Juan Cristostomo de Arriaga: ‘The Spanish Mozart’

Born in Bilbao in 1806, de Arriaga‘s life was brilliant but tragically brief, for he died from exhaustion and a pulmonary infection just ten days before his twentieth birthday. He was born into a musical family with strong connections to the court in Madrid. By the time he was eleven and already an excellent intuitive musician, he had composed a divertimento, had written several songs and a two act opera which was performed in his home town to great acclaim. When only 15 he was accepted by the Paris Conservatoire and studied counterpoint, fugue and the violin there. It was during this period that he composed all of his few remaining works which included music for the stage, three quartets, church music and a symphony.

The New Grove Dictionary says of his music that it has a dramatic impetus with well poised musical structures. He followed the late classical tradition of Mozart with the added influence of the early romanticism of Beethoven and Schubert. Though described as a Spanish disciple of Mozart (as much because of his precociousness as his compositional skills perhaps), there is little sign that he was influenced by the indigenous music either of his birthplace or of the other regions of Spain.

It’s interesting to contemplate how it might have been otherwise if he had lived longer, though as a very ambitious, perhaps even driven personality he might have wished to remain in the wider international scene.

I have bought a recent Naxos recording (8.557628) of his three quartets. They are delightful and I agree with the CD’s opinion that they ‘demonstrate Arriaga’s genius for winning melodies, emotional pathos and innovative structure’. I found the quiet Adagio movement of his first quartet very moving and the Pastorale of the third quartet – again a second movement – was striking in its poise and confidence.

The players are the Camerata Boccherini and I see that Massimo Spadano, the first violin and founder of the group, is the leader of the Galicia Symphony Orchestra. There are other Spanish connections. The venue for the recording was Tenerife, and the recording itself was supported by various Basque organisations.

The history of classical music is full of what might have been had composers lived for a longer time. Mozart himself is a prime example, dying in the fullness of his powers at the age of 35. But for me Schubert is the saddest loss. He died when only 31 when his music seemed to be moving into a new sphere of composition, indicated by his ninth (The Great) symphony and the late piano sonatas. However, the young de Arriaga, so full of promise when he died, has not been forgotten, and is honoured by this new recording.


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