Falla, Flamenco and Folk Music

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Manuel de Falla y Matheu was a Spanish Andalusian composer, and along with Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados and Joaquín Turina was one of Spain’s most important musicians of the first half of the 20th century.

He was born in Cadiz, Spain on November 23, 1876 and died in Alta Gracia, Argentina on November 14, 1946. His Spanish opera, La Vida breve, won first prize in 1905 in a competition sponsored by the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts. In that same year he also won the Ortiz y Cusso prize for piano playing.

In 1915 he completed and had performed two of his most famous compositions: the ballet, El Amor brujo and Nights in the Gardens of Spain for piano and orchestra, where you may listen here to the legendary Spanish pianist, Alicia de Larrocha, perform with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and Charles Dutoit, conductor, the first of the three symphonic impressions of Spain: the first – At the Generalife – pictures tonally the beautiful gardens near the Alhambra.

The main melodic subject is exotic, heard in a solo viola in unison with the harp. After the appearance of the piano, the orchestra presents a second theme, which is soon developed by the solo instrument. The first haunting subject reappears throughout the movement, and for the last time in the coda in a horn pianissimo.

Up to about 1919 his style was dominated by  the idioms of Andalusian folk music. In 1939, disillusioned by the Franco regime, Falla left his country and went to live for the remainder of his life on earth in Argentina.

50 years ago, in August 1968, the Turkish writer and record producer Ates Orga wrote a penetrating critique for Music and Musicians magazine entitled Falla and Spanish Tradition that particularly struck me for its analysis of the gypsy influence on the composer’s output. He wrote:

“The most frequently popularized view of gypsy influence in Andalusian music is the emergence of the word flamenco, a term of doubtful meaning and scarcely a century old. The gypsies have always had the reputation of ornamenting and bringing their own personality to bear on any native music, and in fact flamenco is no more than a highly colored stylization and re-interpretation of the Spanish national spirit…… It is, however, obvious that from the earliest a basic oriental derivation was a principal quality.
“In Andalusian music, the gypsy influence might have strengthened the oriental element for originally the gypsies came from northern India and the Indus basin. In their mass migration in about 1000 A.D., one group passed through Persia, possibly picking up certain types of Seljuk music, which in itself may have developed from Greek or Byzantine chant. (Seljuk refers to any of several Turkish dynasties that ruled  over a great part of western Asia in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.)
“From Persia, the gypsies wandered across Syria and North Africa and on to Spain…. With Moorish influence on the wane, any gypsy overtones passed into the vocabulary of the peasantry.”

In spite of Orga’s comment above on flamenco’s ‘doubtful meaning’, it is now generally recognized to be “a professionalized art-form based on the various folkloric music traditions of Southern Spain in the autonomous communities of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia.”

References: The Music Lover’s Companion (1971); Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen.

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