheless, all her recordings are competent, and communicate the gist of the scores. I would encourage anyone exploring this music to sample different performances by various players, to see if they don't agree with my assessment.


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