Isaac Albéniz: A Research and Information Guide
by Walter Aaron Clark
Routledge Musical Bibliographies
Hardback, 180 pages
I first came across Isaac Albéniz at secondary school during 1971. My school-friend Alan Kitchen used to play on the music-room piano during the breaks. Alongside Dohnányi’s impressive Rhapsody No.3 in C major, op.11, George Botsford’s Black and White Rag (made ubiquitous by Winifred Atwell) and Mussorgsky’s ‘Gopak’, was the beautiful ‘Córdoba’ from Albéniz’s Chants d’Espagne. The magic of this last piece has stayed with me for 45 years. I have picked my way through this work on the piano, but never really mastered it. Alan has gone on to be an exceedingly talented pianist, church and recital organist and general musician based in Scotland: I have been blessed with a long-standing pleasure in Albéniz’s piano music.
A few very brief biographical notes on Isaac Albéniz may be of interest. He was born in Camprodon in Catalonia, Spain on 29 May 1860 and died in the French Pyrenees at Cambo les Bains on 18 May 1909. He combined a career as concert pianist and composer. Albéniz was one of the first Spanish composers to make extensive use of ‘native rhythms and melodic phraseology’. His musical and literary interests extended to the pianism of Debussy, the music-dramas of Wagner as well as English mythology for his projected cycle of operas on an Arthurian subject of which only the first, Merlin, was completed. Critics often regard Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia as his masterpiece.
From the standpoint of the English-speaking world, scholarly discussion on the composer is relatively scant. Readers with no Spanish must rely on dictionary entries, a handful of histories of Iberian music and record and CD liner notes. The first biography by A. Guerra y Alarcón, Isaac Albéniz: notas crítico-biográficas (Madrid, 1886/R) was based on the composer’s personal ‘memoirs’ which include ‘propaganda and self-mythologizing fantasies’. Much in this book does not agree with information given to other journalists, biographers and friends by the composer. Nor does it stand up against subsequent historical investigation based on primary sources. This problem was exacerbated by later authors including Henri Collet, Albéniz et Granados (Paris, 1926/R), Gabriel Laplane, Albéniz: sa vie, son oeuvre (Geneva, 1956) and Angel Sagardia, Isaac Albéniz (1951). Some of them perpetuated the errors introduced by Guerra y Alarcón.
In 1998 Walter Aaron Clark published the first edition of the present volume. This was followed by Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic (Oxford, 1999) which was the first book-length examination of the composer published in English. Clark debunked some of the composer’s more creative and extravagant memories, such as his studying with Franz Liszt and the stowaway trip to the Americas aged only twelve – a fantasy based on the fact of a later Latin America tour. The volume included a reading of Albéniz’s major compositions, his handling of the folkloric material and a consideration of his legacy to Spanish music.
The present Research and Information Guide is divided into three major sections. After the usual introductory material, there is a well-judged essay on ‘The Man and his Music.’ The author has written that this is ‘more detailed than an encyclopaedia entry, but still easily digested at one sitting.’ As noted above, Albéniz’s biography suffers from misinformation and excessive hagiography, as well as downright confusion. Clark has presented the composer’s life and significant achievement as clearly-stated fact based on primary sources. The essay concludes with an examination of Albéniz’s ‘style and legacy’. His compositional achievement is presented in the ‘traditional fashion’ of early, middle and late periods. The ‘zarzuelas’ occupy the first part of his career: three out of five are lost (review review). Also composed at this time were the piano sonatas, the salon pieces and a number of the well-regarded Spanish works including the Cantos de España and the Recuerdos de viaje. The middle period features the many stage works, including, The Magic Opal (an orchestral suite from which was recently broadcast by BBC Radio 3), Merlin (review review) and the sketches for Launcelot. The final epoch is dominated by the massive piano cycle Iberia. Clark concludes this valuable chapter by highlighting the compositional trajectories that the composer absorbed. Isaac Albéniz’s fundamental achievement was the ‘the reincorporation of Spain into the European musical world.’
The second section begins with the all-important ‘Catalog of Works.’ This is based on the pioneering catalogue produced by Jacinto Torres Mulas. It is now traditional amongst Albéniz scholars to adopt the ‘T’ number in honour of his industry.
Like many composers, the publication history of Albéniz’s music is confused. Opus numbers were ‘carelessly assigned’ by composer and publishers, so have ‘little or no validity.’ Clark presents the works in chronological order within genre. The usual information is presented about composition date, first and other early performances, revivals and publication date, where appropriate. An important addition for researchers is the location of the manuscript, where this has survived. Sections are ordered as Stage, Orchestra, Chamber Ensemble, Solo Voice/Chorus, Piano and Miscellaneous.
Four things struck me about this catalogue. Firstly, the variety of music is considerable. Like many listeners, I tend to imagine Albéniz through his evocative piano music. At the back of one’s mind is the notion that there was other music. In fact, seen in black and white the number of operas/zarzuelas, chamber pieces and orchestral works is considerable. One forgotten aspect of Albéniz’s achievement are the songs and other vocal music which are under-represented in the CD catalogues. Clearly, the piano works are the major element of this catalogue and the eight pages devoted to this genre provide all the information needed for an in-depth exploration of this splendid repertoire. Secondly, I was surprised by the number of pieces that have been lost, including the early zarzuelas and even some of the piano music. Thirdly, there are many references to works that the composer left incomplete at his death. These include operas, orchestral music and the well-loved Navarra, finished by the composer’s friend, Déodat de Séverac. Finally, there is no music for guitar listed in this catalogue: the composer wrote none. The many arrangements by which Albéniz is largely represented in listeners' minds, especially on Classic FM, were to come later and by other hands.
One minor annoyance is in the listing of multi-movement suites. For example, No.86, Doce piezas caracteristicas [op.92], each section is given a letter: A. Gavotte, B. Minuetto a Silvia, C. Barcarola and so on. However, when the work is referred to in the accompanying notes, they are listed numerically: 1-3. It would have been better to have kept to numbers, although this may reflect the Torres ‘lettering’ scheme.
The works of Isaac Albéniz have been issued by many publishers over the years. In the Research and Information Guide, the author has been selective with the listings of ‘scholarly editions’ of Albéniz’s music. They are chosen based on the value of the ‘editorial commentary’ and if they represent the first or only edition of a particular work.
In like manner, the ‘discography’ explores only ‘recent recordings of scholarly value’. The author suggests that a ‘complete list’ would ‘consume the present volume’ and that most of the recordings past and present are easily locatable on internet databases including World Cat. One major inclusion in this list is the cycle of piano music issued on the BIS record label, performed by Miguel Baselga and released between 1998 and 2014: reviews of Vol. 4 ~ Vol. 5 ~ Vol. 6 ~ Vol. 7 ~ Vol. 8.
The main bibliographical section of this book extends to more than half the content. It is divided into Primary Sources, Secondary Sources (Books and Articles) and Contemporary Periodical Literature which chronicles Albéniz’s concerts and works during his lifetime.
Clearly these sections are of varying interest depending on the book user’s requirement. Any detailed and original examination of the composer’s life and works will need to explore some of the primary sources (Part A). A major source is the Biblioteca de Catalunya in Barcelona which holds much correspondence, newspaper clippings, holographs and printed scores of contemporary composers from Albéniz’s personal library. The Museu de la Música in Madrid has an equally significant collection, including programmes, letters and a number of manuscripts. A British source is the Latymer Archive in London which retains documents relating to Albéniz’s wealthy benefactor, Money-Coutts. The composer’s unique fan collection is retained at the Albéniz family home in Barcelona.
Part B of the bibliography presents a wide range of material including biography and analysis, most of which has been printed. An exception to this are a number of unpublished dissertations and theses. Walter Clark has chosen to omit reviews of performances and recordings as well as 'short articles (of one to two pages) of ‘no substance’'. Some liner-notes have been listed if of sufficient value, for example, Douglas Riva’s Naxos cycle of the piano music: Vol. 2 ~ Vol. 3 ~ Vol. 4.
Clearly a large number of these entries refer to scholarship written in Spanish, although there are many from English language publications. These latter are exceptionally useful for reviewers (UK/USA) who need information about aspects of Albéniz’s life and work, but do not have the time or resources to investigate material that is likely to be available only in Spanish academic institutions and may need a professional translation.
I noted the large number of theses and dissertations which explore Albéniz’s life and music. This certainly does make up for the dearth of published studies currently available in English (or any other language).
The last part (Part C) of the bibliography is a ‘selective compilation’ of contemporary periodical literature of reviews and articles published during the composer’s lifetime. These include a large number of citations from British newspapers and journals. Clark has concentrated in this section on the stage works, again with many English reviews alongside Spanish and some in French and German. I was surprised at just how extensive the coverage of operas such as The Magic Opal (T.5) and its revised version The Magic Ring, actually was in British newspapers.
The appendix includes a useful chronology of the composer, his music, travels and family affairs. The index is in three handy sections: Index of Authors, Editors and Performers, (the heading, not entries, for ‘S’ is missing), Works Index, and finally a Subject Index.
The Research and Information Guide fails to provide any details concerning the author, Walter Aaron Clark. For the record, Clark is a professor of musicology and also chair of the music department at the University of California, Riverside. Apart from musicology, he has attained performance degrees in classical guitar. He conducts a number of courses including opera history, Latin American art music, folk and popular music of Latin America, twentieth-century music and world music. He has contributed to many scholarly journals and reference works. Besides the two volumes on Isaac Albéniz, Clark has written the definitive study Enrique Granados: Poet of the Piano (Oxford, 2006; paperback 2011).
Clearly, at £95.00 ($160.00), this is an expensive book. It is likely to find its valued place in the libraries of universities, conservatoires and music colleges around the world. The Research and Information Guide is the first port-of-call for any student planning an essay, dissertation or thesis. Its interest to music critics and historians is also considerable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it assists readers in cutting through the mythology created around Albéniz’s life, secondly it provides a chronological setting for his many works and thirdly it gives a good selection of secondary material and contemporary reviews (often in English) to allow the historian, reviewer or critic to evaluate each work in its historical and stylistic context.
I understand that Walter Aaron Clark is working on a revised edition of his essential Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic (Oxford, 1999; paperback, 2002) which will act as an up-to-date companion to this present volume.