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̶ Ingrid, do you know Albeniz’s Iberia?
̶ Of course. It was thanks to ‘Corpus en Sevilla’ that I won my first piano competition.
̶ Would you play me ‘Evocación’?
̶ With pleasure!
As she slips her foot into her shoe the fall of her hair frees my emotion: I feel how we are bonded through you. She takes her place at the piano; I seat myself on the rug.
It comes, the melody; within the narrow compass of an octave it circles, encircling me in its delicate nostalgia. This is the sound of souls touching, this is silence speaking. I lie back on the rug and listen. What does the music say? It says that in loving you, Ingrid has touched me; it says that in loving you, I have moved her: The touch of her fingers on the keys is your touch reaching the core of us. Listen, she still loves you: That syncopation is your sly smile; that offbeat quality, your gangling gait… Words fall away, the music washes over me… Silence…
Valery Yakobi, A Courtyard in Sevilla, 1891
Iberia is the most important collection of keyboard works written by a Spanish composer in the modern era. In the opinion of Olivier Messiaen, it even ranks in the highest category of works for the piano, period. Iberia represents the ultimate manifestation of Albéniz’s injunction that Spanish composers should ‘make Spanish music with a universal accent’. In Iberia we find a beguiling mélange of folkloric references, elements of French Impressionism, and post-Lisztian virtuosity blended together by a master hand. The twelve pieces that make up the collection continue to astonish us with their kaleidoscopic variety, dazzling pyrotechnics, brilliant palette of color, and wide range of emotion, from profound despair to an almost giddy happiness. Here is a celebration not only of españolismo, but of human life itself. Albéniz was one of those Spanish artists, like Diego Velazquez, who focused so intently on the typical and characteristic that he succeeded in creating something that transcends the limitations of time and space.
Albéniz (1860-1909) was among the pre-eminent pianists of the nineteenth century, a child prodigy who began concertizing at age four and who by his teens was celebrated throughout Spain as a ‘phenomenon’ and a ‘national glory’. Though the composer emerged from the virtuoso only gradually, by his late twenties Albéniz had produced a sizeable body of works for piano, including salon-style character pieces, sonatas, and—most important—numerous pianistic miniatures redolent of Spanish folk music, particularly of Andalusia. Here was his true calling, the one that would establish his reputation for posterity. During Albéniz’s third decade, however, his career took a new turn. He departed Spain first for London and then for Paris, where he resided from 1894 until his death.
During the 1890s, he devoted his considerable energies to writing mostly for the theater: operas, operettas, and a zarzuela. Though these works have not held a place on the stage, they corresponded with a growing technical acumen, breadth, and command of compositional resources. Toward the end of this decade, Albéniz resumed composing for the piano in a way that revealed for the first time the combination of these new resources with his nationalist orientation, and especially the influence of his Parisian surroundings and the Impressionist manner of Claude Debussy. Two works, Espagne: Souvenirs and ‘La vega’ (the only completed number from The Alhambra: Suite pour le piano) are clear harbingers of Iberia’s magnificence. The four ‘books’ of Iberia, each containing three works, were composed between the years 1905 and 1908. Though Blanche Selva (1884-1942) premiered the complete books in France, in fact Albéniz wrote the works with his countryman Joaquín Malats (1872-1912) in mind, and it was this pianist who first brought Iberia to the attention of the Spanish public. Sadly, Albéniz did not live long enough to see Iberia attain the lofty status it was soon to enjoy. He died from kidney failure only eleven days before his forty-ninth birthday and a little over a year after finishing his chef d’oeuvre.
As Jacinto Torres, the leading Spanish authority on Albéniz, puts it in his essay on the composer, ‘Albéniz felt and wrote Iberia from the distance of exile, from nostalgia for his land, from a burning anxiety tragically marked by the physical suffering (caused by kidney disease) and by the spiritual distress of an agnostic spirit which has a presentiment of the end of the road’.
John Singer Sargent, Virgin and Saints, Spain, 1895
Francis Luis Mora, A Family Party in Triana, 1908