Issac Albéniz

The Spanish composer and pianist Issac Albéniz (1860-1909) played an important part in the creation of a national Spanish music. His most famous work is the piano suite Iberia.

Isaac Albéniz was born in Camprodón, in the province of Gerona, on May 29, 1860. An extraordinarily precocious child, he made his debut as a pianist in Barcelona at the age of four. When he was six his mother took him to Paris, where he took lessons from Antoine Marmontel, professor of piano at the Conservatoire. She tried to have him admitted as a student there, but, although he did brilliantly on his entrance examinations, the jury felt he was too young. On his return to Spain in 1868 he went on a concert tour of Catalonia with his father and was hailed as a child wonder. In 1869 the family moved to Madrid, where Albéniz enrolled at the Conservatory and studied with Mendizábal. In 1870, at the age of ten, he ran away from home and gave concerts in various cities of northern Spain. Being robbed on the road on this first adventure did not deter him from running away again in 1872 after a short return to his parents' home. This time he played concerts in Andalusia in the south of Spain and, in Cádiz, embarked as a stowaway on a steamship headed for South America.

In Buenos Aires he led a beggar's life until he received help in arranging some concerts. After a successful tour of South America that earned him good money, he went to Cuba. There he met his father, who, by a strange coincidence, had been transferred to Havana as a customs inspector. Although the father attempted to persuade his son to return to the family, young Albéniz asserted his independence and left for New York. Having spent all his money, he supported himself there as a porter and by playing in dockside bars. One of his money-making tricks was to turn his back to the piano and to play with the backs of his fingers. After a stay in San Francisco, he returned to Europe in 1873, going first to Liverpool and London and then to Leipzig, where he studied with Jadassohn and Reinecke.

In 1877 he returned to Spain and was able to obtain financial aid from Count Guillermo Morphy, private secretary to King Alfonso XII, to continue his studies at the Brussels Conservatory. His teachers there were Gevaert for composition and Brassin for piano. After a leave from the Conservatory for a trip to Cuba and the United States, he returned to Belgium and, in 1879, won first prize for piano at the Conservatory. In 1880 he met and auditioned for Franz Liszt, who accepted him as a student. After following Liszt to Weimar and Rome and travelling once more to South America, he settled in Barcelona in 1883. In the same year he married one of his students, Rosina Jordana, and came under the influence of Felipe Pedrell, a musicologist, composer, and folklorist, who encouraged him to compose in a nationalistic idiom.

Albéniz's adult career as a virtuoso pianist lasted a little more than a decade, and from about 1890 he devoted himself almost exclusively to composition. After studying with Dukas and d'Indy in Paris for a time, he lived in London from 1890 to 1893. There, in 1891, he met Francis Burdett Money-Coutts (Lord Latymer), a London banker whose avocation was writing poetic dramas. He offered to pay Albéniz handsomely if he would agree to set his dramas to music. Enticed by the generous remuneration, Albéniz agreed. Because Money-Coutts' librettos were weak and their subject matter held no particular appeal for Albéniz, the collaboration resulted in several mediocre operas (Merlin, part of Lancelot, Henry Clifford), the only exception being Pepita Jiménez, adapted by Money-Coutts from a novel by Juan Valera.

In 1893 Albéniz moved to Paris. He became part of its active musical life and was appointed an assistant teacher of piano at the Schola Cantorum. Frequent and stimulating contact with musicians such as Vincent d'Indy, Gabrielle Fauré, Claude Debussy, Ernest Chausson, and Charles Bordes forced him to reevaluate his accomplishments as a composer and to strive for greater mastery. The same year saw the first performance of Albéniz's opera The Magic Opal (libretto by Arthur Law) in London, followed by the premieres of Henry Clifford and Pepita Jiménezin 1895 and 1896, respectively, in Barcelona. In 1900 he moved back to Barcelona, returned to Paris in 1902, and settled in Nice in 1903.

During his last years, plagued by mental depression and severe physical illness (he was a victim of Bright's disease), he wrote his most celebrated work, the piano suite Iberia, published in four books from 1906 to 1909. Each of the four books was given its first performance by the French pianist Blanche Selva successively in 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1909. On May 18, 1909, Albéniz died in Cambô-les-Bains, in the French Pyrenees. He left two unfinished piano works, Navarra (completed by Déodat de Sévérac) and Anzulejos (completed by Enrique Granados). The French government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Legion d'honneur posthumously.

Although Albéniz composed some interesting orchestral works (Catalonia, Rapsodia española, and a piano concerto) and two good works for the stage Pepita Jiménez and the operetta San Antonio de la Flórida), he is known primarily as a composer for the piano. His contact with Felipe Pedrell influenced him to become a serious and ambitious composer and encouraged him to draw on Spanish folk material as a basis for his works. Albéniz turned to the folk music of Andalusia. He was captivated by its landscape, its people, and its folklore. He believed that he had Moorish blood in him, and he often stated that the one place where he felt most comfortable was the Alhambra in Granada. In his compositions Albéniz distills the essence and flavor of the haunting melodies, the strumming of the guitar, the exuberant rhythms, and the clicking of castanets, and presents them in a stylized, idealized artistic form. This approach is evident in a number of his popular compositions written before 1900: the Seguidillas, Granada, Sevilla, Córdoba, and the Tango in D Major.

His masterpiece, the piano suite Iberia, is a remarkable musical portrait of Spain. Although based on Andalusian folk material, it manages to capture the sights, sounds, colors—the soul—of all Spain. Fiendishly difficult technically, it challenges even the most gifted pianists. After reading the manuscript of the first book, the pianist Blanche Selva declared the piece unplayable. However, she eventually mastered it and went on to premiere the entire work. Musically the work is characterized by a variety of stylized Spanish dance rhythms, bold and piquant harmonies, unexpected modulations, rich textures, and occasional passages in which the piano imitates the guitar or castanets.

Debussy's reaction to the last piece in the fourth and final book, Eritaña, is a worthy summary of the entire work: "Never before has music captured so many varied impressions, all of different colors. Our eyes eventually close, dazzled with having seen so many images."


Further Reading on Issac Albéniz

The following books have sections on Albéniz: Gilbert Chase, The Music of Spain (1941, 1959); Ann Livermore, A Short History of Spanish Music (1972); Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists (1963) and The Lives of the Great Composers (1970); and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968).