Magazine article Musical Times

Tempered by Excess

Magazine article Musical Times

Tempered by Excess

Article excerpt

Tempered by excess


Isaac Albeniz: portrait of a romantic

Walter Aaron Clark

Oxford UP (Oxford, 1999); xv, 321pp; 45.

ISBN 0 19 816369 X.

The vagabond life of Isaac Albeniz has attracted numerous biographers, mainly Spanish and French. Hitherto these have been content merely to feed off each other, recycling a narrative of confusions and deceptions arising from this picturesque pianist-composer's own false trails and dishonest self-promotion. Confronted with such an intertextual nightmare, the American Hispanist scholar Walter Aaron Clark presents a root and branch enquiry, bypassing the tainted secondary sources in favour of a wide range of basic documentary source material in order to separate truth from fiction, and to establish as far as possible a reliable chronology of events. Contemporary newspaper reviews and shipping timetables help to dispel some myths about his early voyages to the Americas; more importantly he was almost certainly not a pupil of Liszt as he claimed in his travel diary, as it is known that the itinerant Abbe was out of Budapest in August 1880, the month of young Isaac's own visit to the Hungarian capital.

On the other hand, Aaron also reveals that behind Albeniz's undisciplined, selfindulgent lifestyle and his whirlwind existence of concert-giving throughout Europe, there lay a serious and entirely honest sense of purpose. A permanent student not content to rest on his brilliant pianistic gifts and the production of virtuoso salon trifles, he took every opportunity to improve his knowledge of compositional techniques far beyond what his native Spain could then offer, enrolling at various times at the conservatoires of Leipzig and Brussels, and in the 1890s, the Schola Cantorum in Paris under d'Indy He immediately became a popular figure in great demand on the Parisian musical scene, on friendly terms with the members of the post-Franckian school as well as the avant-gardistes Debussy and Ravel. Indeed, a wag remarked that `Albeniz lives in Paris and in London because there he can eat and sleep. He is not a bullfighter, and therefore he cannot live well in Spain.'

The most interesting part of the book I found to be the relationship between Albeniz and Francis Money-Coutts, the wealthy heir to the great banking family. Here Clark shows himself free of any artistic prejudice against wealth in

his correct reassessment of this much maligned character, whose ambitions lay entirely in the field of literature.

The two parties did indeed initially bind themselves to a strict business contract, with Coutts supplying Albeniz with a large income in return for setting his poetry and opera librettos. In reality this contract was interpreted in the most liberal spirit, Coutts being a highly cultivated product of the English establishment, educated at Eton and Cambridge. Far from fettering the composer, it happily turned out to be a benign act of patronage, even the basis of a genuine friendship and much needed mutual support between the two personally insecure men, both in difficult marital circumstances. Albeniz remained free to live where he wanted, to continue his composition studies, and even to take on other projects; this last was indeed most fortunate since Coutts himself proved to be little more than a poetaster, judging from cited passages from his opera librettos. …

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