Saturday, December 22, 2007

La Pasión de Rubén Lorenzo: El Sentimiento Falla’s Fantasía Bética Dentro y Fuera de España

Rubén Lorenzo
I  f Europe as a whole distinguishes today between Norwegian and Russian music it is because many years of practice in their grammar have taught us to distinguish them; yet, it would be easy to demonstrate that what Europe understands as ‘Spanish’ ... is nothing but a very limited aspect ... no more than a certain idiom fashioned principally on an Andalusian base ... Formal schematicism and brevity are essential qualities in the Concerto ... Not only is there never any filler or adornment in the instrumental parts, but these appear with abstemiousness in the extreme. Even the softness of the most idiomatic ranges is avoided, resulting in a timbre like that of old music played by primitive instruments, rude and astringent.”
  —  Adolfo Salazar, El concerto, 1927.
I  n the present Blair-ite age of cultural thinness, it’s all too easy to feel depressed at the comparative indifference shown towards serious music and the arts, and deplore their lack of purchase on our national life. Imagine such contemporary figures as Birtwistle, Benjamin and Ades being conscripted into the search for a redefinition of Englishness in the face of the threatened breakup of the UK and further integration into Europe... By contrast, Carol Hess’s excellent study, ‘Manuel de Falla and modernism in Spain, 1898-1936’, reveals the composer in the context of the Generation of ‘98. Appalled by their country’s shattering defeat by the USA in the Cuban War, these passionate intellectuals proceeded to conduct intense self-examinations on questions of national identity and foreign influences. Musical controversy at first reigned over the merits of the indigenous zarzuela—its conventionalised nationalism (españolismo) appealing to isolationists as opposed to the more Eurocentric cult of Wagner which gripped cosmopolitan Barcelona. … With an agenda of his own, uniting the Latin cultures of Spain and France, [Falla] defended European music’s ‘racial borders’ from the hegemony of the German tradition, and joined Unamuno in condemning the rationalistic legacy of Protestantism with its lack of ‘sensory grounding’… In the eyes of his numerous detractors, however, the modern French school had now replaced Wagnerism as the musical threat to the Spanish sense of ‘race’.”
  —  Andrew Thomson, Musical Times, Autumn 2002.

Mañuel de Falla
I  n the reception of Falla’s works in Spain, self, circumstance, and music intersect in compelling patterns that expose the innate idiosyncrasies in the
‘narrative urge’. It also reinforces the idea that music cannot exist as ‘the score itself’, reified in some utopian preserve where aesthetics alone holds sway, but as an utterance whose meaning will shift depending on the premises of a particular environment. The political Right promoted both Falla’s music and his character, emphasizing the period from 1932 on. In concentrating on this period, the Franco government was able to find powerful ammunition for its propaganda machine so that, with censorship wiping out all other points of view, franquismo singlehandedly laid the foundation for Falla’s legacy in Spain. There were, of course, some major discrepancies between this Rightist orientation, with its fustian diction and warped nostalgias, and the reality of Falla’s life... There is nothing to suggest that Falla actively opposed the principle of religious freedom. He was willing to criticize the administration and practices of the Church as he was the vandalism against holy sites. The latter he saw not so much as an attack on a corrupt power as a direct assault on God, and he feared that the Republic was bent on destroying not only the external trappings of the Church but the religious impulse itself... We do not know the composer’s understanding of the darker aspects of the Nationalist enterprise, namely, the role of its German and Italian allies, the effects of fascism throughout Europe, and Hitler’s designs. Nor could Falla have had foreknowledge of the virulence of Franco’s post-war reprisals. Having gone to Latin America for professional reasons and with every intention of returning, he was not a political exile, as is sometimes suggested. His rejection of Franco’s enticements no more indicates opposition to the regime than his donations to Republican camps and advocacy for friends on the ‘wrong’ side imply support for the vanquished Republic.”
  —  Carol Hess, Sacred Passions, p. 285-7.
Rubén Lorenzo provided an intriguing and passionate account of de Falla’s Fantasía Bética as part of his recital on Monday at Carnegie Hall. Lorenzo is noted for devising programs that he calls ‘monographic’ in their anthology-like scope, surveying the Spanish piano repertoire. But Monday’s recital was no dry academic monograph. Instead, it had more the impulse of an exciting suspense novel!

According to Carol Hess, the rejection of ‘localist andalucismo’ and adoption of a ‘universalist neoclassicism’ was a strong and recurring theme in Spanish modernist compositions in the first half of the 20th Century (2002, p. 4) and Falla was one of Spanish modernism’s leading exponents. Hess takes universalism to be stylistically and philosophically equivalent to neoclassicism, in part based on the force of Stravinsky’s enthusiastic endorsement of Falla’s late works and Stravinsky’s analysis of the compositional structure of Falla’s oeuvre. Like Hess, Falla biographer Tomás Marco (pp. 31-42) also notes Falla’s use of neoclassical compositional techniques in place of strictly nationalistic, andalusian ones—especially in his later compositions.

De Falla’s output ranges from late-romantic pieces to evocations of flamenco to the later neoclassicism. Lorenzo’s Bética emphasizes the piece’s flamenco features, maybe with more force and less restraint than is typical of flamenco. It seems that Falla was reluctant to let go of idiomatic flamenco elements, even if he eventually felt hemmed in by them. Maybe his life also manifested psychological ‘retentiveness’ in other ways, too: his conservative-flavored Roman Catholicism reportedly brought him both comfort and trouble throughout his life.

Incidentally, Bética is the Spanish name for the Roman province that is now Andalusia, transliterated from ‘Baetis River’ (now called the ‘Guadalquivir’). Fantasía Bética was dedicated by Falla to Artur Rubinstein, who used to play frequently in Spain and liked to perform vernacular Spanish music, including the Ritual Fire Dance. Bética’s nominally the final piece in Falla’s flamenco period, flanked by ‘El Amor Brujo’ and ‘Three-Cornered Hat’.

I  t is easy to let Falla’s ‘complete respect for and loyalty to his Excellency, the Generalisimo’ and praise for Franco’s ‘undefeated soldiers’ slide into complete oblivion. But we must ask to what extent we ought to condemn a sickly [and, by then] old man whose faith, although it blinded him to many bad realities, caused him to make remarks that now seem tragically flawed. Unlike Picasso, who refused to exhibit Guernica in Franco’s Spain, or Casals, who turned down invitations to play there as long as Franco remained in power, Falla could have spoken out after the War. That he did not do so may make us uneasy today. But one who sees God before all else may become curiously tongue-tied over temporal matters.”
  —  Carol Hess, Sacred Passions, p. 288.

Piano mechanism
Q  ué estimulante pensar en el futuro! Porque la música comienza a avanzar ahora mismo; la armonía aún debe ser un medio artístico. Por ejemplo, las canciones de Andalucía están basadas en escalas con intervalos más sutiles que las escalas en las que la octava es dividida en doce semitonos. Como compositor, todo lo que puedo hacer por el momento, es crear la ilusión de esos cuartos de tono, por medio de la superposición entre acordes de una tonalidad y otra.

[How stimulating to think about the future! Although music begins to advance right now, harmony still should be an artistically legitimate means of expression. For example, the songs of Andalusia are based on scales with more subtle intervals than the scales in which the octave is divided into twelve semitones. As a composer, all I can do for now is create the illusion of [reconciliation between] those realms of tone, by superimposing harmonies of one tonality on another. ] ”
  —  Manuel de Falla, 1919.
It was a revelation for me to discover that in the 1920s and 1930s Falla had remarked on aspects of his works that exhibited what today would be termed ‘microtonality’. Way ahead of his time! The biographers seem either not to have noticed those remarks, or else did not think the concept of microtonality sufficiently important to merit coverage in the context of Falla’s many accomplishments and overall significance in generating a Spanish national identity. Or else the biographers simply weren’t familiar with microtonality per se and didn’t know what to make of the remarks. Hmmm.

Piano mechanism
And how often do we think of microtonality in the context of solo piano works? Not often! The default prejudice is to think of a piano as tuned to a conventional temperament. It is not like a fretless stringed instrument or a wind instrument that’s amenable to an infinite range of pitch bending. When we think of piano, we think of note heads sitting precisely on staves, of white and black keys whose depression neatly yields sounds that have highly predictable pitches. We do not ordinarily expect a piano to be capable of microtonality. And yet here it was! Had the interpreter been one whose technique and athleticism and emotional exuberance were any less than those of Lorenzo we would not have heard the microtonality that this Falla piece contains. Had the recital hall been one whose acoustic properties were inferior to those in the Carnegie Weill venue we, likewise, would not have heard it. But the confluence of this Lorenzo, this Steinway, and this nice recital hall gave us this unique revelation. I had come with the intention of hearing Lorenzo educate me about Spanish culture and politics, but instead was delighted to receive this unexpected ‘bonus’—a revelation about piano physics and a revelation that Falla had been deliberately exploring microtonality decades before it became fashionable to do.

The Russian physicist Alexander Galembo has done considerable research on microtonal capabilities of the piano. If you are interested in the microtonal possibilities of conventional (‘unprepared’) piano, you may like to try to locate a copy of Galembo’s book. It is out-of-print and it is in Russian. But it’s a relatively slender volume, and Galembo’s writing is clear and concise, so with even a modest ability to read Russian it is possible to comprehend Galembo’s points.

Galembo book
T he microtonal effects are a result, mainly, of velocity effects and both vertical and horizontal motions of the piano strings after they have been struck by the hammers—and a result also of the detailed vibrational modes of the soundboard. The most interesting factor contributing to the existence of aftersound is the presence of more than one string for each piano note, and the consequent dynamical coupling that occurs among the strings struck by the same hammer. The data indicate clearly that we are dealing with two independent modes of vibration, which are producing sound waves through two separate radiating ‘antenna patterns.’ It is a dynamic thing: at various times after the attack, one or the other mode dominates—that is, near the beginning the dominant mode is different than it is near the end of the note. In fact, it is quite reasonable to suppose that the vibration pattern of the soundboard in response to a vertical force at the bridge is quite different from what it is for a horizontal force.”
  —  Gabriel Weinreich, KTH, Stockholm.

[Lorenzo is 48. Besides his extensive repertoire of Spanish music he also has performed and recorded Makrokosmos by Crumb. He is currently professor of the Upper Conservatory of Music of Zaragoza.]

Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall

Carol Hess book

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