Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Hidden Voice of Federico Mompou

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Hidden Voice of Federico Mompou

Article excerpt

A modern Catalan composer whose work deserves to be better known

Federico Mompou i Dencausse (1893-1987) is an emblematic figure of Catalan music. He was not, as some have claimed, a somewhat precious miniaturist or a poor man's Debussy, but one of the most unusual and important Spanish composers of his time. His work consists largely of short pieces for piano and voice, but he also wrote for guitar, French horn, organ and chamber orchestra. Mompou's music, often melancholy in tone, and tinged with a poetry that is at once concise and visionary, reaches the deepest, most secret recesses of the listener's sensibility.

"The mystery of Mompou eludes us as soon as we try to label it or fit it into reflexive categories," wrote the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch. "But we can perceive that secret and inimitable voice, which is the very voice of silence: we hear that voice with the ear of the soul when 'loneliness becomes music'."(1) In the four volumes of his restrained and unadorned musical testament, Musica Callada (Music that Falls Silent, 1959-67), which was inspired by the great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, Mompou achieves maximum expression with a minimum of means. The music in it is silent, he said, because "it is heard internally. Its emotion is secret, and becomes sound only by reverberating in the coldness of our solitude."

Mompou, the contemporary of another great Catalan artist, Joan Miro, whose enthusiasm and freshness of inspiration were similar to his own, was horn in Barcelona on 16 April 1893, to a mother of French descent and a Catalan father. He was fascinated during his childhood - the memory was to haunt him all his life - by the sound of the bells in his grandfather's foundry. He studied the piano at the Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona and attended concerts by the greatest pianists of the time. He himself gave a recital at the age of fifteen which included works by Mozart, Schubert, Grieg and Mendelssohn.

His debut as a pianist suggested he was destined for a brilliant career. But Faure's music, which he first heard in 1909, came as a revelation to him and made him decide to become a composer. In 1911, armed with a letter of introduction from the composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916), he settled in Paris and entered the Conservatoire, where he studied piano and harmony. He then devised his own harmonic system, which, with its unexpected chords, was Impressionistic in atmosphere but governed by a totally original logic. His motto became "recomencar", which means returning to the spirit of the "primitives" in musical composition. He rejected modulation, the bar line and counterpoint and was fond of "imponderable tones" (Vladimir Jankelevitch).

Between 1913 and 1921 Mompou wrote some of his most accomplished works for piano, including Pessebres (Cribs), Escenes d'Infants (Children's Scenes) and Suburbis (Suburbs), which sought to express "the sound of an atmosphere, the gossamer lightness of a feeling, the parenthesis of a quaint episode," in the words of the Catalan musicologist, Lluis Millet. While in Paris, then a hive of musical creativity, Mompou met the composers Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, among others, and became friends with several of his compatriots, such as the sculptor Apelles Fenosa and the painters Miquel Renom and Celso Lagar. …

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