Isaac Albeniz. Suite Espagnole

Keeping on my last post’s subject of Albinez, I have chosen his Suite Espagnole today. Albinez originally wrote this in 1886 as a set of three pieces each with the name of a Spanish province. His publisher added eight more pieces after the composer’s death from a much later opus number, and so the entire suite paints sound portraits of 11 regions. Albinez quite deftly wove the Spanish folk melodies into quite sumptuous and evocative works. One of them is called “Catalonia.” (Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia in the heart of Basque territory.)

This piece takes me back to my first visit to Barcelona in 1977, where I hitchhiked with two friends. Tall plane trees lined Las Ramblas, the main boulevard that bisects Barcelona on its way down from the hills to the port. I seem to remember my guidebook likening Las Ramblas to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The comparison was weak–in 1977 when I was there, Spain was just awakening from the economically depressed decades under fascism, and there were no Cartier, Bulgari, or Gucci boutiques around. But the Ramblas had something going for it that the Champs-Elysees would never have–it was designed for people and not traffic. The wide, raised pedestrian walkway ran through the middle of the street and the single lanes of traffic ran along its edge. This created what was effectively the longest plaza in the world. On this vast playground sat benches, newsagents, and small cafés. Pigeons and people strutted, sat, did little courtship dances or just sunned themselves in the clear green light that filtered down through the leaves of the plane trees.

The Ramblas had a nice feel to it, and business seemed to be picking up, though the people still looked a bit threadbare. Cinemas advertised the old-fashioned way–they commissioned local sign painters to build portable placards that they could bring in at night. I believe some version of Jaws had just come out and the sign in front of one of these theatres had been cut into the shape of a huge shark and painted in lurid colors–the long sharp teeth dripping with crimson blood.

I never told my parents this, but I almost got killed on the Ramblas. Since Franco had died just the year before, people were finally starting to demand more and more freedoms. Every day the papers carried stories of bombings by Basque separatists.

One day as I was exploring the city by myself investigating an old church near the port, I thought a nice drink at a café on the Ramblas would do me just fine. I emerged onto the Ramblas very near a subway station. I had a strange sensation and noticed that it was dead quiet. I looked to my right. A crowd of protestors stood glaring in my direction. I looked to the left. A crowd of riot police, swaddled in riot gear and bulletproof vests and armed with carbines and tear gas launchers glared back. I stood right in the middle. A few of the police were looking down into the mouth of the subway. Shards of glass lay on the pavement. The cops decided to run down the steps. As soon as they started, the protestors began to jeer at them. Immediately, the police rushed out guns drawn. I heard a “pop”; the police had started firing and canisters of tear gas arced through the air toward the protestors who had already begun to throw rocks. I did not stick around to find out who won.

I would like to say that was the only time I was concerned about my personal safety in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. However, I don’t want to imply that it was a scary or dangerous city. Over the next few posts, I will let you decide.

Isaac Albeniz: Iberia Suite

Albeniz spent the last years of his life traveling and teaching between Barcelona, Nice and Paris. It was the culmination of a strange life. He had started out as a prodigy, learning the rudiments of piano at the age of one and giving his first performance at the age of four. His father first commercially exploited him but then took him to study in Paris with the teacher of Debussy and Bizet. He eventually ran away and supported himself by playing the piano, dressed as a musketeer–backwards! That is, he would stand with his back to the piano and play with the backs of his fingers.

When he was twelve, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires and then eventually made his way (supporting himself playing piano in vaudeville) to Cuba, the United States, San Francisco before returning to Europe. There he performed in London, Liverpool and Leipzig. When he was 15 (15!) he decided to take music more seriously and though he couldn’t sit still long enough to study, he did meet and come under the influence stylistically of Dukas, Lizst and d’Indy. Eventually he met another composer and musicologist, Felipe Pedrell who exposed Albeniz to the complexity and richness of folk music, and that spurred him on to becoming a composer. He stuck with the piano most of his life though he did make a financial arrangement with a rich wannabe librettist (an English banker) to write music for his terrible operas. His piano music was considered extremely complex for the time and he seemed to have picked up the Impressionist tendency for color.

The Iberia Suite is probably the composer’s best known piece. It consists of twelve portraits of Spain which are rich and lush and evoke the feel of the land and its people. Leopold Stokowski orchestrated a number of the pieces in Iberia after the composer’s death. The most well known is called “Triana,” arraged here for orchestra.

My Iberian Adventure

I chose Albeniz’s music to accompany my story about my hitch-hiking adventure to Barcelona in March of 1977, to which I return today. As you might remember, three of us–Ingeborg, Chris, and I–had thumbed our way down from Paris and arrived a few days before Palm Sunday.  Inge, being a wealthy German whose currency was very strong in those days, found herself a room in a hotel. Chris and I settled for the more modest alternative–a pension near the train station. We would explore the city on our own in the mornings, rendezvous for lunch or dinner, and swap stories of what we had discovered.

The three of us were quickly taken by the charm of the city, which derived more from its homogeneity than its cosmopolitanism. Since Franco had only died the year before, Barcelona was slowly awakening from a long slumber, like a sleeping beauty, which had preserved it in a state that must have resembled that of pre-war Spain.

The pension where Chris and I stayed sat on one street of the narrow maze that comprised the oldest part of the city, which lay near the port. In the center of this quarter sat an old 13th century (if my memory serves me correctly) cathedral. It was huge and had delicate soaring vaulted arches to rival those of Chartres. The church, however, was empty, a legacy of the anti-church sentiments of the communists who turned churches into stables and barracks during the Spanish Civil War, which they lost. The stones back then were worn and honey-colored and shafts of brilliantly colored light filtered down from the stained glass windows and lay in splotches on the floor.

Near the church stood a small bar that Inge had found and where we used to meet in the afternoon. She liked it because a group of young students and poets hung out there whom she eventually befriended. On our first visit there she pointed out the group who sat at a table in the corner window. She motioned to the young man who sat at the head of the table–he was a slight dark Spaniard, who parted his hair in the middle and wore the brocaded vest and tight black trousers of a matador. “Manoleto” I remember hearing someone say, (or perhaps I just thought it) when we saw him, and instantly I thought back to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

I liked the little bar because, like all the bars we found in Barcelona, it was dead cheap. You could get an almost full tumbler of Campari and ice for about 50 cents. They would plop down a large glass bottle of seltzer, wrapped in a metal cage to keep it from exploding. They also served a type of tapas that consisted of pickled vegetables and fish over which the barrista would dump about a quarter cup of hot sauce. In the mornings we would go along for breakfast which consisted of some sweet roll accompanied by a café con leche. They take a tall thick glass, add about a third of a cup of sweetened condensed milk and then fill it the rest of the way with espresso.

This part of the city pleased me a lot–it was very lower working class, though most of the people were probably descended from the sailors and longshoreman since we were so near the port. It had a bit of seediness to it–we’d see the occasional used hypodermic lying about, but I never felt threatened there. After roaming the streets we found a wonderful little worker’s restaurant where you could eat hearty food and quaff wine for a pittance. I remember ordering a plate of lamb kidneys and onions and vino tinto. The wine came in little glass flasks, which had a spout on the side. You drank it by holding your thumb over the hole in the top, tilting your head back, opening your mouth, and then removing your thumb. A thin jet of wine would then arc across the ether and, if your aim was good, land on your tongue. Each meal ended with a huge Valencia orange whose thick pith had its own pleasing flavor. Once I made the mistake of going to the bathroom in the restaurant and fortunately only had to micturate–next to the commode the proprietor had stuck a number of small pieces of pages from magazines, neatly torn into rectangles, over the sharpened end of a bent coat hanger. This was the toilet paper.

Surprisingly, this quarter housed two artistic Meccas–the Galerie Maeght, and the Picasso Museum. The Maeght Foundation had made its money on all the big artists of the century–Picasso, Miro, Calder, Dali, etc.–and their gallery was filled with works of these artists. Picasso had spent his first 14 years in Barcelona, I believe, living in this neighborhood. The Picasso museum, located in an old 16th or 17th century palazzo, therefore mostly housed the artist’s early works. Inside, crystal chandeliers hung from gilded, coffered ceilings. This contrasted with the paintings themselves, which took my breath away. Here were sketches and oils that demonstrated how Picasso, by his early teens, had developed his technique to rival that of El Greco, Caravaggio, Reubens and Rembrant.

Once he had mastered his medium, he then turned his eye from the traditional religious and aristocratic subjects and directed it on the life of the workers and peasants of the streets of Barcelona. One picture focused on a bar fight he witnessed between two campesinos who had come to town and gotten drunk. Picasso had caught the emotion and blur of arms in a masterful way that reminded me of Goya. Seeing a man killed at such a young age must have had an impact on the boy-artist.

Being in Barcelona had a profound impact on me as well (or so I’m discovering as the sights and sounds come back to me after 36 years). Chris and I were a bit confused at Inge’s behavior. I had thought she was sleeping with him but then she did not invite him to stay with her in her hotel and she would only meet up with us during certain parts of the day. One day she announced that she had booked passage on a ferry to Majorca, which was to leave in few days.

During the days, Chris and I roamed the streets and he would fill me in on the latest trends in pop culture. One day we stopped in a bar for a drink after plodding through the hot dusty streets. Every bar at that time had a televison, since most people couldn’t afford their own, and that was how they drew in clientele. On the tube that day was some horribly-produced variety show in black and white with a plump, peroxided tart in a sequined dress belting out a pop song. Chris went over to the juke box and started looking at the songs.

I ordered two drinks and then heard Chris shouting: “Patti Smith! Patti Smith! Look they have Horses on this juke box! I can’t believe it.” I had heard of Patti Smith about two years before–she was a kind of poet/rock and roll artist who worshipped Arthur Rimbaud, but I had never listened to her music. Chris put his money in the slot, punched the numbers, and the music that came out was like none I had ever heard. The words told an odd story about a boy who gets raped in front of his high school locker and sees a vision of horses thundering along a beach. “Things are different in California” I remember thinking to myself.

Chris was good company. We went to the local bullfighting arena (it was off season) and took a tour of the museum. It had a bust of Manoleto and I posed Chris and the old guard in front of it. Sometimes we found ourselves in our pension reading in the evenings. It had a nice collection of books left by travelers. I found a copy of two plays by Arthur Miller–“View from a Bridge” and “The Crucible”–in French! I devoured these and savored this tri-cultural moment and the fact that a boy from rural Indiana had come so far.

Isaac Albeniz. Suite Espagnole

Keeping on my last post’s subject of Albinez, I have chosen his Suite Espagnole today. Albinez originally wrote this in 1886 as a set of three pieces each with the name of a Spanish province. His publisher added eight more pieces after the composer’s death from a much later opus number, and so the entire suite paints sound portraits of 11 regions. Albinez quite deftly wove the Spanish folk melodies into quite sumptuous and evocative works. One of them is called “Catalonia.” (Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia in the heart of Basque territory.)

This piece takes me back to my first visit to Barcelon in 1977, where I hitchhiked with two friends. I think back to the tall plane trees that lined Las Ramblas, the main boulevard that bisects Barcelona on its way down from the hills to the port. I seem to remember my guidebook likening Las Ramblas to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The comparison was weak–in 1977 when I was there, Spain was just awakening from the economically depressed decades under fascism, and there were no Cartier, Bulgari, or Gucci boutiques around. But the Ramblas had something going for it that the Champs-Elysees would never have–it was designed for people and not traffic. The wide, raised pedestrian walkway ran through the middle of the street and the single lanes of traffic ran along its edge. This created what was effectively the longest plaza in the world. On this vast playground sat benches, newsagents, and small cafés. Pigeons and people strutted, sat, did little courtship dances or just sunned themselves in the clear green light that filtered down through the leaves of the plane trees.

The Ramblas had a nice feel to it, and business seemed to be picking up, though the people still looked a bit threadbare. Cinemas advertised the old-fashioned way–they commissioned local sign painters to build portable placards that they could bring in at night. I believe some version of Jaws had just come out and the sign in front of one of these theatres had been cut into the shape of a huge shark and painted in lurid colors–the long sharp teeth dripping with crimson blood.

I never told my parents this, but I almost got killed on the Ramblas. Since Franco had died just the year before, people were finally starting to demand more and more freedoms. Every day the papers carried stories of bombings by Basque separatists.

One day as I was exploring the city by myself investigating an old church near the port, I thought a nice drink at a café on the Ramblas would do me just fine. I emerged onto the Ramblas very near a subway station. I had a strange sensation and noticed that it was dead quiet. I looked to my right. A crowd of protestors stood glaring in my direction. I looked to the left. A crowd of riot police, swaddled in riot gear and bulletproof vests and armed with carbines and tear gas launchers glared back. I stood right in the middle. A few of the police were looking down into the mouth of the subway. Shards of glass lay on the pavement. The cops decided to run down the steps. As soon as they started, the protestors began to jeer at them. Immediately, the police rushed out guns drawn. I heard a “pop”; the police had started firing and canisters of tear gas arced through the air toward the protestors who had already begun to throw rocks. I did not stick around to find out who won.

I would like to say that was the only time I was concerned about my personal safety in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. However, I don’t want to imply that it was a scary or dangerous city. Over the next few days, I will let you decide.

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