Magazine article Musical Times

Spanish Steps

Magazine article Musical Times

Spanish Steps

Article excerpt

Manuel de Falla and modernism in Spain, 1898-1936 Carol A. Hess University of Chicago Press (Chicago & London, 2002); xiii, 347pp; 31.50, $50. ISBN 0 226 33038 9.

In the present Blairite age of cultural thinness, it's all too easy to feel depressed at the comparative indifference shown towards serious music and the arts, and deplore their lack of purchase on our national life. Imagine such contemporary figures as Birtwistle, Benjamin and Ades being conscripted into the search for a redefinition of Englishness in the face of the threatened breakup of the UK and further integration into Europe...

By contrast, Carol A.Hess's excellent study Manuel de Falla and modernism in Spain, 1898-1936 reveals the composer in the context of the `Generation of '98'. Appalled by their country's shattering defeat by the USA in the Cuban War, these passionate intellectuals proceeded to conduct intense self-examinations on questions of national identity and foreign influences. Musical controversy at first reigned over the merits of the indigenous zarzuela - its conventionalised nationalism (espanolismo) appealing to isolationists as opposed to the more Eurocentric cult of Wagner which gripped cosmopolitan Barcelona. (It's fascinating to learn that in the theatrical ethos of Spanish Catholicism, Wagner's dramatisation of the Eucharist in Parsifal seemed entirely natural; indeed, the Holy Grail was believed to have been discovered in the monastery of Montserrat.) Not the least of the book's interest is the frequently cited contributions of the two leading Spanish philosophers, Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, which set a high level of argument. Whereas the former, who condemned the vacuousness of zarzuela and its shallow mass appeal, called for broader European perspectives, the latter upheld the spirit of Spanish mysticism as against the soulless progress of European science.

As is well known, Falla - who in his youth had made some unsuccessful attempts at zarzuela - found his own creative salvation in Paris in the company of Debussy and Dukas. With an agenda of his own, uniting the Latin cultures of Spain and France, he defended European music's `racial borders' from the hegemony of the German tradition, and joined Unamuno in condemning the rationalistic legacy of Protestantism with its lack of 'sensory grounding'. During the Great War, El amor bru,jo - a hybrid score in its mixture of gypsy music and more symphonic style writing effectively challenged the zarzuelas andaluscismo; in the eyes of his numerous detractors, however, the modern French school had now replaced Wagnerism as the musical threat to the Spanish sense of 'race'.

At this point, the first appearance in Spain of Igor Stravinsky, followed by further visits during the 1920s, brought a further dimension of these arguments into sharp focus - the affinities between Spain and Russia, previously exploited by Glinka. Indeed, Falla's teacher, the folklorist Pedrell had written of `Spain's deep roots in ancient Byzantine civilisation'. Responsive to the climate of religious fervour (heightened by the experience of Toledo and the Escorial), Stravinsky also had a high opinion of Falla, who in turn saw the Russian as a model for Spanish composers in his logic, balance and perfectionism. Stravinsky's own self-serving propaganda in various magazine articles projected a new refined and cosmopolitan image of the country of his birth - rating Tschaikovsky above `The mighty handful' - in order to unite Spain and Russia against the `School of Berlin', but in an essentially non-folkloric aesthetic. …

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