Nights in the Gardens of Spain

NOCHES EN LOS JARDINS DE ESPAÑA                                                                 

While composers of all periods of Western music have at times made use of popular or folk tunes in their music, the Spaniards seemed obsessed with the practice. The Italian import keyboard composer, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1750), set the fashion for incorporating “street music” into his sonatas for the brilliant harpsichordist, Queen Maria Barbara. The practice continues to this day.

Born in Cadiz, Manuel de Falla received his first music lessons from his mother. He studied piano and composition in Madrid, where he became interested in Spanish music, especially Andalusian flamenco. But he realized early on that he was not good enough to make a career as pianist, and the symphonic institutions in Spain were too limited to make a living as a classical composer. In 1907, he left Spain in order to achieve international exposure for his music, settling in Paris where he came under the influence of Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His music, however, even during the height of the French influence, remained solidly Spanish in style. With the outbreak of World War I, he returned to his native country.

A deeply religious – almost fanatic – Catholic, de Falla expressed his faith in a magnum opus, Atlántida, an epic based on what he regarded as the holy mission of his boyhood hero Christopher Columbus. The cantata, in which the Spanish nation, rising from the ruins of Atlantis, goes forth under the banner of Christ to the New World, remained incomplete at de Falla’s death. He actually submitted parts of it to Church authorities for approval.

De Falla began Noches en los Jardins de España in 1909 in Paris as a set of three nocturnes for piano. But friends, and especially the pianist Ricardo Viñes, advised him to transform it into a work for piano and orchestra. Instead, the composer put the work aside and did not return to it until 1915, after his return to Spain. He described the work as “Symphonic impressions,” insisting that it was not a piano concerto, and that the piano was an integral part of the orchestral fabric. Originally de Falla planned a fourth movement, based on a tango rhythm, but that movement ended up as the “Pantomime” movement of El amor brujo.

Nights is a purely atmospheric work, at times almost hypnotic in its simple melodies and understated orchestration. The first movement En el Generalife, describes the famous Palace garden of the Generalife (from the Arabic Jannat al-‘Arif – Architect’s Garden) on the Alhambra hill in Granada. It opens with what sounds like an accompaniment, but is actually the main theme that recalls Debussy. The theme has a Moorish flavor, first heard as if played on a guitar; the strings imitate the strumming sound, while the piano part is often a single line avoiding chords.

In the second movement, Danza lejana (Distant Dance), once again the themes are brief and simple, the rhythm and harmonies evoking the Flamenco style. The dance gradually increases in volume and tempo before receding again into the distance. The piano leads without interruption into the third movement, En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (The gardens of the Sierra Cordoba mountains). In the middle, the piano takes the role of the singer of cante jondo, a vocal Flamenco style in which a florid melody in the high treble sings over a throbbing bass. The movement begins energetically but slows to a brooding conclusion.

Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn

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