Not long after the death of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) wrote the following: “How is it possible that this Frenchman, who had only visited Spain once, was able to showcase Spanish folklore in such a masterful way? Many Spanish composers are unable to surpass Debussy. They will be green with envy!”
De Falla became friends with Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) when, in 1907, on the advice of his mentor Felip Pedrell, he moved to Paris. He was enthralled by their aesthetic, while Debussy and Ravel in turn borrowed elements from his music. The French capital was fascinated by exotic cultures at the time, partly under the influence of the world exhibitions at the end of the 19th century, which produced cross-fertilization between French impressionism and the lively and colourful music of Spain.
Debussy wrote his first composition with a Spanish tint in 1903 with La Soirée dans Grenade (‘Evening in Grenada’) for piano. But it was principally his work Ibéria that impressed de Falla so greatly. In the case of Ravel, the appeal of Spanish culture was in his genes; his mother came from Ciboure, A Basque French village on the Atlantic coast. Ravel also had many Spanish friends, and he regularly visited the land of flamenco and toreadors. It was during one of his visits there that Ravel made the first sketches for his Piano Concerto in G.
Images pour Orchestre, a musical portrait of three European countries, is one of Debussy’s best-known and largest scale orchestral works. Debussy worked on it at various points during the period between 1905 and 1912, and the three sections were performed at separate premieres. The first one of the series to be completed was Ibéria, an ode to Spanish culture. He had spent no more than a few hours in Spain, and yet was able to evoke the atmosphere perfectly, and based entirely on what he had read, seen or heard about Spain.
Ibéria itself is made up of three movements. Of the first movement, Par les Rues et par les Chemins (In the streets and byways), Debussy wrote: “At the moment, I hear the sounds of streets in Catalonia at the same time as the music of the streets in Granada”. He translated those sounds into lively music, with castanets and the tambourine in the orchestra. The second movement, Les Parfums de la Nuit (Perfumes of the night), evoked for de Falla the “intoxicating magic of Andalusian nights”. Here, the castanets give way to an intimate setting and sensual sound combinations. At the end, bells peal to announce daybreak and the beginning of the lively Le Matin d’un Jour de Fête (A feastday morning). After awakening, the noisy festival begins: a joyful crowd dances to the tuneful chords of a banda de guitarras y bandurrias (band of guitars and bandurrias), the winds whisper cheerful melodies and in the distance, we can here a tune played on the violin.
Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is a blueprint for the composer’s aesthetic. With Mozart and Saint-Saëns as his models, it is far from the often bombastic piano concertos of the twentieth century. “The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be light-hearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has to be said of certain great classics [specifically Brahms] that their concertos were written not ‘for’ but ‘against’ the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to entitle this concerto 'Divertissement'. Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so, because the very title 'Concerto' should be sufficiently clear,” as Ravel set out his vision.
He wrote his Piano Concerto in G between 1929 and 1931, after a concert tour through the United States. There, he discovered jazz, which was also to be heard in Paris: "The most exciting element of jazz is the rich and varied rhythm. It is a very rich and unmistakable source of inspiration for modern composers, and I am amazed that so few Americans have been influenced by it”. So it is no surprise that Ravel incorporated syncopated rhythms, blues figures and jazz harmonies into his piano concerto. Spanish influences can also be detected. In terms of form, the concerto follows the traditional division into three movements which are very different from each other. For the orchestra, Ravel opted for a small-scale instrumentation, giving pride of place to the lower voices such as the English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and the lower strings – by way of contrast with the pianist, who plays chiefly in the upper register.
Ravel would have liked to perform the premiere himself, but because of health problems he was obliged to give up that plan. The Pianist Marguerite Long took his place at the successful premiere in Paris in 1932, with Ravel as conductor. It was the beginning of a tour of the major European cities. After that, Ravel’s health declined rapidly: a degenerative muscle condition meant that by the following year he found it very difficult to write, speak or even move. He died in 1937 after having undergone brain surgery, but this work became of the most popular piano concertos of the twentieth century.
During his stay in Paris, de Falla developed a personal style which he described as “the creation of a new Spanish art”, making use of “the natural, living sources of Spanish folk music, namely, the substance of sound and rhythm rather than their external phenomena”. He returned to Spain in 1917 with a bundle of new inspiration and experience. In the same year, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev left war-torn Paris for the neutral city of Madrid. There, he became enchanted by a performance of de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which he asked the composer to arrange for his Ballets Russes. But de Falla had a different idea; he proposed to Diaghilev instead to expand his pantomime El corregidor y la molinera (the magistrate and the miller’s wife) into a full-scale ballet.
And so it was. De Falla translated the story of the self-satisfied corregidor who tries to lure the miller’s wife away from her husband into a ballet score chock full of energetic dances, Spanish folk tunes and scintillating humour. It was none other than Léonide Massine who provided the choreography, while the sets and costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso. At the very first performance, in the London Alhambra theatre on 22 July 1919, El Sombrero de Tres Picos (translated into English as The Three-Cornered Hat) was an overwhelming success. The performance received such high praise that de Falla soon put together two orchestral suites, one based on each act. The second suite, in which one traditional dance succeeds the other at a rapid tempo, has become a veritable hit.