Isaac Albéniz

(d. 18 May 1909)

Isaac Albéniz was a Spanish composer, conductor and pianist, best known for his stage works and his piano compositions. Albéniz was a highly influential and prolific composer and his work has had a huge impact on Spanish music. In honour of the composer, the Fundación Isaac Albéniz was founded in 1987 in order to promote Spanish music and musicians and to provide research facilities for Albéniz and Spanish music in general. He is without doubt one of Spain’s most important and inspiring composers.

Albéniz was born in Camprodón, Gerona in 1860. One year later he and his family moved to Barcelona and even at this early stage, his musical talents were becoming apparent. His sister, Clementina began giving him piano lessons and by the age of four he was already considered a child prodigy. Albéniz gave his first public performance at the age of five, at the Teatro Romea, Barcelona. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Paris to be considered for entry to the Paris Conservatoire, however he was rejected as a result of being too young. Albéniz and his family moved back to Spain where he and Clementina spent the majority of their childhoods performing at recitals around the country to earn money for the family following their father’s loss of his government post in 1868. Albéniz’s studies and education were constantly disrupted as a result of the time he spent travelling to and preparing for these recitals. However, the family soon moved to Madrid and Albéniz enrolled in the Escuela Nacional de Música y Declamación.

It was not until 1975 that Albéniz finally settled down into his studies after years of living as a travelling pianist. He spent a short time at the Leipzig Conservatoire during 1876 before receiving a stipend to study at the Brussels Conservatory. During his time at the Conservatory, he studied piano with Franz Rummel and Louis Brassin and was awarded a first prize. In 1880, Albéniz returned to Madrid where he continued to pursue his career as a pianist and he also began to conduct. In 1883, he moved to Barcelona and studied composition with Felipe Pedrell (with whom Manuel de Falla would also study, in the early 1900s) while also teaching piano. That same year, he married Rosa Jordana and within two years they had moved to Madrid, where the Albéniz began to establish his career in performing and teaching.

By 1886, Albéniz had written over fifty works, mostly for piano. In 1887, he performed a concert of his own music in the Salon Romera. It can be said that this marked the beginning of his career as a composer. Many of the compositions that he had written up until then were largely influenced by the Spanish style, often in the form of études and dances. It is also believed that Pedrell had been a significant inspiration for Albéniz’ work during this period and for some time later. By 1889, a lot of Albéniz’ music was published throughout Spain which gained him a good reputation as a composer. Shortly afterwards, he made several successful visits to London and developed a great interest in the city. In 1890, he and his family, which now included three children, Alfonso, Enriqueta and Laura, moved to London on a contract agreement with manager, Henry Lowenfeld.

During his time in London, Albéniz was involved in many theatrical productions. In early 1993, he composed the music for a comic opera, The Magic Opal which was premiered at the Lyric Theatre. It was very well received and Albéniz continued to conduct a slightly revised version of the production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in the same year. He also acted as musical director for Poor Jonathan during the end of 1993. After its production, he moved to Paris due to ill-health.

While in London, the composer had attracted the attention of wealthy patron and investor, Francis Burdett Money-Coutts. By 1894, Money-Coutts had become Albéniz’ sole patron. During the same year, he began composing the music for an opera with a libretto written by Money-Coutts himself based on the Wars of the Roses. He also spent a brief period of time in Madrid, however after receiving negative responses to San Antonio and his Spanish version of The Magic Opal he returned to Paris, where he became a valued member of the French community. He also formed strong ties with Ernest Chausson, Charles Bordes and Paul Dukas.

On 8 May 1895, he conducted the premiere of Henry Clifford at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona. The opera received a very positive reception from the critics. On 5 January 1896, his one-act opera, Pepita Jiménez also premiered at the Gran Teatro, however it was not as successful. Albéniz later expanded the opera to two acts which received more positive reviews.

During the final years of the 1800s, Albéniz spent the majority of his time writing stage works. His works were still very much inspired by his native county and the Spanish style is evident in his music. His works were mainly written for piano and orchestra and he regularly gave concerts and recitals to promote his own work as well as the work of his fellow composers.

Unfortunately, his attempts to stage and perform his work were often rejected by many of the musical establishments in Spain and there was a general lack of interest in his music from the public. As a consequence, his international reputation as a composer was at risk and he decided to return to France 1902, settling in Nice. During this time, he worked on several stage works, piano compositions and revisions, including his expanded version of Pepita.

From 1905 to 1908, Albéniz composed what is considered his greatest masterpiece, Iberia. This work comprises a collection of twelve ‘impressions’ in four books. This piano suite emulates the composer’s typical style in that the music represents his native country of Spain. The first two books imply a great emphasis of colour, while the others focus on texture and complexity. The work is regarded as a piece of extreme technical difficulty and is taxing for even the most virtuosic pianists to execute. The suite is typical to that of the Impressionist style, and was greatly admired by many great composers of the era, including Claude Debussy.

Shortly after the completion of Iberia, Albéniz fell ill. For years prior, he had suffered with Bright’s disease and he died in 1909 from kidney disease at the age of forty-eight. Only weeks before his death, he was awarded the prestigious ‘Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur’ from the French government. Although Albéniz was sometimes rejected by Spanish critics and the public throughout his career, his impact on Spanish music was astonishing. Not only did the composer contribute to the rebirth of Spanish nationalism but he helped circulate Spanish music around the world and is partially responsible for its global recognition. Today, his works are studied and performed by scholars and performers worldwide and he is without doubt one of the most important and influential composers in the history of Spanish music.

Left: Albéniz with his daughter Laura, courtesy of Fundación Albéniz

I want the Arabic Granada, that which is art, which is all that seems to me beauty and emotion.

Manuel de Falla

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