Monday, May 18, 2009

Albéniz and Liszt (or not)

It’s one hundred years exactly since Isaac Albéniz, Spanish composer and virtuoso pianist, died. His early life was marked by brilliance and motion, and, as an adult, he never really settled anywhere permanently, living in Madrid, Paris and London. During some periods, he kept a diary - but he didn’t always tell it the truth, as when he claimed to have met Liszt.

Albéniz was born in Catalonia, Spain, in 1860. His mother, Dolors Pascual, was a native of Figueres, and his father, Àngel Albéniz, was a civil servant posted in Ripolles but then in other places. By the age of four Albéniz was playing the piano in public and was considered something of a child prodigy. At seven he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but went instead to Madrid to study there.

In his early teens, Albéniz made several attempts to run away from home, supporting himself with concert tours. Eventually, his father accepted his wish to play, and he toured as far afield as South America. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory when 14 for a short while, before further studies in Brussels. In 1880, he went to Budapest wanting to meet Franz Liszt - of which more below.

In 1883, Albéniz settled in Madrid to teach, and to study with Felipe Pedrell, who inspired him to write Spanish music. During the 1890s, he lived mostly in London and Paris, composing for the stage, often in collaboration with Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who provided both librettos and funding. But, by 1900, he had begun to suffer from Bright’s disease. This didn’t stop him working, though he returned to piano music, and, in the last years of his life, composed Iberia - a suite of twelve piano impressions evoking the spirit of Spain - which is considered to be his best work. Albéniz died exactly 100 years ago today, on 18 May 1909.

There is plenty of information about Albéniz on the internet in English - Wikipedia, the website of Barcelona-based composer Mac McClure, and the Gaudí and Art Nouveau in Catalonia website all have biographies. There is also a small amount of information about Albéniz keeping a diary, but no evidence of it having been published in English. In particular, there is one incident - the Liszt incident - sourced from Albéniz’s diary that is regularly referred to in biographies.

Here is the relevant diary extract (dated August 1880 and lifted from the online version of Paul Mast’s 1974 doctoral thesis for the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester): ‘I have visited Liszt. He received me in the most amiable manner. I played two of my Etudes and a Hungarian Rhapsody. To all appearances he was much pleased with me, especially when I improvised a complete dance on a Hungarian theme which he gave me. He asked me all sorts of questions about Spain, my parents, my religious opinions, and, finally, about music in general. I told him quite frankly and decidedly that I gave no thought to any of those things, which seemed to please him. I am to return the day of after tomorrow.’

But the Gaudí and Art Nouveau in Catalonia website, as above, says: ‘Albéniz noted in his diary that he met Liszt in Budapest on August 18, 1880, an impossible feat given that Liszt had taken up residence in Weimer by then. He was given to the exhibitionism of a child prodigy, as when he would play the piano blindfolded or with his back to the piano, or place a cloth over the keys to make the task even more difficult. Therefore his diary, though undoubtedly helpful in studying his character, is peppered with several passages that require a certain scrutiny, or at least an ability to separate fact from fiction.’

Yale Fineman, a music librarian, at the University of Maryland, says in an essay, dated 2004, that the diary entry about Lizst ‘was probably meant to placate his father who helped fund this excursion’, i.e. to Budapest.

Further extracts from Albéniz’s diary can be found in Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic by Walter Aaron Clark, first published by Oxford University Press in 1999 - many pages of which can be read online at Googlebooks.

Clark says: ‘In their fixation on the Liszt episode, biographers have neglected other passages in his diary that tell us much more important things about the young man. For instance, at an outdoor religious ceremony in Budapest on the 20th, Albéniz notes a ‘high degree of religious intolerance’ among the locals when a man is beaten by the mob for neglecting to doff his hat as the sacrament passes. This behaviour he finds simply ‘stupid’.’

In the days after the (made-up) meeting with Liszt, the diary contains no further mention of the man, and instead focuses on sightseeing, money problems, and the need for patience in ‘conquering’ a lovely young girl he has met, all his normal ‘methods’ of conquest having failed.

And here are some extracts from much later in Albéniz’s life (thanks also to the Clark biography).

21 February 1901
‘Those who search for God, those who discuss him, seem to me like those who wish to find a three-legged cat; they forget that it has four, and that God does not exist except in the here and now, that is to say while we live, think and express ourselves; thus we are God, and everything else is songs!!!’

11 March 1901
‘My misfortune is great; I am foolish with aspirations!!!.’

20 April 1904
‘The ideal formula in art ought to be ‘variety within logic’.’

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