e-PAIVirtuosity and Performance Mastery issue, 2003/04

"Individuality and Regional Characteristics in Spanish Performing Practice from 1860"

Copyright © Raenelda MacKie, 2003

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

Raenelda Mackie

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.

This paper is concerned with aspects of virtuosity, in particular the qualities of individualism and regionalism observable in the recorded performances of the Spanish virtuoso pianists of the late 19th and early 20th century. I have recently recorded the works to be discussed, as an artefact to be submitted as part of my research for PhD in Music at Middlesex University.

Click here to hear Raenelda Mackie playing Enrique Granados' Danza Espanola no.5 (MP3 format).

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The eminent Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett said that 'every Spanish artist begins from chaos as if none before him had ever been'(1). A little knowledge of Spanish life reveals the truth of the remark, especially when it is applied to artists of the 19th century who, looking back, recognized a gap of 300 years between themselves and the great Spanish virtuoso musicians of the 16th century.

The two composers to be discussed in the context of virtuosity are Enrique Granados (1867-1916) and Federico Mompou (1893-1987). At first it appears that the intimate and poetic nature of their compositions is the antithesis of the title of this symposium Virtuosity and Performance Mastery. Granados' music is (according to the New York Times) 'passionate…sometimes stirring in its characteristic rhythms and frank melody, sometime langourous, poetical, profoundly pathetic. This music has a haunting power'.(2)

CD cover notesMompou's pianism is a distillation of emotion and his motto which expresses the philosophy of his composition is: 'El maximo de expresión con el minimo de medios'. (Maximum expression with the minimum of means).

How then can these qualities be considered as elements of virtuosity, which is normally concerned with physical mastery and dazzling dexterity? CPE Bach writes about physical mastery in his great treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. We also read about technical brilliance in accounts of the keyboard duel between Handel and Scarlatti. In the musical contest between Mozart and Clementi finger dexterity is demonstrated to the highest degree by both contestants but her a new element is introduced. Mozart describes Clementi as 'rapid and vapid…a mere mechanicus',(3)implying that dexterity on its own is not enough. It must be directed towards a particular musical aim. Brahms reinforces this precept in his lessons to Florence May, describing physical skill as a prerequisite but not an end in itself.(4) Liszt whose technique was transcendental and who set the standard for all pianists to come, describes virtuosity in the following way, saying nothing at all about the ability to dazzle with technical brilliance. 'The virtuoso is not …a passive tool reproducing feeling and thought and adding nothing of himself. He is not the…experienced reader of works which have no margins for his notes….He is called upon to make the emotions speak and weep and sing…to bring it to life in his consciousness. He creates as the composer himself created…for he must live the passions…in all their brilliance'(5)

Raenelda MackieIn the light of these definitions it is clear that virtuosity is not simply dazzling physical mastery but includes the expression of particular musical ideas and characteristics brought to life in the moment of performance by the musician's own 'musical enculturation'. (6)

The particular characteristics of the Spanish virtuoso pianists are individuality and regionalism. I will explain how this came about.

In his award-winning book, The Spaniards (1986) John Hooper explains the long silence of Spain's composers from 1598, after the death of Philip II, until 1845 when increased industrial wealth in Catalonia allowed the gap between talent and resources to be narrowed. He says:

For centuries now, music has been the Cinderella of the Spanish Arts. In the 16th century the quality of the music composed in Spain was comparable with nearly any other European nation. [Morales, Guerrero, Victoria and Cabezon wrote for the Organ, Narvaez and Mudarra for the Vihuela] But the Counter-Reformation isolated Spain from the Protestant North of Europe, just as Germany was taking over from Italy as the leading musical influence in Europe. The works of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart reached Spain as but faint echoes. [It was not until 1866 that the first Beethoven symphony was performed in Spain; this was the symphony in A]. In the last century [19th] century Spain was again opened up to foreign influence through the achievements of first, Albeniz,then Granados, and finally Falla. [I include here Federico Mompou]. It was beginning to recover its reputation when the Civil War broke out and it was once again shut off from the rest of the continent.(7)

Raenelda MackieThis position of national isolation was compounded by regional isolationism, which is the result of political, psychological and geographical factors. National unity is not demonstrably a natural Spanish condition but an 'extraneous concept imposed by the political and cultural hegemony of Castille, and arduously enforced by the monarchist policy of centralism'.(8) Also the Spanish character is individualistic, the focus of this individualism being on the region of his birth and the culture attached to this area. Lastly, natural physical barriers divide the country into well-defined sectors, which had the quality of water-tight compartments with each region acting in terms of its own particular interests and inclinations.

Another reason for Spain's backwardness in the area of music composition and performance has been lack of funds. Unlike the 16th century composers, few 19th and 20th century composers wrote devotional works, which effected them deeply as the Church had always been a appreciative and stable patron. The Spanish Monarchy and aristocracy traditionally have been reluctant to patronize music and in this respect, Franco was a typically Spanish ruler.

It was in this atmosphere of isolation that composers and performers developed a feeling of individuality and pride of the music of their pueblo, resulting in the development of regional distinctions and tastes.

Music performances demonstrating individual and regional characteristics:

1) Enrique Granados playing Spanish Dance no 5 ( Style- cante jondo).

2) Federico Mompou playing Chopin Prelude no. 7 opus 28 (Variations on a Theme of Chopin).

Enrique Granados' particular characteristic is rhythmic individuality influenced greatly by the songs and dances he heard around him and the teaching of the Catalan Maestro Felipe Perdrell. My source for this performance style is the piano-roll recording he made at the beginning of the 20th century. In this example we hear Granados (a Catalan) interpreting music of southern Spain - cante jondo or flamenco.

Example 1

Granados plays Spanish Dance no 5 (Andaluza)

Raenelda MackieThe rhythms of Southern Spain are driving, regular and insistent without the use of tempo rubato tempo commonly used in Northern Europe but the following study of Spanish Dance no. 5 shows Granados' individual tempo fluctuations which are dramatic in their variety and uncharacteristic of the musical style of Andalusia which gives the musical character of the dance.

Example 2

Federico Mompou plays Variations on a Theme of Chopin.

This second example shows the way in which Mompou treats the Prelude no. 7 opus 28 by Chopin.

In contrast to Granados who used his physical mastery to explore the rhythmic characteristics of his region of Spain, Mompou develops a sonority for which he becomes well-known and which is uniquely his own. He said:

'If I were to become deaf I could not compose as I compose from the piano'(9)

Raenelda MackieConsequently his treatment of the Prelude does not come from any intellectual concept but from the nature of the sound itself and is developed from his own performance mastery and understanding of the sonorities of the piano. The following description shows some of the elements which Mompou brings out in his performance and which he used to build the 12 Variations. It is not enough for Mompou to observe these characteristics intellectually, he uses them to create a performance in the manner described by Liszt above.

1) The dominant-tonic pedal which gives regular harmonic movement has become a dotted minim (unlike Chopin's crotchet) to enhance sonority.

2) Although the time-signature is 3/4 the phrasing implies a 6/4 hypermeasure; In variation 2 Mompou enjoys compressing this into 6/8.

3) Mompou takes Chopin's use of the added 9 and 7 and makes it the predominant feature of his own harmonization throughout the Variations.

4) The climax in bars 11 and 12 where Chopin begins the cycle of 5ths: VI-II-V-I, Mompou hears the sonority of the bass F# and turns it into a leading tenor voice in variation 1.

Raenelda MackieConclusion

Virtuosity for pianists, will always include a large element of physical mastery but in the case of the Spanish pianists this has been channeled into characteristics of individuality and regionalism, in part, because of their country's long periods of isolation from Northern Europe.


1 A.Livermore,Granados and the 19th Century in Spain MR, vii (1946) 80

2 G.Chase, The Music of Spain (Dover Publications Inc. , 1959) 163

3 E.Anderson, ed., Letters of Mozart (New York, St Martin's Press, 1966) Vol. 11, 793

4 F. May, The Life of Johannes Brahms (London, William Reeves, 1905) Vols. 1 and 11

5 A. Friedheim, Life and Liszt, the Recollections of a Concert Pianist (New York, Taplinger Publishing Company) 11

6 For further discussion see E.Clarke 'Understanding the Psychology of Performance' in J. Rink, ed., Musical Performance (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002) 59

7 J. Hooper., The Spaniards (London, Penguin Books, 1987) 157

8 G. Chase, The Music of Spain (New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1957) 166

9 J. Rawlings, The Songs of Federico Mompou, The NATS Bulletin 41 no. 5 (May - June, 1985) 12

CD coverRaenelda Mackie studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Reading University where she obtained a Master of Music Degree in Piano Performance. Following her Southbank debut at the Purcell Room she continued her concert career as a pianist giving performances of English and Spanish Music in Europe (in particular Spain and the Balearic Islands), in addition to many Festival and Music Society appearances in the U.K Alongside her work as a pianist specialising in Spanish Romantic Music, she currently leads Performance Studies at Middlesex University. The music of the Catalan Pianist and Composer, Federico Mompou has particularly interested her, and his greatest piano work the, Variations on a Theme of Chopin forms the basis of her Research for PhD.

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Page last updated 30th August 2004.