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Imitations of Iberia

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) - Rhapsody: “Espana” 

Edouard Lalo (1823-1892) - Symphonie Espagnole 

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) - Capriccio Espagnol 

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) - Bolero 

Running my baleful gaze over the corpus of Music, I can’t help noticing that it seems there’s more “Spanish” music written by foreigners than by natives. Other than because foreign composers happen to outnumber the natives, why? More to the point, what’s the attraction? If I were to go off half-cocked, I’d say “sex”. However, the real - and far less interesting! - reason is that while other countries were busy developing their own, indigenous musical styles, Spain was busy making stylistic soup. As with any soup, the secret is in the spices. For Spain the spice was the North African influence. Sidestepping the looming history lesson, the upshot was a family of styles inter-related by the juiciest blend of steamy sensuality, rampant rhythm and erotic exoticism. In short, a Venus’ Fly-Trap for any red-blooded composer, not to mention quite a few pink-blooded innocents. 

Surprisingly, Chabrier was one of the latter - this cautious soul stuck with his civil service job until he was nearly 40. Only two years into his composing career, he brought home from a Spanish holiday a hatful of café-flamencos and the like. Judging by the fresh-faced fizziness of the resulting “Espana”, Mme. Chabrier had steered him clear of the seedier quarters. As befits a rhapsody, one glorious tune spills into the next with effortless ease. Yet, there is form: distinguished by snippets of the opening tune, the central episode does double-duty as prelude to the sumptuously varied reprise - which itself does double-duty as a rudimentary development section. Add a soupçon of French polish and lashings of luscious orchestration and, perhaps deservedly, you have the best-known of all “Ersatz Espana”! 

Although Lalo was French, he can at least claim Spanish descent, affording us the chance to argue whether his Spanish sound is artistic or genetic in origin. In all but name, his Symphonie Espagnole is a five-movement violin concerto. Contesting the title of “Spanish National Instrument”are the guitar and the castanets. The violin isn’t even in the reckoning. However, in the right hands and given the right music, its convincing replication of the throbbing, throaty tones of a flamenco singer could easily fuddle your judgement. Whilst the first and fourth movements seem to glimpse Spain all the way from Germany, in the case of the latter from the banks of Schumann’s Rhine, Lalo leaves no doubt of the perspective of the remainder. In place of Chabrier’s picture-postcard glitter, Lalo invests his score with an earthier luminescence. 

Comprising mirrors enclosing bits of coloured glass a kaleidoscope produces, by these simplest of means, the most marvellously coloured patterns - a close analogy to Rimsky-Korsakov. However, anyone can work a kaleidoscope. Rimsky-Korsakov's skill at shaking orchestral instruments is arguably unparalleled. It was surely Sadko, Op. 5, a disgracefully neglected masterpiece, that prompted his recognition as an “ultra-modernist” (?), earning him a Professorship and setting him on a course which led in 1887 to the Capriccio Espagnol, the second most famous ersatz Spanish music. 

A glittering Alborada, or "morning dance", explodes fit to wake the dead, never mind the sleeping. The Variazioni on a gorgeously romantic tune provide a relatively conventional interlude, rudely interrupted by the Alborado's return. It is newly clothed, principally via the staggeringly simple device of swapping certain instrumental roles. A sudden crescendo heralds Scena e Canto Gitano. Balancing the Variazioni, the Scena features a series of solo cadenzas, each sporting a different percussion halo, on the subsequent Gypsy Song. Mid-flight (where Dean dragged Torville like a matador's cape!), the Fandango stamps in. In one astonishing sequence, Rimsky repeatedly establishes one sonority, then overlays it with another - a veritable counterpoint of colour! 

Ravel may not be able to claim Spanish ancestry, but as a Basque he has proximity on his side. Although inhibited (some say “repressed”), he wrote some of the sexiest music ever. He was sensitive to the poetic, yet fascinated by mechanical toys and clocks. This probably explains his affinity with that most poetic of machines, the piano. Alborada del Gracioso started life as a piano piece - one of the Miroirs - although if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t believe it! Such is his phenomenal talent for his other instrument, the orchestra, that he paints the picture perhaps most truly evocative of Spain in this entire programme. Vivid, in a way that would defeat even Chabrier, as the dance music is, it’s the slow core of the work that really astonishes. Here lies most starkly exposed the Moorish influence. Here we feel the fearful violence of the passions simmering in, and sometimes erupting from, the music of Spain. 

To a degree, those conflicts in Ravel’s character came to a head in Bolero, which was written for a ballet by Ida Rubenstein. Set in a singularly sleazy tavern, a single dancer holds the floor. Gradually, others join in, and in the steamy heat things get erotically competitive. Inevitably, alcohol and ardour combine to ignite fury, knives are unsheathed, and the curtain falls. Ravel disliked this scenario: he wanted to accentuate the music's mechanical rather than sexual potential. Did he ever consider how closely related these are? 

Music’s development depends largely on composers building on their predecessors’ ideas. Apart from Messiaen, in a two-minute movement ofTurangalila-Symphonie, I can think of no-one who’s taken the idea of Bolero and made anything of it other than sheer tripe (I choose my words carefully). Bolero, let's face it, is quintessential tripe: over an invariant, asymmetrical four-bar rhythm, the same theme cycles relentlessly, the first half twice, the second half twice, and those four segments four times over. Tempo, rhythm, tonality (C majeure, naturellement) all utterly unwavering, only orchestration and amplitude change, the former ticking over precisely at each segment’s start, the latter remorselessly increasing. Finally, as your shredded programme disintegrates, everything changes! The tune finally plays right through, tempo and tonality lurch, and the “heavy metal” move in for the kill. Tripe? Oh, yes indeed! But, it's also breathtakingly bold, original music, a “one-off” par excellence

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 29 November 2003


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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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