Fiery Falla

Manuel de Falla spun ancient, ethnic and contemporary influences into classical gold.

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Stagebill, 1991


Great composers seem to arrive at just the right place and at just the right time in musical history to find the nurturing influences that best spark their particular gifts. The music they write, in turn, speaks definitively of the time and place of its origins, but also, paradoxically, it has an individual voice that sets it apart from the music of other composers working in similar surroundings.

Manuel de Falla, born in Cadiz in 1876, was heir to seven centuries of Spain's richly diverse musical traditions, its previous major exponents having been Falla's older compatriots, Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados. He spent much of his creative life in Paris during the legendary "Banquet Years" following the turn of the twentieth century, and he died in Argentina in 1946 after the close of World War II. Falla thus traveled far enough and lived long enough to be inspired by artists from a wide cultural and stylistic spectrum: French composers Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy plus such strange musical bedfellows as Edvard Grieg, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schönberg. Under all these influences, both Spanish and foreign, Falla developed a unique musical personality in a style both elegant and passionate. He wrote relatively few compositions, but those few were of such scope, power, and precision that he was quickly acknowledged to be the greatest composer his country has ever produced.

The musical history of Spain has been a continuous blend of different cultures. Falla's important role in creating a modern synthesis of Northern European and indigenous Iberian materials was, therefore, the continuation of a process which had begun centuries earlier. In the thirteenth century, King Alfonso, El Sabio ("The Wise"), assembled a monumental collection of Cantigas de Santa María, or hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. These tuneful and dance-like songs fused traditional French and Italian forms with Arabic melodic colorations and rhythms. Another important musical unification of Spain's warring cultural constituents was Alfonso's choice of the guitar as his personal royal emblem. Like the Cantigas, the construction of the guitar and the techniques for playing it became a union of both Latin and Arabic elements (in both cases with the European characteristics not so subtly dominant over the Arabic). Alfonso's guitar thus became an apt socio-political symbol for his nation and has remained so to this day.

Like Alfonso, Falla turned cultural friction into musical gold. Many of his works show the Northern musical influences he absorbed in his travels. Within Falla, Norwegian nationalistic fervor (which inspired him to find his own Spanish voice) interacted with lush French chromaticism and impressionistic orchestration, in turn, tempered by the lean cosmopolitan, contrapuntal neo-classicism of Stravinsky. But even more important was Falla's fusion of so many quintessentially Spanish musical elements and attitudes: the elusively thin line in Spain between elitist art and popular entertainment; the equally thin line between speech and song (as exemplified by the many uses of the exclamation, "AY,"); the strong emphasis upon dance, including ritual religious dance and over 1,000 distinct varieties (chief among them the jota, fandango, and seguidilla); the fascination with the melodic and rhythmic complexity of Moorish music (hence the word "arabesque" to describe graceful or intricate patterns); the imitation of the guitar in musical textures that do not include guitar; and, finally, the use of typical Spanish instruments in addition to the guitar, such as castanets, the tambour (a medium-sized drum, not be confused with its smaller cousin, the tambourine) and the bagpipes (which made their way from the Western coast of Spain to the British Isles). Also in Falla's music are gracious and courtly evocations of the golden age of Spain – the pre-Armada days when Spanish galleons ruled the seas and paved the way for the royal patronage that later supported such important Spanish-based composers as Domenico Scarlatti and Luigi Boccherini.

For a time Falla lived in Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain prior to their expulsion, along with the Jews, in 1492. Living in this breathtakingly beautiful place, a city symbolic of the intolerance of one people for another, may have stirred Falla's interest in literary subjects that center around a dramatic conflict between two worlds. In La vida breve ("The Short Life") the conflict is between rich and poor; in El retablo de Maese Pedro ("Master Peter's Puppet Show"), between Christians and Moors; and in El amor brujo ("Love the Sorcerer"), between the living and the dead. Musical ghosts of the Moorish builders of Granada's Alhambra palace thus battle continuously in Falla's music with their Northern conquerors.

Rarely did Falla employ actual quotations of earlier Spanish music—one exception being the folk song "De Los Alamos Vengo" ("I come from the Poplars") in the Harpsichord Concerto. Instead, Falla simply created his own Spanish music, drawing upon his early experiences writing songs for zarzuelas, the popular Spanish musical theater. So complete was Falla's absorption of his country's tradition that much of his work has been described as "imaginary folk music."

Falla's international reputation as a composer rests primarily on two ballets, El sombrero de tres picos ("The Three-cornered Hat") and El amor brujo and two one-act operas, La villa breve and El retablo de Maese Pedro. Also regularly performed are Nights in the Gardens of Spain for piano and orchestra and the Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Ensemble – both giving evidence of Falla's early career as a keyboard virtuoso. Falla's intended masterpiece, the full-length opera Atlántida, again about two worlds, was left incomplete at the time of his death.

Each of these scores has its special pleasures. In El sombrero de tres picos, a brilliantly disconcerting opening in which the orchestra shouts "Olé, olé, olé, olé," there is a sinuously graceful English horn part which suggests an ancient Eastern double reed and contains sudden nuggets of Scarlatti-like elegance. In El amor brujo are the plaintive and earthy mezzo-soprano solo and the popular set-piece, Ritual Fire Dance. La vida breve boasts dynamic dance episodes which create an effective foil for the tender writing for the Mélisande-like soprano, who has few high notes but who needs a strong and beautiful middle register. And in Nights in the Gardens of Spain, one cannot forget the perfume-laden atmosphere of Falla's French-inspired harmonies. (This is a far more successful piece than Debussy's own early Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra.)

From this composer's perspective, however, the two jewels of Falla's output are his last two completed works, the Harpsichord Concerto and El retablo de Maese Pedro, both written to feature the great Wanda Landowska at the harpsichord. Here is Falla at his most refined: a cosmopolitan artist who has studied both the spiky insouciance of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat and the intimate concentration of Schonberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Here Falla's precise economy of means and adventurous forays into bitonality show us a composer growing with his times and refining youthful exuberance into elegantly controlled power, like the mature Verdi. Of special interest in Retablo is the way Falla effortlessly creates three different musical styles for the three singing characters (simple popular songs for Pedro, archaic neo-Renaissance lyricism for Don Quixote, and disjunct street cries for the Boy) and, characteristically, weaves them into his best whole cloth.

Speaking of Falla, French musician Nadia Boulanger said it best: "He was a small and simple man, deeply religious. He lived quietly and frugally, as if he were a monk. But he wrote music. . . BURNING!"