Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz i Pascual (pronounced|iˈsak alˈβeniθ) (May 29, 1860 – May 18, 1909) was a Spanish pianist and composer best known for his piano works based on folk music.

Born in Camprodon, Catalonia (Spain), Albéniz was a child prodigy who first performed at the age of four. At age seven he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but he was refused admission because he took out a ball from his pocket and broke a glass window while playing with it. By the time he had reached 12, he had made many attempts to run away from home. By age fifteen, he had already given concerts worldwide. After a short stay at the Leipzig Conservatory, in 1876 he went to study in Brussels. In 1880, he went to Budapest to study with Franz Liszt, only to find out that Liszt was in Weimar, Germany.

In 1883, he met the teacher and composer Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to write Spanish music such as the "Suite Española", Op. 47. The fifth movement of that suite, called "Asturias" (Leyenda), is probably most famous these days as part of the classical guitar repertoire, even though it was originally composed for piano and only later transcribed to guitar. Many of his other compositions were also transcribed to guitar, notably by Francisco Tárrega — Albéniz once declared that he preferred Tárrega's guitar transcriptions to his original piano works.

During the 1890s Albéniz lived in London and Paris and wrote mainly theatrical works, especially a projected trilogy of Arthurian operas commissioned, and supplied with libretti by, the wealthy Francis Money-Coutts, 5th Baron Latymer. The first of these, Merlin (1898-1902) was thought to have been lost, but has recently been reconstructed and performed; [ [ Review - Classical Music on the web] ] "Lancelot" was never completed by Albéniz, and "Guinevere", the final part, never begun by him. [ [ Celtic Twilight; review of "Merlin"] ] In 1900 he started to suffer from Bright's disease and returned to writing piano music. Between 1905 and 1909 he composed his most famous work, "Iberia" (1908), a suite of twelve piano "impressions".

His orchestral works include "Spanish Rhapsody" (1887) and "Catalonia" (1899).

In 1883, the composer married his student Rosina Jordana. They had three children, Blanca (who died in 1886), Laura (a painter), and Alfonso (who played for Real Madrid in the early 1900s before embarking on a career as a diplomat).

Albéniz died on 18th May 1909 at age 48 in Cambo-les-Bains and is buried in the "Cementiri del Sudoest", Barcelona.

Cécilia Sarkozy, the former wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is the great-granddaughter of Isaac Albéniz.

Middle Period and "Chants d'Espagne"

While Albéniz is best known for his crowning achievement, "Iberia", written in the last years of his life in France, the works leading up to that famous final collection are also worthy of a closer look. The five pieces in "Chants d’Espagne", (Songs of Spain) are a solid example of the compositional ideas he was exploring in the “middle period” of his life. A thorough examination of the suite of five pieces shows what Albéniz biographer Walter Aaron Clark describes as the “first flowering of his unique creative genius”, and the beginnings of compositional exploration that became the hallmark of his later works.

Born in 1860, Albéniz was known as a “bohemian” as he traveled the world as a young child and then independently as a teenager. His concert career began at the young age of nine when his father toured both Isaac and his sister, Clementina, throughout northern Spain. The apex of his concert career was considered 1889 to 1892 when he had concert tours throughout Europe.

Early works

His first recorded composition, "Marcha Militar", was published in 1868, and he continued composing in the traditional styles ranging from Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt until the mid-1880s. Albéniz scholars write about his three compositional periods known as “early works”, “middle period” and “mature compositions”. While dates vary depending on the biographer, it is generally agreed that early works were most “salon style” music, inspired by Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms. The middle period works were mostly composed in the late 1880s and the mature compositions came after he had almost completely retired from his concert career and moved to France in the early 1890s.

panish influence

During the late 1880s, the middle period, the strong influence of Spanish style is evident in his music. In 1883 Isaac Albéniz met the teacher and composer Felipe Pedrell. . Pedrell was a leading figure in the development of nationalist Spanish music. Gilbert Chase, in his book The Music of Spain, describes Pedrell’s influence on Albéniz: “What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music. Felipe Pedrell inspired Isaac Albéniz to write Spanish music such as the Suite Española, Op. 47 noted for its delicate, intricate melody and abrupt dynamic changes. The fifth movement of that suite, called Asturias (Leyenda) is probably most famous these days in the classical guitar world, even though it was originally composed for piano in G minor and only later transcribed to guitar by Francisco Tárrega in its most recognizable key, E minor. Many of his other compositions were also later transcribed to guitar - Albéniz himself preferred Tárrega's guitar transcriptions to his original piano works.

In addition to the Spanish spirit infused in Albéniz’s music, he incorporated other qualities as well. In Pola Baytleman’s biography on Albéniz, she describes four characteristics of the music from the middle period. She writes, “1. The dance rhythms of Spain, of which there are a wide variety. 2. The use of cante jondo, which means deep or profound song. It is the most serious and moving variety of flamenco or Spanish gypsy song, often dealing with themes of death, anguish, or religion. 3. The use of exotic scales also associated with flamenco music. The Phrygian mode is the most prominent in Albéniz’s music, although he also used the Aeolian and Mixolydian modes as well as the whole-tone scale. 4. The transfer of guitar idioms into piano writing.

Another Albéniz biographer, Walter A. Clark, explains how the pieces of this period received enthusiastic reception in his many concerts. He goes on to explain how many of the pieces have found a permanent place in the guitar repertoire. Chase describes music from this period, “Taking the guitar as his instrumental model, and drawing his inspiration largely from the peculiar traits of Andalusian folk music — but without using actual folk themes — Albéniz achieves a stylization of Spanish traditional idioms that while thoroughly artistic, gives a captivating impression of spontaneous improvisation... "Cordoba" is the piece that best represents the style of Albéniz in this period, with its hauntingly beautiful melody, set against the acrid dissonances of the plucked accompaniment imitating the notes of the Moorish guzlas. Here is the heady scent of jasmines amid the swaying palm tress, the dream fantasy of an Andalusian “Arabian Nights” in which Albéniz loved to let his imagination dwell.”

The ‘dream fantasy’ "Cordoba", is one of the pieces in "Chants d’Espagne", which represents the middle period at it height. The suite contains the five pieces: "Prelude, Orientale, Sous le Palmier, Cordoba, and Sequidillas". Sources conflict on the date of the compositions — but it is likely pieces 1, 2 and 3 were written between 1891–92 and pieces 4 and 5 were written in 1897. Both "Prelude" and "Sequidillas" are also found in the work "Suite Española Opus 47". Clark describes the pieces in "Chants d’Espagne" as “some of the most celebrated and widely performed of his works”. The pieces “capture the diverse aspects of Spanish life in Andalusia”, according to Daniel Ericourt — a major authority on Spanish piano music.

Albéniz’ Suite Espanola Op.47 is comprised mainly of pieces written in 1886, and grouped together in 1887 in honor of the Queen of Spain. Like many of Albéniz' piano pieces, these works are miniature tone pictures of different geographical regions and musical idioms of Spain. The eight original titles are Granada, Cataluna, Sevilla, Cadiz, Asturias, Aragon, Castilla and Cuba but only the first three titles and Cuba appeared in the original collection. The other pieces were published in later collections, often with different titles. The publisher Hofmeister published all eight titles of Suite Espanola in 1911 after Albéniz’ death, appropriating other pieces for the other four titles so those pieces do not always accurately reflect the geographic designation of the titles, most obviously in the case of Asturias (Leyenda) whose Andalusian flamenco rhythms bear little resemblance to the music of the northern province Asturias. The opus number 47 assigned by Hofmeister has no relation to any chronological order in Albéniz’ oeuvre, in which opus numbers were randomly given by publishers or by Albéniz himself, with some pieces appearing in more than one collection.

In these works the first title refers to the geographical region portrayed, and the title in parentheses is the musical form or dance from that region. From Granada in Andalusia we have a Serenata, from Catalonia a Curranda or Courante, from Sevilla a Sevillanas and from Cuba (which was still part of Spain in the 1880’s) a Notturno in the style of a habanera, from Castilla a Seguidillas, from Aragon a Fantasia in the style of a jota, and from Cadiz a Saeta. This last example, like Asturias/Leyenda, is geographically inaccurate. Despite the spurious nature of the Suite Espanola Op.47 it has become one of the most performed of Albéniz’ piano works, a favorite of both pianists and audiences.

Perhaps the best source on the works is Albéniz himself. He is quoted as commenting on his earlier period works as, “there are among them a few things that are not completely worthless. The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited; but in the end, the people, our Spanish people, are something of all that. I believe that the people are right when they continue to be moved by "Cordoba, Mallorca", by the copla of the "Sevillanas", by the "Serenata", and "Granada". In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives. That music of youth, with its little sins and absurdities that almost point out the sentimental affectation…appears to me like the carvings in the Alhambra, those peculiar arabesques that sway nothing with their turns and shapes, but which are like the air, like the sun, like the blackbirds or like the nightingales of its gardens. They are more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which though we may not like it, it the true Spain.”

Chants d'Espagne

Moving to the micro level of examination, it is appropriate to begin with the "Prelude". Clark calls the "Prelude" “a warhorse in the guitar repertoire.” He describes the piece as “pure Andalusian flamenco” with a main theme that mimics the guitar technique of alternating the thumb and fingers of the right hand, playing a pedal-note open string with the index finger and a bass melody with the thumb. The theme itself suggests the rhythm of the buleria — a song from the flamenco repertoire. The ‘marcato’/’staccato’ markings suggest both guitar sounds and the footwork of a flamenco dancer. The piece sounds as though it is written in the Phrygian mode which is typical of bulerias. The B section is a reminiscent of a copla — a sung verse following a specific form. Clark states that it is written in typical Albéniz form as it is “presented monophonically but doubled at the fifteenth for more fullness of sound. The music alters between a solo and accompaniment that is typical of flamenco. The short of middle section of the piece is written in the style of a malagueña — another flamenco style piece. The malaguena borrows two motives from the previous copla and builds on them. True to its Da Capo form, we return to the A theme until a slow “hymn-like” passage before the piece finishes.

"Orientale" is the second piece in the suite. Opening with a dissonant clash of chords, the Phrygian mode is established quickly and it too is based on the songs and dances of Andalusia in spite of its Asian name. It is a melocholic, reflective piece of music. The main theme is also based on an octosyllabic copla. "Sous le Palmier" (Under the Palm Tree), also known as "Danse Espagnole" (Spanish Dance). As the piece has two names, it also has two feelings as it progresses. The gentle swaying of the palm trees coincides with the swaying of the Gypsy tango. When Ericourt describes how the rhythm should be played in these pieces, he writes, “First, the rhythm is to be steady, with even beats throughout, but at the same time, give a supple and relaxed, even languid or voluptuous impression. The 'marcato' indication at the beginning means exactness, rather than a rigidity of rhythm. The music must flow uninterruptedly.” Ericourt also emphasizes the importance of moderation in expression: “Any exaggeration, tonal or otherwise, could easily bring vulgarity to this composition.”

At measure 17 in "Sous le Palmier", the music moves to the parallel minor, a move seen in other pieces by Albéniz. Clark describes the power the shift creates when he writes, “(it) expresses a sadness that we can fully understand only if we recall the depression that underlay his outward sanguinity.” This sadness is touched on sparingly in the biographical works on Albéniz. Exactly how much he suffered from depression is unknown, but his music has the ability to touch on a melancholy and longing that is truly genuine. The next piece in the suite demonstrates the same major to minor shift, among the many features that makes it the most recorded and well known of the five pieces.

"Cordoba" celebrates one of Albéniz’s favorite cities. In the heart of Andalusia, the city of Cordoba is home to Spain’s famous “great Mosque”. The city is rich in history, but Christian and Moorish, and Albéniz captures the mood and feel of both in "Cordoba". Clark states that the name of the piece may have been inspired by Albéniz’s namesake, St. Isaac of Cordoba, who died defending his faith in this southern Andalusian city.

The piece begins with the sound of tolling church bells. The sound of a g dorian hymn plays in a faux bourdon style, rhythmically ambiguous so as to resemble liturgical singing. The A section ends in contrasting character, reminiscent of a guzla playing a serenade in a more Moorish sound. The B section sounds of flamenco dancers and Spanish folk song rhythms as it mounts to a moving climax. There is a repeat of the A section and a brief Coda before the end. Ericourt states, “In view of the multifaceted nature of this piece, it would not be improper to consider this evocative composition a tone poem for the piano.”

The final piece of the collection is "Seguidillas". A seguidilla is a popular song or dance form composed from four to seven verses. The form is explained as, “based on strong flamenco rhythms. Its seven “verses” are tied together by the similarity of the first three verses, the fact that the 4th and 5th verses begin in the same way as the first three, and that the 6th is based on their endings; the 7th verse is a free mixture of the beginning and ending materials just mentioned. The seven verses are enclosed by a four-bar introduction, which set the rhythm, and a 13-bar Coda which provides a brilliant ending.” Exact rhythm is paramount in the performance of this piece to be true to the typical Spanish dance form.

Looking at the five pieces as a whole, "Chants d’Espagne" demonstrates new forms and new harmonies that Albéniz had not shown previously. Clark writes, “The suite represents the furthest advance in Albéniz’s Spanish style to date in its seriousness, harmonic richness, and formal variety.” It was after the composing this suite that Albéniz redirected his compositional energy toward musical drama, opera and theatre.

Albéniz’s influence on the future of Spanish music was profound. When studying the composers that followed, Albéniz and his works are often mentioned. While "Iberia", is considered the masterpiece, the pieces that led up it were thoroughly embraced and enjoyed by people throughout Europe. During his lifetime and after his death, it was said that “in his own country, no one met with greater success.” In an article in the "Musical Times", G. Jean-Aubry writes about the value of the pieces written earlier in Albéniz’s life: “I do not like the opinions of those who set too little store by his early output in order to esteem only the later. In the middle of the works in his first manner will appear suddenly in many places an unexpected intonation at the turning of a facile phrase. One is conscious not so much of hasty workmanship as of too great a facility; but in all that he produced, what "joie de vivre", and still more, what voluptuous beauty!” In the end, the beauty of the pieces for both listening and playing is perhaps their greatest value of all.

On film

A film, "Albéniz", based on his life, was made in 1947. It was produced in Argentina.



*Isaac Albéniz, Chants d”Espagne, G. Henle Verlag, Berlin, 2004.
*Pola Baytelman, "Isaac Albéniz: Chronological List and Thematic Catalog of His Piano Works", Harmonie Park Press, Michigan 1993.
*Gilbert Chase, "The Music of Spain", Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1959.
*Walter Aaron Clark, "Isaac Albéniz: A Guide to Research", Garland Publishing Inc. New York & London, 1998.
*Walter Aaron Clark, "Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic", Oxford University Press, New York 1999.
*Daniel Ericourt and Robert. P. Erickson, "MasterClasses in Spanish Piano Music", Hinshaw Music, Chapel Hill North Carolina, 1984.
*G. Jean-Aubry, “Isaac Albéniz 1860–1909,” "The Musical Times", Vol 58 No. 898, Musical Times Publications Ltd., December 1917 pgs 535–538.


External links

* [ Mallorca] interactive hypermedia (Shockwave Player required) at the [ BinAural Collaborative Hypertext]
* [ The Life and Music of Isaac Albéniz]
* [ Biography and List of Works by Albéniz]
* [ Isaac Albéniz i Pascual]
* [ Albéniz Foundation]
* [ Albeniz Asturias arranged for Accordion]

heet music

* [] Free Scores by Albéniz
*IckingArchive|idx=Albeniz|name=Isaac Albéniz
* [ Tango] , arranged by Mischa Elman (from the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection)

Recordings by Isaac Albéniz

*"L'escola pianística catalana (Enregistraments històrics) "( [ la mà de guido , LMG3060] )
*"The Catalan Piano Tradition" ( [ VAI Audio, 1001] ) ASIN|B000003LIC

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