Classics 8: Spanish Nights
Emmanuel Chabrier 1841-1894
Emmanuel Chabrier
1841-1894
Emmanuel Chabrier
España (Rhapsody for Orchestra)

Emmanuel Chabrier studied music over the strenuous objections of his parents, who sent him to law school and saw to it that he became a civil servant. As a result, he was a largely self-taught musician, who was considered innovative and modern, mainly on the basis of his piano works. He was a popular figure in musical circles during his lifetime, a superb pianist, a partisan of innovative art and an advocate of the new music of Wagner. His own music has been admired for its brilliance and orchestration, as well as its wit – he wrote a snide quadrille for piano four hands based on Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Much of that regard, however, came only after his death. His more ambitious works were dogged by bad luck; the premiere of his opera Gwendolyn in Brussels in 1886 was cut short when the Opera House went into bankruptcy; and the comic opera Le Roi malgré lui received only three performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris before the house burned down.

Chabrier’s fame outside France rests today primarily on his orchestral rhapsody España. In 1882 Chabrier and his wife traveled to Spain where he was charmed by Andalusian music, dances and dancers. On his return, he amused his friends by improvising piano fantasies based on this dance music, creating the basis for what eventually became the rhapsody España. The work, brilliantly orchestrated and lighthearted, leaves no doubt about the composer’s sympathies.

It is often said that the best Spanish music has been written by Frenchmen. España belongs to a handful of major works by French composers inspired by Spanish music: Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole, Bizet’s Carmen, and Debussy’s Ibéria are others.

The Rhapsody is essentially based on a single tune. Example 1 With occasional key changes; every subsequent melody is grounded in the harmony of that tune or the melody itself. Example 2 One can think of it as a lively Hispanic chaconne. Only the coda departs briefly from the pattern.
Edouard Lalo 1823-1892
Edouard Lalo
1823-1892
Edouard Lalo
Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21

Edouard Lalo came from a military family in Northern France, his father having fought for Napoleon. Although his parents at first encouraged his musical talent and he studied both the violin and cello, his more serious inclinations towards music met with stern opposition from his father. He left home at the age of 16 to pursue his musical studies at the Conservatoire in Paris. While working for a long time in obscurity as a violinist and music teacher, in 1855 he started a string quartet to popularize the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It was only in the 1870s that Lalo got a break as a composer.

The debacle of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and its aftermath created havoc in France’s musical life. However, the rapid reconstruction that followed gave rise to the creation of the Société nationale de musique and the inauguration of three concert series under three great conductors, Jules Pasdeloup, Edouard Colonne and Charles Lamoureux, producing a demand for new works. Young French composers, including Lalo, were inspired to write large-scale orchestral works – like the enormous “history paintings” of Jacques Louis David – although such works had been out of fashion in France at the time.

Lalo’s name is primarily associated with a series of works he composed for the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate. One of the most spectacular violin virtuosos of the late nineteenth century, Sarasate was known for his beautiful tone, perfect intonation and élan on the stage. He was a striking figure, usually dressed all in black, with a huge ego and a matching flair for publicity. He lived in lavish Paris mansions decorated by James McNeill Whistler in the nineteenth-century equivalent of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". Many composers dedicated works to him, including Max Bruch, Camille Saint-SaŽns, Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski, Antonín Dvorák, and in particular, Lalo.

In 1873 Lalo composed his Violin Concerto, Op.20 for Sarasate and a year later followed up with another work for violin and orchestra, the Symphonie Espagnole, the composer’s most enduring work. Sarasate premiered both with the Colonne Orchestra.

Symphonie Espagnole is neither a real symphony, nor a traditional concerto. It is more like a five-movement suite, especially in its incorporation of dance rhythms. But Lalo hated the term “suite,” considering it “a tainted and discredited title.” The Symphonie is French in character, but Spanish in rhythm. What it lacks in musical depth it makes up for in bravura and a wealth of catchy themes. Although the five movements are not named for dances, they all correspond to Spanish dances and folk rhythms, although the structure of the movements corresponds to classical symphonic and concerto models.

The first movement is a habanera, with the three themes in the same rhythm – although not the same mood. The first two themes run together, and although the first is little more than a motive, it serves as the glue that holds the movement together as both refrain, and as the most developed musical idea. Example 1 & Example 2

The second movement, a seguidilla, is a modified ABA form. Example 3 The middle section is almost a recitative for the soloist, with dramatic shifts of tempo. Example 4

The Intermezzo opens with an introduction for orchestra of Spanish-Moorish origin, based on a two-beat measure alternating triple and duple meter. Example 5 The violin then introduces a series of themes, all with the underlying Moorish rhythm. Example 6†& Example 7 & Example 8 & Example 9

The pavane is a slow dance supposedly related to the gait of the peacock. The movement's slow tempo and minor key suggest a funeral procession. The orchestra introduces the movement's first theme, Example 10 which the violin answers with a new theme of its own, Example 11† continuing its lament after a brief orchestral interruption. Example 12

The lighthearted mood of the fifth and final movement breaks the lugubrious spell. The orchestra begins by setting up an ostinato pattern Example 13 over which the violin weaves delicate counter melody with elaborate embellishments. Example 14 The movement contains a malagueña in its slower middle section. Example 15
Enrique Granados 1867-1916
Enrique Granados
1867-1916
Enrique Granados
From Danzas Españolas (Orch. Rafael Ferrer)

No. 4, Villanesca
No. 5, Andaluza


Composer and pianist Enrique Granados was born in a town near Barcelona in the Catalan region of Spain. After a short period of study in Paris he returned to Spain, teaching (at his own Academia Granados), concertizing and composing.

His great success as a composer came in 1911 with the piano suite Goyescas, six vignettes inspired by Francisco Goya’s paintings. On a commission from the Paris Opera he used the pictures to create a story and transform the music into an opera. Because of the outbreak of World War I, the premiere took place in New York in January 1916. On the way back to Spain via England, his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. He was picked up by a lifeboat but, seeing his wife struggling in the water, jumped back in to rescue her, and both drowned.

In all of his works, Granados aimed for a geographical and historical synthesis of the Iberian peninsula, a goal shared with his friend and colleague Isaac Albéniz. He composed Danzas Españolas for piano, probably in 1890. Consisting of twelve dances from all the regions of Spain, each dance is dedicated to one of his friends or colleagues. While the melodies are folksy and Spanish, they are all Granados’ own.

The Villanesca is a stately and a bit old-fashioned dance. Example 1

The lyrical Andaluza with its Flamenco character is the most popular of the dances. Example 2

The dances have been transcribed for many instruments and instrument combinations, probably performed on the guitar more than in the original piano version.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
1862-1918
Claude Debussy
“Ibéria” (Part 2 from Images for Orchestra)

One of Claude Debussy’s largest orchestral works, the three parts of Images are self-contained compositions that share only the evocation of particular scenes; their order, as published, was arbitrary. The first, Gigues, is a Frenchman’s grotesque view of the English; the second is Ibéria, his view of Spain; and the third, Rondes de printemps, is a sympathetic national self-portrait.

For a composer whose acquaintance with Spain was a cross-the-border foray to San Sebastian to see a bullfight, Claude Debussy got the flavor of Spanish music just right, even according to that zealous Spanish nationalist composer, Manuel de Falla.

Composed in 1906-08, originally for two pianos but immediately orchestrated, Iberia does not use existing folk tunes, but its popular Hispanic character is obvious. It conveys everything that our imagination conjures up about Spain: bright and sunny skies and colors, fiery Spanish dance rhythms, the sound of heels and castanets and mysterious Moorish modes. It is to Debussy’s credit that he avoids most of the clichés of Spanish music while still maintaining the essential ambience. Ibéria is in three movements depicting three times of the day – midday, night and early morning. The last two are played without a pause:
1. “Par les rues et par les chemins” (In the streets and byways). This section features the woodwinds and brasses, containing some lovely solos for oboe, clarinet and English horn. It opens with a bright authentic sounding dance melody introduced on the clarinet and oboe accompanied by castanets and tambourine. Example 1 A quieter middle section transforms the melody on the English horn, with a little accompanying pizzicato chinoiserie and North African color on the oboe. Example 2 A fanfare for the brass ushers in a section of competing melodies Example 3 before the music gradually fades into silence.

2. “Les parfums de la nuit” (The fragrances of the night). This is one of Debussy’s most sensuous creations, mysterious and magical, opening with an oboe solo with violin, celesta and timpani(!) accompaniment. Example 4 It is like a pointillist painting, an agglomeration of short evocative motives that create an ephemeral ambience. Here, there are only subtle hints of Spanish motives, a habanera rhythm in the strings against an extension of the oboe solo Example 5 and a snatch of a “Spanish” melody Example 6. A descending four-note motive recurs throughout this section. Example 7 Distant church bells herald the dawn of the festival day, and the music continues without pause.

3. “Le matin d’un jour de fête” (The morning of a festival day). The day starts quietly and slowly, with a pulsing rhythm in the distance and the bells getting louder. Example 8 The mood becoming increasingly excited. Example 9 Seemingly haphazard fragments of “Spanish” tunes weave in and out of focus, suggesting the melee of merry makers. Example 10 A lone violin tries to start a tune, but it gets stolen by a viola and an oboe. Example 11 After a review of all the competing tunes, the whole cacophony explodes.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017