A few words about Donostia,
about whom I was completely ignorant.
He was born José Gonzalo de Zulaica
y Arregui in San Sebastian in 1886.
After being ordained he took the Basque
name for his place of birth, Donostia,
and spent much time researching Basque
music and Gregorian Chant. His first
early intensive period of composition
was in the decade from 1910-20 after
which he went to Paris to study, met
Ravel, and wrote an increasing number
of works in more confident, public mediums
– stage works and orchestral pieces,
many reflective of his absorption in
Basque music. Exiled by the Spanish
Civil War, he moved to France and concentrated
on sacred music; Passion Poem and the
Requiem being the two most significant.
He returned to Spain at the end of the
war and lived on until 1956.
Collector and disseminator
he was a kind of conduit and codifier
of Basque music, doing analogous work
to Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Bartók
in taking down native folk music. Of
course there are few parallels musically
with any of these composers. Donostia’s
was a more intimate and deliberate quest,
engaged as he was in textual illumination
and not particularly great originality
or extrapolation. The notes put
it well in stressing his "expressing
the harmonic backgrounds, rhythmic patterns
... distant music from religious processions
... and children’s games."
The effect of listening
to the twenty-one Basque preludes is
sometimes bizarre. They fuse folk melodies
with generous amplitude and explication
of the harmonic shifts that give the
tunes their memorable quality. The very
first is an improvisation on Twinkle
twinkle little star – at least that’s
what it sounds like – and the second
opens with impressionist gauze but veers
away towards sturdy harmony, rising
to a peak of vigour. The mood throughout
the Preludes is buoyant and good-natured,
a glissando introducing a fantastic
tale and bass extensions hinting at
one is brought up short; the first chord
of the Lullaby No.9 is the Franck Violin
Sonata’s famous opening, and aren’t
there hints of Albéniz’s Iberia
in No.13 as elsewhere there are infusions
of Granados and Debussy. The most explicitly
impressionist setting is No.18, Landscape
of La Soule, with its grandeur of depiction.
The Andante for a Basque
Sonata contains amidst its discursive
pages, bizarrely, a rousing rendition
of Abide with Me – is it known in the
Basque country under a different name?
The rolled chords are "honestly
old fashioned" and the whole movement
resembles Haydn more than, say, any
contemporary or indeed Romantic composer.
The evocations such as On the Banks
of the Ter fuse gaudy pounding with
impressionist glint and in Tiento
and Song he evokes the chordal and
strummed simplicities of the guitar
with generosity and good humour.
Jordi Masó manages
to convey the moods and impressions
with crisp rhythm and no little power.
Donostia’s muse was one of song and
simplicity and we have both here in
see also review
by Gary Higginson