Spanish romantics: Isaac Albeniz

We once had a lovely family holiday in the wonderful rolling country of Camprodon on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. There, in 1860, Isaac Manuel Francisco Albeniz was born. I find him a fascinating character and want to use my euroresidentes space to outline his life and music in more detail than usual.

He led an eventful and sometimes hard but immensely productive life. When still only a baby, his family moved to Barcelona where, at a very early age, he began to have piano lessons. These were so successful that he made his first public appearance when only five years old and later when his father lost his government position, he, together with his sister Clementina, toured the Spanish provinces to support the family. So began his many travels as a performer in his own country and beyond. His tour of Cuba and Puerto Rica at the age of fifteen presaged later visits to Spanish speaking American countries, and he spent some years in Paris and in London.

The London connection is interesting.

His manager – a man called Henry Lowenfeld -was associated with musical theatre and, at his suggestion, Albeniz – he and his family now living in London – agreed to compose music for a comic opera, ‘The Magic Opal’ which opened at the Lyric Theatre in January 1893 and enjoyed some success. It brought him into contact with Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, heir to the vast banking fortune of Coutts & Co. Money-Coutts (well named!) was a keen amateur poet and playwright. He became Albeniz’s sole patron and persuaded him to extend his operatic work, the only possible disadvantage being that Money-Coutts wrote the somewhat clumsy librettos! ‘Henry Clifford’ was one such opera and was premiered in Barcelona in 1895. But the great project with his mentor was a triology based on the Arthurian legends.

One of these ‘Lancelot’ was unfinished when he died and he never began the third opera, ‘Guenevere’. But after four years of struggle he was able to complete the first of the three, ‘Merlin’ .

There has only ever been one performance of the opera which took place in 1960 in Barcelona, improbably sponsored by the cultural section of the junior Football Club of that fine city. However, through the enthusiasm of the Spanish conductor Jose de Eusebio, Decca published a recording of the work in 2000 with the incalculable advantage of the great Placido Domingo as one of the cast. Reviewing the CD in the December edition of ‘Gramophone’ of that year, the veteran music critic Edward Greenfield wrote ‘the recording is a revelation and hugely enjoyable’ .

…more about Albeniz next time.