About Spanish Chamber Music

What makes Spanish music Spanish? To paraphrase Virgil Thomson, any music written by a Spaniard deserves the designation. And to be sure, the twentieth century saw experimentation in Spain with virtually every international musical trend, from serialism to electronics. Nor was this the first time that Spanish composers prided themselves in transcending or at least eschewing obvious references to their nationality: throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the mania for Italian musical tastes on the Iberian peninsula dictated a decidedly foreign aesthetic as did Catalonia’s slightly later Wagner-craze. Still, Spanish classical music seems to reach its apogee when wed to nationalistic expression. One need only recall the achievements of Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla - all disciples of the ethnomusicologist Felipe Pedrell - to affirm the validity of Spanish folk idioms as a boundless source of musical inspiration. Indeed, the increasing willingness of many gifted Spanish composers in the late nineteenth century to turn to indigenous resources revitalized a moribund musical culture.
These resources have varied from composer to composer. For some, the direct quoting or imitation of folk music opened promising artistic vistas. For others, the evocation of uniquely Spanish historical, geographic, or cultural phenomena provided crucial stimulus. The possibilities are virtually endless and by no means mutually exclusive.
Colorful orchestral scores, native-language vocal settings, guitar solos, and piano works come to mind in conjunction with Spanish art music of the last one hundred or so years. Music for traditional chamber groupings - string quartets, piano trios, etc. - does not seem to have flourished in the outputs of major Spanish composers. Why this apparent lacuna? To some extent, the matter can be attributed to a paucity of performances rather than actual compositions: important contributions to the genre by the likes of Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina, Eduard Toldrà, and Roberto Gerhard too rarely figure in the repertories of international chamber groups.
Nevertheless, there remains some legitimacy to the perception. One explanation derives from the unique achievements of the Viennese and German classicists: the chamber works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms set not only incomparable standards, but also indelibly associated the music with a diametrically opposing musical axis. Still, the string quartets of the Madrid-based Boccherini or the Basque Arriaga speak at least to the possibility of reconciling diverse musical traditions. Other causes must be sought.
Since the mid-nineteenth century many Spanish composers and musicologists had been preoccupied with the socially redemptive potential of musical education, leading to the formation of working-class choral societies and municipal bands. Many composers who wished to appeal to the growing Spanish industrial society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw greater potential in large-scale symphonic and vocal productions than in more intimate chamber works. Writing in the Revista Musical in 1911, Spanish composer Julio Gómez articulated the position with unequivocal resolve: “Let us seek out the people to make great and lasting art... let us not struggle against the passionate, vehement multitudes with weak string instruments; let us oppose mass with mass, since the association characterizes society in the twentieth century. May great societies for instrumental and vocal music be formed; may symphonies, symphonic poems, and oratorios be composed, for these are the genres that will excite the democratic public of our times.”
Fortunately, in some circles other views prevailed during the explosion of Spanish musical culture which characterized the first decades of the twentieth century. In a paper delivered at the 1985 Congreso Internacional: “España en la música de occidente” in Salamanca, Jacinto Torres of the Escuela Superior de Canto of Madrid listed some 102 chamber groups active in Spain between 1900 and 1939, as well as numerous societies devoted to the promotion of this intimate art. In more recent decades many Spanish composers have embraced the genre, composing for traditional instrumentations as well as unconventional combinations. The devotion of such groups as the Trío Mompou de Madrid and the Trío de Barcelona to commissioning and performing new chamber works has provided further stimulus.
If ferreting out Spanish piano trios has proved challenging, the effort has yielded rich dividends. The Damocles Trio takes great pleasure in introducing these little-known chamber works to audiences.
©Adam Kent

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updated: 8/11/2011