Joaquín Rodrigo

Joaquín Rodrigo is one of the most celebrated composers from Spain. His works reflect a proudly self-declared neoclassical style notable for its strong commitment to melody and heavy allusion to his Spanish roots. Many of his them have becomes staples of classical repertoire around the world, particularly for the guitar and piano, the instruments with which he was most comfortable.  

Early on, Rodrigo’s life was marked by tragedy. At the age of three a diphtheria epidemic rampaged through his native city of Sagunto, and although Rodrigo survived he was left blind. Rodrigo’s family, including his ten older brothers and sisters, moved to the town of Valencia the next year, allowing him to enter a college for blind children. He quickly began to show an interest and music and literature, two areas that he could enjoy aesthetically even without his sight. He began his musical studies with Francisco Antich, of the Valencia Conservatoire, although he never enrolled there as a student. Throughout his early years Rodrigo was fortunate to have the constant assistance and friendship of Rafael Ibáñez, whom his family initially hired to look after him. Ibáñez would become a powerful force in Rodrigo’s life, reading him the great works of Spanish literature, poetry and philosophy, and eventually helping dictate his work and write the scores.

By 1923 Rodrigo was an accomplished concert pianist and was devoting more and more time to his composing. That year he completed his opus 1, Two Sketches for violin and piano, as well as several other chamber works and began writing his first piece for large orchestra, Juglares, which was premiered by the Valencia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Enrique Izquierdo. Soon after, Rodrigo moved to Paris, having a strong desire to be in one of the epicenters of the arts where many of his heroes, including Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, and Maurice Ravel, had gone before. He studied for five years under the tutelage of the great composer and educator Paul Dukas, who described Rodrigo as being one of his most promising students. It was during this time that he met the Turkish pianist Victoria Kamhi. The two married in 1933 and remained constant companions until her death almost 70 years later.

Inspiration is the result of effort, but sometimes it comes suddenly in a flash......one has to look for it and pursue it tenaciously.

The 1930s were a troubled time for the newlyweds with the Spanish Civil War forcing them to spend their time traveling between France and Germany, scraping together a living through teaching music at the Institute for the Blind in Freiburg. In 1939 Rodrigo was finally able to return to his native Spain, and it was at this time that he wrote what is undeniably his most famous work, Concierto de Aranjuez. The piece, Rodrigo’s first concerto, was written for guitar and orchestra and premiered in Barcelona in 1940. Aranjuez was the defining moment of Rodrigo’s career, and although it rocketed him to stardom and gave him much more freedom and resources to compose, it also overshadowed all of his previous and subsequent work. The piece has been a favorite of jazz musicians to cover, including Miles Davis’ famous version of the second movement on the album Sketches of Spain and Chick Corea’s use of the same movement as the intro to perhaps his most famous work, “Spain.”

The success following Concierto de Aranjuez was exponential, starting with many additional commissions, an invitation to serve as a musical adviser for Spain’s national radio, and the opportunity to travel around the world as a pianist and lecturer, which allowed him to visit Europe, Central America, the United States, Israel, and Japan. In 1947, the Manuel de Falla Chair of Music position was created especially for him at the University of Madrid, where Rodrigo taught music history and composition for the next 30 years.

Rodrigo’s focus remained on composing for guitar for many decades, perhaps due to the immense success garnered by Aranjuez. In 1954 he wrote his second guitar concerto, Fantasía para un gentilhombre, which was written at the behest of Spanish classical guitar legend Andrés Segovia and also received worldwide renown. In the 1960s Rodrigo’s writing for guitar began to broaden from the conventional concerto, with this period seeing works such as Invocación y danza (1961) for solo guitar and Concierto madrigal (1966) for two guitars and Concierto Andaluz (1967), for four guitars and orchestra.

Although Rodrigo is most famous for his guitar works, he was also a very prolific composer of a variety of other fronts, and his catalogue of over 170 pieces include works for ballet (Pavana real, 1955), opera (La azuzena de Quito, 1965), theatre and cinema in addition to his 11 concertos and compositions for orchestra and choir. Many of Rodrigo’s other concertos would become quite famous in their own right, including Concierto heróico (1942) for piano and orchestra and Sones en la Giralda (1963) for harp and orchestra. Like the rest of his work, these later pieces also show an emphasis on singable melodies over traditional orchestral textures, but with an undeniable and uniquely Spanish flair.  

Rodrigo has received countless medals and awards for his unparalleled contributions to Spanish music, including six honorary doctorates from various universities. In 1991, King Juan Carlos I of Spain celebrated Rodrigo’s 90th birthday by raising him to the nobility and giving him the hereditary title “Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez.” Five years later he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for the Arts, Spain’s highest honor in the field. The French government also heavily honored him, naming him Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1960 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 1998. Rodrigo remained a national hero up until and long after his death in 1999, at the age of 97. His music not only revolutionized the repertoire for guitar, it contributed to the distinctive identity of the Spanish sound within classical music as much as any other composer.

Header image: Joaquin Rodrigo by Peter Andersen
Small image: a view of Aranjuez Royal Palace near Madrid

Music fulfills an important educational function because, above all, it cultivates the spirit.

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