Primary tabs

Robert Schwartz Celebrates Isaac Albéniz

Old First Concerts

Date: Fri May 7, 2010 8:00pm

Robert Schwartz“Nothing interests me as much as the sun that heats to whiteness the narrow streets of Granada. If one could make music of it, how beautiful it would be.”

Isaac Albéniz, the Spanish Catalan pianist and composer who was born 150 years ago, so described the aspiration he fulfilled most famously with his magnum opus (and final work), the 12 “impressions” of Iberia, considered the greatest of Spanish piano works, which pianist Robert Schwartz will perform May 7 for Old First Concerts to honor the composer’s anniversary.

Premiered in France and Spain while the 48-year-old composer was dying, in exile in the south of France, of Bright’s disease, Iberia brought about a reversal in Albéniz’ reputation. “He becomes a great hero in Spain with this piece, a complete turnaround — and lives to hear the accolades, after 12 years of being shunned,” Schwartz recounted. “Debussy and other prominent French composers recommended him for the Legion of Honor, which he received. Like the phoenix, rising from ashes — which is what this piece represents, with its energy, joy and love of music. He knew it would be his last statement. It’s the culmination of his creative life, and its significance is tied up with his life story.”

The story of Albéniz’ career and later reputation, and of his fall from esteem and his final triumph, is fraught with irony. A child prodigy at the piano, “like a Spanish Mozart,” Albéniz developed into a performer and composer with a strong nationalist bent. “On one important trip to Granada,” Schwartz recounted, “he stayed awhile, entertained by the well-to-do residents there, and met a guitarist, Angel Barrios, who was in residence at the Alhambra, where Albéniz spent a lot of time. Barrios influenced him. Lore has it Albéniz would burst into sobs whenever he’d hear Barrios play.”

Listen to the Music

Robert Schwartz plays Almeria,
from Iberia by Isaac Albéniz

Albéniz focused on the dance rhythms, the exotic scales, “the Arabic elements, the melisma in flamenco,” Schwartz said. “The sense of ‘duende,’ which puts you in a trance, makes you do something strange. ... It’s really fortuitous how a combination of Moorish, Jewish, Gypsy, and local music, dance, and song became flamenco — and at that moment, classical flamenco was in decline by the time he composed Iberia, so it was with nostalgia, as an expatriate, that it took on an almost mythic quality for him, to make a very idealized portrait of the Spain he left.”

Douglas Townsend has noted that Albéniz “made use of certain musical formulae which were favored by the Arabs and gypsies, without actually quoting any of their melodies.” Albéniz himself said, humorously, “The music is a bit infantile, plain, spirited; but in the end, the people, our Spanish people, are something of all that. ... There is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more color, sunlight, flavor of olives ... like the carvings of the Alhambra ... more valuable than all else of Moorish Spain, which, though we may not like it, is the true Spain.”

“Most people know his music through guitar transcriptions,” Schwartz related. “Albéniz didn’t write a note of guitar music, but his piano pieces imitate the playing of guitar; it’s convoluted.” Albéniz once said he preferred Francisco Tarrenga’s guitar transcriptions to his original piano music. John Williams and Julian Bream played together on “Evocation,” which opens Iberia. (The music from Iberia is played more often by guitar ensembles than solo.) Albéniz’ early, iconic piece “Asturias” was shoehorned into Spanish Caravan, The Doors’ hit song.

Tuning in to the Music of Spain

“Flamenco is really spiritual,” Schwartz noted. “There’s nothing as powerful in Spain. And right about this time, Albéniz gets connected with [Felipe] Pedrell, a teacher with a strong nationalist bent, who encourages him — and it all comes together.” Gilbert Chase has noted, “What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music.”

Two other students of Pedrell, Manuel de Falla and Enrique Granados, were “taken under Albéniz’ wing,” Schwartz said, “and [traveled] with him when he went to France.” In fact, Albéniz served as “a kind of ambassador for Spanish music. The great French composers, like Debussy, Fauré, Chausson, Dukas, all learned about Spanish music from him.”

Albéniz lived for some years in France and in England, after studying counterpoint in Paris, and became interested in composing opera, “which wasn’t in the verismo style popular then,” according to Schwartz. This led, in part, to a reputation as a failed opera composer, and as having abandoned Spain. “Such complex feelings, motivations in a person,” Schwartz said of Albéniz: “so generous with spreading the music of others, such an important part of French musical life ... yet he felt they looked down on him, as some kind of beast. And reviews at the time do express surprise at how aristocratic his playing was, when they expected him to be more visceral, in the image they had of the Spanish. It angered him, but still he went too far trying to ingratiate himself. And when he brought French composers’ music to Spain, it was, in a way, as a kind of revenge: He wanted them beholden to him.”

Accounts of Albéniz’ life are filled with great anecdotes: how he stowed away aboard ship to the Americas, eventually concertizing in San Francisco; how he studied in Budapest with Liszt. “Until a couple of years ago, when new biographical research became available,” said Schwartz, “much of the material on Albéniz’ life traced back to his own remarks. Now much of it’s been debunked. There’s no evidence he ever was in America; as for Liszt, [Albéniz] apparently was in Budapest while Liszt was elsewhere, doctoring up letters and his diary to fool his father, who paid for his trip! He was very insecure; liked to project a mystique about himself. He padded his resume! But he was a huge fan of Jules Verne, loved adventure stories — and was a wonderful raconteur, with a great sense of humor, and a very showy, but refined, classical style. He would play backwards, behind his back, while facing the audience!”

Schwartz also spoke of his own immersion in Albéniz’ career and in Iberia in particular. “My oldest, dearest college friend turned me on to Iberia back then. We listened to Alicia de Laroccha’s recording. I was attracted to its romanticism, its deliciousness — but even then, felt it was for other people, completely unattainable.”

Schwartz went on about his developing fascination. “I had the Dover score; would pull it out a handful of times and look at it. I learned one of the pieces, played it a couple of years — and put it aside. Then a few years later in Paris, I was nosing around in a music store, and found a very large, elegant green-covered edition — and said, ‘I have to have this!’ I think it’s always been calling to me in some way.

“I brought it home and put it on the shelf. Then a student wanted to play the first piece, which is really not that difficult. In demonstrating it while teaching, I became completely smitten. I learned another one, then one thing led to another. When I had learned three or four, I thought, ‘Well, I like a challenge; wouldn’t that be something to learn? — and not so awesome a task!’ — and I’ve changed my mind a few times along the way, very frustrated, when things would not come.”

Coming to Love Iberia

Invited to the Portland International Piano Festival in summer 2008 for a lecture/recital, Schwartz focused on Iberia, knowing five of the 12 pieces, “the only thing I was working on, the only thing I was interested in,” having “sought out the resources” to investigate the composer’s life, “which added to my love for the music.

“It was a revelation to the audience,” Schwartz recalled. “I don’t think people realize what an important figure he is in European music. And Iberia stands up with Liszt, Chopin — anything in the piano repertory.”

Then last fall, Kathy Barr of Old First Concerts called him, asking him to play for the series. It was a scary moment for Schwartz, who knew what he’d have to play. He learned the final two pieces over Christmas. “It’s like juggling 12 bowling balls!” he joked.

Of the Old First concert, Schwartz said, “This will be my debut — my Iberia debut. In the month of his birthday! [May 29] Last year was the 100th anniversary of his death [May 19, 1909] — and nobody said peep. I’ll say my little peep with this concert.”

Ken Bullock grew up in and around the diverse music scene of the Bay Area. He has been affiliated with Theatre of Yugen (Noh and Kyogen) since 1980, and writes about the performing arts for www.berkeleyplanet.com and The Commuter Times and Mark Alburger's magazine 21st Century Music.