Iberian Andalusian, Isaac Albeniz

[At an early age, I acquired a number of pieces by the Iberian Andalusian, who rejoiced in his full name of Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual. That particular bound album of his piano compositions has accompanied me virtually around the world and in my Englewood library starts off the row of dozens of alphabetized classical music scores because of his name – ALBENIZ! That makes for easy retrieval when I feel the urge to play many of his Spanish masterpieces. They also bring back memories of my thoroughly enjoyable visits to Spain in the 1960’s.]

Isaac Albéniz,  shown above with his daughter Laura.
He’s best known for his Suite Española and Tango in D.

Here’s a brief background:
He was born on May the 29th, 1860 in Camprodon, Spain. Transcriptions of many of his pieces, such as Asturias (Leyenda), Granada, Sevilla, Cadiz, Córdoba, and Cataluña are important pieces for classical guitar, though he never composed for the guitar. Listen here to the great Andres Segovia playing on YouTube the very first piece, Leyenda (Legend).

Albéniz was a child prodigy who first performed at the age of four. At age seven, he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Conservatoire de Paris, but he was refused admission because he was believed to be too young. By the time he had reached 12, he had made many attempts to run away from home.

His concert career began at the age of nine when his father toured both Isaac and his sister, Clementina, throughout northern Spain. A popular myth is that at the age of twelve Albéniz stowed away in a ship bound for Buenos Aires. He then found himself in Cuba, then to the United States, giving concerts in New York and San Francisco and then traveled to Liverpool, London and Leipzig, Germany. By age 15, he had already given concerts worldwide. This over-dramatized story is not entirely false. Albéniz did travel the world as a performer; however, he was accompanied by his father, who as a customs agent was required to travel frequently. This can be attested by comparing Isaac’s concert dates with his father’s travel itinerary.

The apex of Albéniz’s concert career is considered to be 1889 to 1892 when he had concert tours throughout Europe. In 1900 he started to suffer from kidney disease and returned to writing piano music. Between 1905 and 1908 he composed his final masterpiece, Iberia (1908), a suite of twelve piano “impressions”. Olivier Messiaen said: “Iberia is the wonder for the piano; it is perhaps on the highest place among the more brilliant pieces for the king of instruments”. Stylistically, this suite falls squarely in the school of Impressionism, especially in its musical evocations of Spain. Technically, Iberia is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, requiring immense strength from its interpreters and flexible hands. Here is well-known pianist Felix Ardanaz on YouTube playing Corpus Christi en Sevilla from the Iberia suite.

In 1883 the composer married his student Rosina Jordana. They had three children: Blanca (who died in 1886), Laura (a painter), and Alfonso (who played for Real Madrid in the early 1900s before embarking on a career as a diplomat). Two other children died in infancy.

Albéniz died from his kidney disease on 18 May 1909, eleven days short of his 49th birthday, in Cambo-les-Bains, in Labourd, south-western France. Only a few weeks before his death, the government of France awarded Albéniz its highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur. He is buried at the Montjuïc Cemetery, Barcelona.

Albéniz’s influence on the future of Spanish music was profound. His activities as conductor, performer and composer significantly raised the profile of Spanish music abroad and encouraged Spanish music and musicians in his own country.

Albéniz’s Quotable Quote on his Compositions:
There are among them a few things that are not completely worthless. The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited; but in the end, the people, our Spanish people, are something of all that. I believe that the people are right when they continue to be moved by Córdoba, Mallorca, by the copla of the Sevillanas, by the Serenata, and Granada. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation … appears to me like the carvings in the Alhambra, those peculiar arabesques that say nothing with their turns and shapes, but which are like the air, like the sun, like the blackbirds or like the nightingales of its gardens. They are more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which though we may not like it, is the true Spain.”

References: Wikipedia, My Albeniz Music Album of 1961.

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