Christóbal Halffter

Christóbal Halffter (born 1930) was the most prominent of the group of composers who emerged in Spain in the 1950's, rejecting the folk-music orientation of earlier 20th-century Spanish composers and entering into the mainstream of European composition.

Christóbal Halffter, born in Madrid, was the nephew of Ernesto and Rodolfo Halffter, both prominent composers. Christóbal studied at the Madrid Conservatory; his gift for composing was discovered early, and he won numerous prizes while still a student. His earliest works, such as the Antifonia Pascual (1952) followed the spare Spanish style of Manuel de Falla and of some of his uncle's compositions. Others, such as the 1951 Piano Sonata and the 1956 Mass were in the tradition of Igor Stravinsky's neoclassicism. Halffter's Dos Movimientos (1956) for timpani and string orchestra, strongly influenced by Béla Bartók, won a prize in a contest for young composers sponsored by UNESCO.

After Halffter was introduced to the twelve-tone system in 1956, he began compositing in serial style. One of the most important is Cinco Microformas (1960) for orchestra, a set of five variations on a twelve-tone theme. His Formantes (1961) for two pianos was chosen to represent Spain at a UNESCO conference on contemporary music held in Tokyo. This piece employs aleatory (that is, chance) principles, in that the performers may choose the order in which they play various sections.

Halffter's first piece using electronic sounds was Espejos (1963) for four percussionists and magnetic tape. In this work, the first section is recorded and then played back while the instrumentalists continue playing new material. In 1964 Halffter became director of the Madrid Conservatory. He was instrumental in forming the Grupo Nueva Musica, which sponsored concerts of new music, until then virtually unknown in Spain. In Simposium (1967) for baritone, mixed chorus, and orchestra, Halffter showed his awareness of new trends in choral music by having his choir speak, whisper, and chant as well as sing.

In 1967 UNESCO commissioned Halffter to write a work commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The cantata, Yes, Speak Out, Yes, was performed in New York City's United Nations Building in 1968. Norman Corwin wrote the texts for the early parts of the work to introduce settings of portions of the Declaration. The six-movement piece is written for two orchestras and two choruses and calls for two conductors. Halffter described his intent:"In each movement, I try to create a sonic environment which gives the words a new dimension, even at the cost of some loss of intelligibility. In the first movement, for instance, it is not possible to understand all the words. I have tried to create a brutal atmosphere of negation and violence." Halffter made effective use of many of the compositional techniques of his time. His works show fine craftsmanship, a sense of color, and expressive qualities.

By the mid-1960's, Halffter had established himself among the international avant-garde. Works for large orchestra like Antillos (1968) and Lineas y Puntos (1969), for 20 wind instruments and tape, established his ability to work freely with large sound masses as well as the more delicate combinations which at that time constituted the common language of young composers' orchestral writing. In a highly productive career, Halffter has written at least 37 pieces for orchestra, including concerti for cello, violin, and flute; 17 vocal compositions, many of which are choral works; an opera; music for a ballet; at least 10 works for chamber ensembles; and works for solo piano and for two pianos.

Among other posts, Halffter has been Director of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Madrid; Lecturer at the University of Navarra; guest conductor of major orchestras in Europe and the United States; and since 1989, Principal Guest Conductor of the National Orchestra in Madrid. King Juan Carlos of Spain awarded him the Gold Medal for fine Arts in 1983. He lives in Madrid.

Further Reading on Christóbal Halffter

Paul Henry Lang and Nathan Broder, eds., Contemporary Music in Europe:A Comprehensive Survey (1965).

H. H. Stuckenschmidt, Twentieth Century Music (trans. 1969).