Manuel de Falla: Danza Espanola, For Orchestra (from “La Vida Breve”)

Here’s a nice little rousing piece for a sunny (at least where I am) Monday morning.


Manuel de Falla. Nights in the Garden of Spain

Today’s piece is probably the most well known of Falla’s. It evokes the Moorish palaces, the cyprus and orange trees, the fountains and tiles of the cities of Grenada and Seville. The orchestration owes its debt to the lush and colorful impressionistic style that Debussy and Ravel, Falla’s teachers, pioneered. It’s quite atmospheric.  It’s a great piece to listen to as I think back to my first visit to Spain in 1977 (read below).

A Shot in the Dark

Something about Flamenco music has always appealed to me. In the 1960s, when they still broadcast variety shows on television, from time to time you’d get a glimpse of this stylized but intensely passionate art form. In the fall of 1976, the semester before I went to France, my friend Thom Klem and I became fascinated with Flamenco and bought several albums. One of them, the liner notes said that whenever a particularly gifted singer went off on a particularly soulful riff, another might say, “Eso es!” This was short for “Eso es canto moro!” (That’s a real Moorish song.”) Kind of like saying, it’s the real McCoy. This shows just how much influence the moors had on Spain and Spanish music.
A number of the best Flamenco musicians in Spain are Roma. Because of my Hungarian ancestry, I feel some sort of soulful connection to this music.

Now, Barcelona does not have the reputation as the best place in Spain to go and see the best Flamenco. Supposedly that distinction goes to Grenada and Seville. But, when Inge, Chris and I hitchhiked to Barcelona in the Spring of 1977, we didn’t know that. So one night we set off together in search of a club that Inge had read about. Supposedly you could see the real Flamenco there.

The bar turned out to sit in the very earthy and old section of town near the port where we had visited a small Romanesque church, as I described in my last entry. That worried me a little because it was not what you would call a salubrious neighborhood. When we got there about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, the streets were oddly quiet. We hadn’t yet figured out the Spanish schedule. They eat very late in the evening and then go out for their evening promenade at 10, 11, or 12 at night.

We found the club and walked in. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when they did we saw we were the only customers in the place. We sat down at a table, and immediately a group of people swarmed around us. They consisted of two guitar players, a couple of guys in puffy shirts, and a couple of tall dark, middle aged women in bright lurid sateen dresses.

The spokesman for this group asked us if we had come to listen to Flamenco music. We said yes. Then he asked if we would like for them to play for us. Inge answered yes, and the man said for that to happen, we would have to buy them a round of whiskey. We did so and were charged what seemed an exorbitant price (at least for me, a student). At the time, I had some nagging doubts about being ripped off, but then they started to play.

I was transported! The men had such soulful voices. The two singers also clapped out an intricately syncopated rhythm that made them sound like about 20 people clapping. After the first song, the women stood up and started to dance. The heels of their high, thick black shoes exploded in staccato burst as they pounded out the rhythm. The men joined them and they performed an intense dance while staring intently into each others eyes, like two grouse locked in a courtship dance.

Here’s a modern example.  Imagine these musicians and dancers sitting next to you and performing!

When they finished, they asked if we would like to buy them more whiskey. We demurred and took the cue that it was time to leave. I was a bit disappointed but nevertheless I had seen real Flamenco. Though it may not have been under the best circumstance it seemed real and vital. Maybe this was even more valuable. Suppose the place had been full of tourists or in a great hall. Never would we have gotten so close to them nor had our own personal performance.

Back outside, the streets had filled with people. We started off in the direction of our pension and had to wind our way through the knots of people out for their walks. It seemed like a tough crowd–no pale northern European types like us. The crowd was composed of young swells, and sailors, and plump women in dowdy old sweaters. It unsettled me and I encouraged Chris and Inge to hurry.

We turned the corner onto another crowded street and got about midway down the block when we found ourselves even with what looked like members of a gang. They were scruffy young toughs in leather trousers and open shirts. I bristled a bit when I saw them and I tried to look away and keep on our way. As we passed the, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the men reach into his shirt and pull a pistol out that he had had tucked into his belt. He pointed the gun up and in the direction of another man in the group and shouted something. The crowd started to scatter and I yelled to Chris and Inge “He’s got a gun!” and we took off running. We got to the Ramblas before looking back and realized that the crowd had closed up behind us and no one else seemed alarm.

If my last two entries paint a somewhat unfavorable picture of Barcelona, I apologize. Remember this was 22 years ago and just after Franco had died. On our subsequent outings in the city, we found much to love and charm us. But that is for another day.

Manuel de Falla. El Amor Brujo

I have heard this piece many times in my life before, but I never knew its name until just a few years ago. However, you can tell immediately that a Spanish composer penned it. Two of the most famous dances from it are “The Dance of Terror,” and “The Ritual Fire Dance.” Falla studied in Paris and was part of a circle of composers that fell under the influence of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Like Albinez, the Spanish musicologist, Pedrell, encouraged Falla to incorporate Spanish themes and tunes.  “El Amor Brujo” premiered in Barcelona in 1915, and it evokes memories of my visit to that city in 1977, which I describe below.

As he matured, Falla became a reclusive and intensely religious. Stravinsky once describe Falla as being “the most unpityingly religious person I have ever known-and the least sensible to manifestations of humor.” And it is odd that he would compose a work called El Amor Brujo, (Love, the Magician), the music for a one act ballet. Falla briefly sided with Franco during the Spanish Civil War, probably because of the anti-religious sentiments of the communists. However, those sentiments continued under Franco and the monarchy was overthrown, Falla went into exile in Argentina where he died in 1946.

Here’s the wikipedia entry on it. Wiki

Burning Love in Barcelona

If you stood at the bottom of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and looked up toward the foothills, to the right lay the working class and artisanal neighborhood, where our pension sat, and to the right you had the poorer sailors’ quarter. The farther up the Ramblas you walked inland from the port, the neighborhoods became more middle class and prosperous. In 1977, my two fellow hitchhikers, Chris and Inge, and I made two excursions to the maritime quarter–once to visit a Romanesque church during the day, and the next time to visit a Flamenco club that same night. When we visited the latter, we were swindled and nearly got shot.

Our trip to the church took us down even more winding and narrower streets than in our own quarter. The farther we walked the air became cooler and the noise of the Ramblas died out. The buildings seemed to take on a Moorish feel– geometric tiles decorated the white stucco walls. Some of the apartments had wonderful door-sized gates made of hammered iron, wrought into intricate curlicue patterns.  It began to rain.

We finally found the church, which sat in a small plaza. It had the thin narrow windows with half round tops that typify the Romanesque style. I don’t remember much about the inside, but I immediately fell in love with the cloisters. It was only about 20 feet across but the columns showed off exquisite workmanship. Some were carved into elegant twisted rope designs and other had bits of glass and stone set into them. For some reason, certain buildings or places resonate with me and make me feel as if they give off a kind of mystical or spiritual emanation. Perhaps the rain had something to do with it. The stones of the unkempt interior courtyard were overgrown with grass and it looked vaguely tropical with a small palmetto and a few papyrus plants potted in a small pool. There were no modern sounds, no lights, no air conditioning and it as if this scene had not changed for over a thousand years.

Somehow when we left the church, we became disoriented and found ourselves quite lost in the maze of streets. The more we walked, the farther we seemed to get away from modern Barcelona and again I had the sense of going back in time. At one point we turned a corner and found ourselves at the top of a long, narrow, dirt street. It teemed with people, so we started walking down it, thinking it must lead to Las Ramblas.

Something soon began to look odd about the street. First off, the people on the narrow sidewalks turned out to be for the most part middle-aged men. So too it seemed that mostly men made up the people standing in the middle of the street, though they were younger, and some looked like sailors. Next the windows of the shops along the street held a strange type of ware-things like hot water bottles, long rubber tubes, and what looked like huge rubber syringes or turkey-basters. The men on the side of the street would call to those walking along. Sometimes a younger man would walk over, they would exchange a few words, and the two would then disappear into the entrance or up an exterior stairway. It took a while, but finally the penny dropped–we had wondered into a street full of bordellos. This street, however, had none of the glamour of the red light districts you read about in Amsterdam. The whole place seemed like something out of a Fellini movie, and if a grotesquely huge woman had emerged dressed in a bearskin, I would not have shown the least surprise. No one approached us as we hurried down the street and found our way back to our pension.

I wish I could say that was the most traumatic experience we had in Barcelona, but it wasn’t. But that is for another day.

%d bloggers like this: