A Big Band Christmas Jam
12/11/21 at 08:00pm
Concierto de Aranjuez
solo guitar, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, strings
I. Allegro con spirito
III. Allegro gentile
notes by Katherine Baber
Artistic responses to times of trouble can take many forms, or sometimes may seem unaffected by the turbulence of the world. Joaquín Rodrigo wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez while in Paris during the height of the Spanish Civil War, and it was premiered in 1940, shortly after the conflict resulted in the beginning of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Although Rodrigo and his wife, pianist Victoria Kahmi, could return home then, the rest of Europe was succumbing to the rising tide of conflict. Inspired by the sixteenth-century Hapsburg Palace at Aranjuez, the concerto on the surface seemed to broadly conform to the Francoist preference for anything that glorified Spanish tradition and avoided the overtly political. Indeed, the outer two movements especially are typical of Rodrigo’s “neocasticista” style, combining classical forms with the lively rhythms, lush modal harmonies, and lavish ornamentation of various Spanish traditions. The first movement is in ritornello form, with the orchestra introducing most of the thematic material and the guitar following with quasi-improvisational episodes. Himself a guitarist and aware of the pitfalls of writing for an instrument with a limited volume and ability to sustain, Rodrigo is careful to make sure that the soloist never faces the whole orchestra. Rather, the guitar dances with the violins, or the bassoon, English horn, clarinet, and other woodwind soloists in turn. The third movement is similarly neoclassical in its orientation, taking the form of a simple theme and variations.
Between these two uncomplicated bookends, however, the second movement Adagio gives itself over to an unabashed pathos. Although quietly reflective at first, beginning with a mournful solo from the English horn accompanied by the guitar’s strumming, it builds into a deeply-felt lament for the whole orchestra. The circumstances of its composition have led many to assume a connection of this movement to the war, perhaps even the horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937. However, Victoria eventually clarified that the movement was both a reflection on their honeymoon and a response to the miscarriage of their first pregnancy. Rodrigo’s own memory of the genesis of the concerto, in which he was encouraged by a friend, is also more contemplative than mournful: “The scene has remained engraved in my mind, because that evening constituted a pleasant memory in my life, and a moment of calm in those times that were not at all peaceful for Spain and indeed threatening for Europe.”
Descriptions of Rodrigo’s music, as for many Spanish composers, often emphasize the variety of tonal “color” and the “passion” of the music. While these qualities are certainly present, especially given Rodrigo’s skilled orchestration, I would encourage you to listen for the tactile qualities of the guitar. One can sense the rasp of the lower strings, or in quieter moments the smooth, pearlescent plucking at the upper range of the instrument. The strumming ranges from plush to furious and callus-inducing. Often we reach for emotional associations, but the “feeling” of music can be embodied as well.