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25.8.03

Albéniz the Opera Composer

Isaac Albéniz at the pianoFor composers throughout history, there have been a few large-scale genres of music seen as the pinnacle of compositional achievement, the place to make one's mark. At different times and for different musicians, that genre may have been the symphony, the Mass ordinary, and certainly since the 17th century, the opera. (Parallels for writers might be the novel, the epic poem, the tragedy; for painters, the fresco cycle; and so on.) I have noted with interest the composers who, every once in a while, suddenly are recognized as opera composers (Antonio Vivaldi and Sergei Prokofiev, who composed an opera when he was nine years old, are good examples). Now I learn that Isaac Albéniz, whom I knew only as a composer of little Spanish color pieces (as Tomas Marco put it in his article on Albéniz in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "as a composer of theatre music, Albéniz did not achieve the same heights as in his piano music"), wanted to compose operas in the Wagnerian style, and in fact he did actually complete a few. Renaud Machart's article (Le pacte faustien d'Isaac Albeniz, August 25) in Le Monde was how I learned of efforts to make his operas known again. In other words, it's not that we musicologists didn't know that he had written some operas (the same with Vivaldi and Prokofiev), it's just that no one had tried to make a readable score and then actually have professional musicians perform it.

Albéniz lived a cosmopolitan life, residing for much of his life outside his native land. As Machart puts it humorously, this lifestyle created "one of the most striking musical curiosities in Europe: a Spanish composer, the future quintessence of Spanishness in music, composes in Paris operas primarily inspired by the Wagnerian model but on librettos in English." The Faustian bargain of the article's title refers to the contract Albéniz signed with a London banker whose name, Francis Burdett Money-Coutts (Lord Latymer), is improbably appropriate for a musical Maecenas. Money-Coutts had cash and wanted his writings to be known, while Albéniz needed financial support to compose operas. Perhaps not one of the great librettist-composer pairings of all time (Da Ponte-Mozart, Quinault-Lully, Boito-Verdi, Von Hoffmansthal-Strauss), but they were working on a Ringish trilogy of King Arthur operas, only the first of which, Merlin, Albéniz was able to complete before his death. I also learned from the excellent classical music site Red Ludwig (featuring Grace Notes, writing by former Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan) that the work was staged at the Teatro Real in Madrid on May 28 of this year and was recorded in 1999. Only Machart, however, notes that the first performance of Merlin was in 1950, when excerpts were presented by a group not really known for operatic productions, the junior soccer club of FC Barcelona.

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