It was the Cinema that began my conversion to the music and musicians of Spain. On our frequent Saturday visits during the 39-46 War, we came under the spell of Hollywood musicals. It was the time of Stokowski’s ‘Fantasia’ (with a little bit of help from Walt Disney) and the popularisation of classical music. In one such film and I think in the last year of his life, Sergei Rachmaninoff made an appearance. The mainstay of many films at this time was the urbane Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi. Born in Valencia in 1875, Iturbi had a successful concert career and at one time was conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the U.S.A. His screen performance of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance became a great hit, and for a long time de Falla was the only Spanish composer I knew. I still have an L.P. made in the mid 60’s of his gorgeous ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’ and have been playing it as I write. (There’s a clip of an Alicia de Larrocha performance on the BBC -Music/Profile of de Falla).
Falla, a devout Catholic, never married, failed to save his friend Lorca from death, and emigrated to Argentina during the Franco years. His music is electrifying, soothing and lyrical – often all at once: a feast of changing rhythms and harmonies and vibrant orchestral virtuosity. Many of his works are on disc and are constantly performed. He studied with the French composers Dukas, Ravel and Debussy, influences which were in fact reciprocal, as we shall see later in these postings.
An interesting postscript to this first reference to a very considerable composer is that his teacher, Felipe Pedrell (1840-1922) believed that a nation’s music should be firmly based on its folk music, whereas de Falla was more interested in the spirit of such music. That makes sense to a northern European like me, for his music evokes the Spain that I have become familiar with and fondly appreciative of in recent years.
More about Falla next time.