A colourful character with pictures of him boasting a luxuriant black moustache and beard, smoking a cigar at the piano, it’s not always easy to distinguish the myths surrounding Albeniz’s earlier years from the reality. His mother took him to Paris when he was only six (some say he was seven) where he gave an audition for the Paris Conservatory and did remarkably well. One source says he was considered, not surprisingly, to be too young for admission, but another suggests he was turned down because he threw a ball at one of the windows there and smashed it. Another story suggests he ran away from the Madrid Conservatory where he was then studying at nine years of age and stowed away in a boat bound for Argentina, though this may have got confused with the tour of the South Americas that he carried out with his father, who in 1875 transferred as a Spanish customs official to Cuba. Another myth is that he studied with Liszt –whilst he travelled to Budapest with that intention, they probably never met.
But he did study in Leipzig and Brussels, his fame as a brilliant concert pianist spreading beyond Spain as he toured the capitals of Europe.
Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922) – sometimes called the father of Spanish music – who had been critical of Turina, had a better pupil in Albeniz who shared his belief that music should be rooted in Spanish culture. His composing moved from the saloon style of lighter pieces by Chopin and Schubert, though in Iberia their influence remains (and that of Schumann I think), despite its Hispanic context. There is also of course the French influence that came later, and his friendships with Chaussen (more about him next time), Faure and d’Indy as well as his year’s teaching at the Schola Cantorum in the winter of 1897-98, will all have contributed to the bravura and lyricism, the contrasting rhythms and key changes of his later brilliant piano compositions.
Now very ill, in 1909 he and his family moved from Nice to Cambo-les-Bains the other side of the boarder from his birthplace, and there a few months later he died.
*Read more about Albeniz on the many websites Google will take you to. There is also a biography ‘Portrait of a Romantic’ by Walter Aaron Clark (OUP 2002) with copies at £19.95 on Amazon, and the Foundacion Isaac Albeniz, founded in 1987, acts as a resource centre for continuing Albeniz research.