Rodrigo: Fantasía para un gentilhombre

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Joaquín Rodrigo
B. Nov. 22, 1901, Sagunto, Spain
D. July 6, 1999, Madrid, Spain

Joaquín Rodrigo was born into a prosperous but not particularly musical family in the Spanish town of Sagunto. When he was three, his sight was severely damaged by diphtheria; a year later he underwent an operation that left him entirely blind. From this point, he took solace in music, first merely as a listener, then as a self-taught pianist. His parents, aware of his budding talent, found real teachers for him, among them Eduardo López Chavarri, who instilled in Rodrigo a love of Spanish folk music, as well as giving him the rudiments of harmony and composition.

Rodrigo enjoyed some success as a composer before he went to Paris in 1927: three years earlier, his Juglares for orchestra was performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Valencia. It was his period of study in France, however, that both refined his technique and made him a genuinely Spanish composer. As Virgil Thomson observed in relation to his studies in Paris, a composer often has to be removed from his own country to write genuinely “national” music.

Rodrigo returned to Spain in 1933, taking with him as his wife the Turkish pianist Victoria Kamhi, whom he had met in Paris. He was appointed to a professorship at the College for the Blind in Madrid in 1934. That same year, he won a fellowship that enabled him to return to Paris for two more years of study: musicology with Maurice Emmanuel and music history with André Pirro.

Unable to return home during the Spanish Civil War, Rodrigo spent the years 1936-38 wandering through France, Germany and Austria. In exile, he completed the work that would seal his fame as the successor to Falla as the chief representative of Spanish music: the Concierto de Aranjuez. The first performance of the Concierto took place in Barcelona in 1940, and it was recognized at once as a path-breaking work. “Since the performance of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain there has not been such an important musical event as this” wrote Victor Albéniz. “This date makes history.”

The U.S. premiere of the piece, curiously, had to wait until 1959, when Rey de la Torre performed it with the Cleveland Orchestra. Meanwhile, Rodrigo had written another piece for guitar and orchestra, the Fantasía para un gentilhombre, which achieved nearly the same acclaim. Both works are now fixed in the international repertoire, but try as he might, Rodrigo could never equal their success with any of his other works, though he tried the same formula again and again. He remains, Tomás Marco suggests in The New Grove Dictionary of Music, “the supreme representative of a particular phase in Spanish music.”

The “gentleman” in the title of the Fantasía is Andrés Segovia, who began the revival of the guitar as a serious instrument. For inspiration, Rodrigo went to a book of popular songs and dances by the seventeenth-century Spanish guitarist Gaspar Sanz. Sanz’s instruction book for the guitar, first published in 1674, went quickly through eight editions. Taking some tunes from the 1674 song book, Rodrigo arranged them along the neoclassical lines Stravinsky followed in Pulcinella.

The first movement incorporates two of the favorite forms of the period: the villano, a song set over a repeated bass, and the fugue-like ricercare, which Rodrigo works out at some length. The next movement shows two sides of the guitar: its ability to sing in the “Españoleta” and its percussive qualities in the “Fanfare for the Naples Cavalry.” A note of explanation: Spain ruled Naples for many years, so the musical exchange between the two is natural. The “Hatchet Dance” pays tribute to a peasant tradition, as does the “Canario,” a quick triple-time dance from the Canary Islands, based on the same ground bass as the opening Villano.

The DSO last performed Fantasía para un gentilhombre in March 1996.

DSO Shop @ the Max Recomends:
Rodrigo, Fantasía para un gentilhombre: Sharon Isbin, guitar, Lawrence Foster conducting, Virgin Classics 62075.

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