All about Manuel de Falla

All about Manuel de Falla

Breaking away from folkloric conformism – like Bartók or Enesco in their respective countries – Manuel de Falla followed a modern path to give all Spanish music, in all of its different cultural regional components, a universal dimension. By rising up to the most demanding level of artistic creation, this heritage, which in our era makes up part of the much-appreciated “world music” scene, appeared as a true precursor at the beginning of the 20th century.

Technically speaking his music remains devoted to tone, modality, melody and rhythm, but his various popular sources are rarely present as literal quotations. He proclaimed, “I am opposed to music based on genuine folkloric documents; on the contrary, I believe that one must start with natural living sources and use sounds and rhythm for their substance, not for their external appearance.”

During his stay in France he met the leading Parisian composers Debussy, Dukas and Ravel, who influenced him aesthetically and supported him from the start. Debussy advised Falla on his lyrical piece La Vida Breve [Life is Short], a drama centred on jealousy, written in a hybrid style combining popular Spanish thematic recollections and the gypsy cante jondo [deep song], with theatrical expression close to that of Italian verismo. Two Spanish Dances taken from La Vida Breve found fame (separately) in symphony concerts: Spanish Dance No. 1 is the composer’s most widely played orchestral piece; Spanish Dance No. 2, with a choir, is less well-known but even more spectacular – it has a dramatic operatic plot, a marriage, characterised by the onomatopoeic vocal exclamations and sleek orchestration.

The Siete Canciones populares españolas [Seven Spanish Folk Songs] for voice and piano reveal, according to Roland-Manuel, “…less the faithful echo of the popular voice than the sophisticated product of an exquisite alchemy.” Ernesto Halffter, Falla’s favourite pupil, conceived three arrangements from them for voice and orchestra, for orchestra and for piano respectively. These songs were also adapted (in part) under the title of Suite populaire espagnole [Spanish Folk Suite] for violin and piano by Paweł Kochánski, and for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal.

Noches en los jardines en España [Nights in Spanish Gardens], for piano and orchestra, avoids the traditional concertante between soloist and orchestra. In this “symphonic impression”, united with the colours of the orchestra, the piano engages in the evocation of “places, sensations and feelings”, according to the composer. He also recalled that the “theme of this work is based… on the rhythm, modality, cadence and ornamental figures that characterise Andalusian folk songs which, nevertheless, are almost never in their authentic form, and the instrumental work itself often stylises certain effects belonging to folk instruments.”

The Concerto for harpsichord and five instruments is the most abstract of his pieces. The conciseness of the motifs and reduced formal proportions of the piece predominate, alongside its asceticism of expression. Avoiding the fusion of timbres preserves the independence of the instrumental, primitive and harsh colouring. Fragments of a 15th century villancico [folk song], with a liturgical intonation, flood the first movement in a modal and polytonal harmony; monotheism unifies the second movement, while the last sometimes allows Scarlattian touches to emerge.

Gérald Hugon (Feb 2017)

Falla La Vida Breve Tableau 1

Falla La Vida Breve - Spanish Dance n1

Nuits dans les jardins d'Espagne (piano and chamber orchestra)