As winter finally winds down in my Connecticut home, I find myself impatient for warmth and sunshine, which seems to take longer to arrive every year. So I am really happy to be working on our final concert of the season! Featuring music about Spain, it makes me think of the sunbaked and steamy environs of that beautiful and still exotic country.
The vibrant mystery of Spanish culture has fascinated composers from other countries since at least the 18th Century, particularly in France and Russia. The reasons for the fascination with Spain are perhaps not difficult to understand in the case of Russia. It was a distant country with a very different culture, and above all it was warm. Russian vacationers in Spain brought back souvenirs of art and food, along with memories of a vivid and exciting sort of music vastly different from their own.
In the case of France, the reasons are less clear. After all, the two countries are neighbors. I personally believe the answer lies in the French love of all things exotic, and all things that delight the senses. Though lying right next door geographically, Spain was always very distant culturally, with its Moorish influence and mysterious spices, fragrances, and rhythms imported from points south. In fact, Spain remained something of a closed book until quite recently, thanks to Generalisimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorial stranglehold on the country for much of the 20th Century. Only after his death in 1975 did Spain open up and become truly a part of Europe.
Thus, Spanish culture remained exotic and isolated for a very long time, adding to its international appeal. Certainly no folk music is so immediately infectious, with its fascinating rhythms and sensual harmonies. So compelling was this style that composers in other places longed to experience it, donning a Spanish costume to write works that were exciting and colorful, all in an attempt at invoking that mysterious Spanish spirit. Some composers were better than others at this musical impersonation, and our concert features many of the most successful works in Spanish style.
Although 18th Century French composers had already written musical tributes to Spain, it is not until George Bizet (1838-1875) that a major work was written in that style. Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most popular operas ever written. Its story of a doomed “bad girl” and her warring lovers has the timeless quality of all great tales, and its score is peppered with irresistible musical numbers with Spanish flavor. The Suite No. 1 includes the most popular of those.
A generation before Bizet in Russia, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)—usually considered the father of Russian Romantic music— had lived in both France and Spain, with the express aim of incorporating the folk music of those two countries into his own music. The result was a series of unabashedly Spanish works near the end of his life. The tradition thus established, even one of Russia’s most nationalistic composers—Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)— was to write several “exotic” works, among them his famous Scheherezade, and his brilliant Capriccio on Spanish Themes (Capriccio Espagnol)of 1887. He was a master of orchestration, and the orchestral color truly leaps off the page from the very first note. A more Spanish sounding work for orchestra would not be heard until Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) applied their considerable skill to the genre.
The second half of our concert is a sort of “Spanish Symphony” by Maurice Ravel. Born near the Spanish border, he had a lifelong affinity for that country. He composed several important works invoking the rhythms and scents of Spain, which he called his “second motherland”. Spain’s most celebrated composer, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), called Ravel’s Hispanic understanding “subtly authentic”, and theorized that this was due to the early influence of Ravel’s Basque mother. She lived in Madrid as a child and regaled young Maurice with nostalgic tales of the magical allure of Spain. He was to spend much of his career evoking that romantic allure, and his idealized Spain is a luminous, sensual, festive, and subtly tumultuous place.
The appearance of Rapsodie Espagnole in 1908 caused an international sensation, and a copy of it reached even Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class in St. Petersburg. Among the pupils that year was the young Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who would be profoundly influenced by the work. In fact, there are at least two places in his early ballet The Firebird that can be directly linked to the example of similar moments in Rapsodie Espagnole. The two would eventually become close friends.
Originally written in 1899 for piano solo, the Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) was meant to evoke a funeral procession in the ancient solemn Pavane of the royal Spanish court. The work was to become his first big hit, so much so that Ravel recast it as an orchestral work in 1910.
We end with Ravel’s most popular work, the monumental Boléro of 1928. Commissioned by the dancer Ida Rubenstein, it was envisioned by her with this scenario: “Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. [In response] to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.” It was an instant success, to the composer’s surprise. He was convinced that orchestras would refuse to play it because of the endless repetition of the same theme. In fact, he called it “seventeen minutes of orchestra without music”! But it is masterfully orchestrated, building slowly, almost hypnotically, to one of the most exciting finishes in all of music. Our performance is a historic one: this will be the very first time Boléro has been played by the Redlands Symphony in the Memorial Chapel. Long overdue, in my view!
I hope you will join us on our visit to sunny Spain.
See you at the symphony!