Music Notes

Guitar Strings to Heartstrings Isaac Albeniz

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How often we relax to the Hispanic melodies of Isaac Albeniz. His Rapsodia Espanola, Sevilla and Granada, based on Catalan folk songs, are perhaps the better known of his many compositions. These lovely melodies evoke the Spanish dream more than could any Goya painting but what of the man behind the music? Like most composers his life was as notable as was his music.

Born in Catalonia (1860) this virtuoso prodigy first performed on the piano at the age of just four-years old. Such talent and precociousness. Could a possible explanation be his having being reincarnation influenced? By the age of seven he had passed the entrance examination of the Paris Conservatoire but was refused admission. The selectors considered him too young. Perhaps his virtuosity and premature promise may reflect badly on other less gifted but older students.

By the time he was thirteen years old, the errant Isaac had attempted to run away from home several times. Each time he was returned a clip across his ear.

At 12-years old he did succeed in stowing away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. From there, working his passage, he made his way to Cuba, then to the United States where he gave concerts in both New York and San Francisco. All this at an age at which most of us would have difficulty organising a white-socks disco.

An outstanding success, the adolescent sensation then made his way to Liverpool, to London, and then to Leipzig. By the time he was fifteen years old he had already given concerts worldwide and was internationally recognised. Eat your heart out Wolfgang Mozart.

There wasn’t a great deal that Leipzig Conservatory could do to advance Isaac’s enormous talent as a keyboard playing composer. Packing his carpetbag, he set out for Brussels to do a little extra studying.

Four years later the tireless teenager was on his way to Budapest to study with Franz Liszt, only to find the equally effervescent German-Hungarian composer had already taken up residence in Weimar, Germany.

It was in 1883 that he met the teacher / composer Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to compose Spanish music such as Suite Espanola, Op. 47. For most of us the most endearing of the suite is Asturias (Leyenda); an essential component of any classical guitar repertoire. Interestingly however, most of these soulful melodies were written for the piano.

The composer Francisco Tarrega, best known for his haunting melody Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra) transcribed many of Albeniz’ piano compositions to the elegant softer style of the Spanish guitar. The affable Isaac Albeniz conceded that he often preferred Tarrega’s way of doing things.

During the 1890s Albeniz divided his time between London and Paris from where he penned mainly theatrical works. Much of it to commissions by the theatre impresarios of the period.

By 1890 the composer was suffering from Bright’s Disease. Returning to piano compositions he finally rounded off with Iberia, a suite of 12 piano impressions.

This most prolific of gifted composers died on 18 May 1909 at the age of just 48. Isaac Albeniz is interred in the Cementiri del Sudoest at Monjuic near Barcelona. Among his great grandchildren are Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, until recently mayor of Madrid; and Cecilia Sarkozy, former wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. NOTE: There is in Comproden, Albeniz birthplace, a museum dedicated to the composer’s memory. ~ Michael Walsh

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