Saturday August 19 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35
Tonight’s program surveys a broad spectrum of works composed in Spain or directly inspired by the art, culture, and history of the Iberian lands. Of course, so rich is that musical heritage that no single concert could hope to do more than scratch the surface. Situated at the south-western tip of the European continent, Spain has enjoyed a long history of interactions - both political and cultural - with other European nations. But given its relative isolation, separated from France by the Pyrenees and from all other lands (excepting Portugal) by the sea, Spain has also developed certain traditions that are almost exclusively its own. Moreover, proximity to North Africa and a long period under Moorish rule have forever stamped their indelible mark on Spanish music. It is perhaps fitting that native-born composers, Isaac Albéniz and Manuel De Falla, will begin and end tonight’s program. But in between we touch on non-native composers who have established deep personal connections with the land.
Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) needs little introduction to fans of both the piano and the classical guitar. The former was his own preferred instrument, though many listeners may know his works by virtue of guitar transcriptions made by Tarrega, Segovia and others. As a pianist Albéniz was a child prodigy, already appearing in concert before his tenth birthday. In fact, being the son of a customs official, Albéniz enjoyed many opportunities to travel widely in South America, Cuba, New York, and England as a child, usually presenting concerts along the way. As such it is not surprising to note that this native-born Spanish composer ultimately studied in Germany and Belgium; he even tried to become a private pupil of the great Franz Liszt in the 1880s.
Albéniz’s early works remain faithful to their roots in conventional salon music (light-hearted and never averse to virtuosic display). An important meeting with Felipe Pedrell, a pioneer in ethnic music of Iberia, helped Albéniz get in touch with musical features more distinctly Spanish in origin, including use of particular rhythms, a deep lyrical tone, and textures borrowed from Flamenco guitar traditions. The culmination of this new influence, and in many ways the culmination of Albéniz’s entire life work, is Iberia (1905-1908), a collection of piano works he composed while living in France. Overall, Iberia evokes numerous scenes and settings of Spanish life. The technical demands are such that the suite usually appears only on virtuoso solo programs. From the second book of Iberia, we will hear an arrangement of Triana for two pianos. The title refers to a neighborhood (sometimes called the “Gypsy quarter”) in Seville that sits between two branches of the Guadalquivir River and boasts a unique history and culture. Albéniz uses all of the resources available in the original version to paint the vibrant colors of Triana, and these are only made clearer in the two-piano arrangement. This version was created by Enrique Granados and subsequently revised by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Laroccha.
The life of Tomás Luis de Victoria (ca. 1548-1611) was largely governed by the Catholic church. He was born in the Castille region of Spain and participated in the musical activities of the local cathedral at Avila as chorister and, most likely, budding organ student. Not long after he turned fifteen, Victoria received a financial stipend from King Philip II that allowed him to live and study in Rome. In the capital city he enjoyed his first professional appointments and came into contact with the great Palestrina. Both men would become voices of the Counter-Reformation movement in music, pioneering a streamlined form of vocal counterpoint that restored primacy to the text. After twenty years in Rome, however, Victoria requested a change of position that would allow him to return to Spain. The Spanish king granted the request, and the composer settled in Madrid as resident organist and composer to the Dowager Empress Maria. Even though allowed to travel, he remained in faithful service to the Empress until her death. Indeed, among his very best works is a Requiem Mass prepared for her funeral in 1603.
Victoria’s Ave Maria motet is certainly one of his finest compositions. The eight-part, double choir texture unfolds with great reverence both for the sacred message being celebrated, as well as the clarity of polyphonic technique. At first, each choir is handled separately, with the second SATB ensemble literally echoing the first and eliding phrase endings with new beginnings. Gradually the degree of overlap increases, but Victoria typically maintains only four active parts at any one time. Moreover, his phrase lengths are noticeably shorter and more regular than the turgid contrapuntal experiments played out in the 14th and 15th centuries. Only in the final resplendent moments do all eight voices burst forth to intone their fervent prayer to the Virgin, that “with the chosen ones we may gaze upon you.”
American avant-garde visionary George Crumb (1929-2022), formerly professor at the University of Pennsylvania and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, had an impeccable ability to create novel soundscapes. In past seasons Staunton Music Festival has presented his electric, eerie antiwar testimonial, Black Angels; the equally atmospheric Voice of the Whale; and most recently his Night Music I. What captures our attention in Crumb’s music often relates to instrumentation. His scores, sometimes works of art in themselves, call for voices, amplified strings, prepared pianos, and all combinations of percussion instruments. The writing is generally quite austere, forcing listeners to face the unnerving emptiness of the dark. Crumb’s use of silence makes us hyperaware of each and every sound - exactly the effect of being outside, alone, in complete and utter darkness.
Night of the Four Moons (1969) makes these points in a compelling way. Composed just prior to both Black Angels and Voice of the Whale, the work took shape in the weeks leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. Night of the Four Moons features the unusual scoring of alto voice, flute (or piccolo), electric cello, banjo, and percussion. For this collection Crumb drew upon evocative texts by the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). Lorca’s poetry delves into surrealist imagery. Crumb revels in such elliptical implications, seeking to match Lorca’s altered reality with music that is abstract and epigrammatic. Moments of free improvisation intrude upon an otherwise tightly ordered score.
In regard to timbre, Crumb calls upon the voice as much for its ability to deliver text as for the sheer sonic impact of the low alto register. The flute, in particular, steps forth as a kind of ancient spirit, intoning meandering phrases that bridge the gaps between portions of Lorca’s text. Crumb used Lorca for Night Music I (1963), and certain resemblances exist. But the presence of the flute here provides an obvious contrast. Some movements call for unusual percussion, such as the prominent mbira (an African thumb piano) in movement no. 3. But perhaps most haunting of all is the close of the final movement (no. 4), during which offstage musicians quote a melody by Gustav Mahler as if from a completely other world. Even today, in 2023, one struggles to fully take in all of Crumb’s intent in Night of the Four Moons, which is only made more bizarre by Lorca’s esoteric words. There is no denying that Crumb has a special affinity for music that is spare, epigrammatic, and immensely engaging.
The music of Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) continues to excite even though his name does not carry the caché of Classical-era contemporaries like Haydn and Mozart. That may have to do largely with his choice of residence. The epicenter of the blossoming Classical style was Vienna and its environs. Boccherini, born in Lucca in northern Italy and trained in Rome, passed through Vienna only briefly. By his 20th year, he had taken a post in Spain and would remain south of the Pyrenees for his entire career - not completely cut off from developments in central Europe, but operating outside its direct sphere of influence. He knew the works of Haydn, and he is often credited with improving the string quartet and quintet genres by drawing attention to the cello. Boccherini was himself a virtuoso of the instrument.
One of Boccherini’s quintets offers a programmatic glimpse at Night Music of the Streets of Madrid, the city where he lived and worked from 1769 until his death nearly forty years later. The work was not published during his lifetime; in the composer’s own words, “The piece is absolutely useless, even ridiculous, outside Spain because the audience cannot hope to understand its significance nor the performers to play it as it should be played.” Tempo changes mark out five distinct sections within the free-form, single movement structure. It functions as a series of vignettes, launched by a rhythmic tattoo imitating a street musician’s tambourine. The “Minuet of the Blind Beggars” radiates foot-stomping appeal (it appeared prominently in the Russell Crowe film, Master and Commander), whereas the subsequent Largo recedes into a violin-cello serenade, complete with bell-like pizzicato echoes from across the piazza. Next on the scene are Los Manolos, the vulgar street singers who amble along, singing to amuse themselves. Finally, Boccherini suggests the arrival and departure (ritirata or retreat) of the Nightwatch, who impose curfew and bring the day - and the musical festivities - to an end.
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was born not much later than his countryman Albéniz, though his longer lifespan exposed him to a very different world than the latter experienced. His first taste of success came after 1905, and he began to enjoy some fame outside his native Spain. Like Albéniz, however, he had the good fortune to study with Felipe Pedrell, the most important advocate for incorporating Spanish nationalist elements into European art music. He lived for some years in Paris and became familiar with Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. But just prior to the outbreak of World War I, De Falla returned to Madrid, where he completed his most popular orchestral works, including Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1916) and The Three-Cornered Hat (1919). After the war he settled for a longer time in Granada. In 1923 he adopted a more neoclassical musical language, already well developed by Stravinsky, for a puppet-opera titled El Retablo de Maese Pedro - Master Peter’s Puppet Show.
El Retablo was inspired by elements of the Granadan culture that De Falla observed at first hand, but its origins go back several years earlier. While in Madrid he had received a commission from Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the sewing machine fortune and known as Princess de Polignac by virtue of her second marriage. Singer’s salon was arguably the leading light in Paris at this time, and the list of regular guests ranged from Proust, Diaghilev, and Cocteau to Fauré and Artur Rubinstein. She desired to have several composers, including Stravinsky, Satie, and De Falla, create puppet operas for performance in her salon. The first performance of El Retablo occurred in March 1923 in Seville, but the first staged production (i.e., with puppets) took place at Singer’s home two months later. Wanda Landowska played the harpsichord and none other than Picasso and Stravinsky among the invited special guests.
The text of this one-act puppet-opera draws upon several passages from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, principally Chapter 26 from Part 2 of the novel. De Falla organizes the work into six scenes, preceded by an Introduction and rounded off with a Finale. The main characters include Quixote, Peter the puppet master, and Sancho Panza - one of several non-singing roles. A significant part throughout is accorded to Peter’s apprentice, the Trujaman, scored for boy soprano. (In 1958 a young José Carreras made his operatic debut in this role.) Overall the musical style moves away from De Falla’s more complex mannerisms toward a leaner, harmonically simple neo-classical style. Brass and wind instruments play an important role from the outset, and the harpsichord provides antique allure. De Falla uses repetitive psalm-tone recitation for the Trujaman’s rapid delivery of the text, occasionally interrupted by Quixote’s rich operatic baritone. The orchestration is incredibly colorful, redolent of Stravinsky at times, but always in service of the pantomime action.
Peter arrives on stage to announce a performance of the woeful tale of Melisendra, daughter to Charlemagne and captive of the Moorish king Marsilio. This will be a tale within a tale, of course, as part of the spectacle involves Quixote’s reactions to what is depicted on stage. Scene 1 depicts the laggard husband of Melisandra, apparently uninterested in exerting himself to come to her aid until chastised publicly by Charlemagne himself. In Scene 2 Melisandra is accosted by an insolent guard and kissed unwillingly. The guilty party is subsequently punished for his transgression (Scene 3). In Scene 4 Melisandra’s husband crosses the Pyrenees in his rescue attempt and, while in disguise, exchanges words with his wife at her castle window. In Scenes 5 and 6, the pair begin their escape and are pursued by Marsilio and his men. By this point, Quixote’s rampant chivalry and all-too-familiar inability to separate reality from fiction get the better of him. The opera closes with him hacking the puppets to bits, intoning the name of his beloved Dulcinea, and defending Melisandra against her pursuers.
Regarding their staging, Happenstance co-artistic directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell noted several challenges to presenting El Retablo. These challenges prompted a novel solution:
Many productions of Master Peter’s Puppet Play have included elements like projections, large-scale puppets with multiple operators, and singers fully incorporated into the choreography and action. The festival format demands a much lighter footprint. The foremost challenge is that the operetta’s singers are characters in the action, but given the festival schedule their availability to rehearse with the non-singing actors was limited to one or two rehearsals devoted largely to musical issues. They would be singing as members of the orchestra and unable to participate in the action. Another challenge we faced was to confront the work’s racial/ethnic casting of the good white European Christians against the bad dark-skinned Non-Christian Moors. But the libretto offers an image in its first scene that provided an alternative that we have embraced to address both this and the light-footprint challenge.
The Knights Gayferos and Roland in the first scene are playing chess. The next character we meet is King Charlemagne who comes in to chastise them. We saw that they and the other puppet characters could all be cast as chess pieces: Melisendra as a Queen, Marsilius, her captor as an opposing King, his guards as Rooks, etc. Happenstance chose to adopt the chess game image and portray the opposing forces in the puppet play as chess pieces moved by unseen hands, and to perform the actions of Master Peter’s puppets in mime.
© Jason Stell, 2023