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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Joaquín Rodrigo: Beyond Aranjuez

Hola, recepción a Graham’s Music. Soy Graham Abbott.

Let’s start here.

This music is the start of one of the most famous guitar concertos in the world, even one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world. The Concierto de Aranjuez was composed in 1939 by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, who died at the age of 97 in 1999. Yet as is often the way, none of Rodrigo's other works have achieved the cult status of this landmark concerto, and very little of his music is regularly performed. Welcome to an overview of the life and work of Joaquín Rodrigo as we look "beyond Aranjuez".

Joaquín Rodrigo Vidre was born in Sagunto, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast in 1901. His birthday was November 22nd, the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. In 1905, when the boy was not yet four, an epidemic of diphtheria went though the town and Joaquín was left blind by the illness. He maintained in later life that his blindness actually led him towards a career in music.

Joaquín Rodrigo (1935)

When the family moved to Valencia the following year, Rodrigo showed immense interest in music and it was at this early age that his musical training began. He undertook studies in piano, music theory, harmony and composition. His family employed an assistant for the boy, Rafael Ibáñez, who eventually became an indispensible secretary, copyist and companion for the young musician. Rodrigo's immense knowledge of literature, philosophy and all manner of subjects is largely due to the work of Ibáñez who read countless books and articles to him. Rodrigo later said, "Rafael lent me the eyes I did not have".

By 1920, when he was in his late teens, Rodrigo had developed into an exceptional pianist, and as a composition student was well-acquainted with the latest European trends. His first published work appeared in 1923, when he was 21. It's the Dos Esbozos (Two Sketches) for violin and piano, the only one of his works to be given an opus number. This is the second of the work's two movements. [listen]

A major achievement took place the following year with the premiere of Rodrigo's first orchestral work. Juglares (Jugglers) is very short but it was an enormous success at its premiere in Valencia in 1924. [listen]

In 1925 Rodrigo entered a more ambitious work, Five Children's Pieces, into a national competition. He didn't win but received an honourable mention and, in time, favourable reviews. Contrary to the caption in this YouTube video, the orchestral version of 1924 was the original; the transcription for two pianos was made in 1928. [listen]

In 1927 Rodrigo moved to Paris, following in the footsteps of many other Spanish artists. He studied with Paul Dukas, the composer of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, at the École Normale, and he learned much from the famous French musician over a number of years. Dukas greatly admired Rodrigo, and it was while he was in Paris that Rodrigo met his famous compatriot, the composer Manuel de Falla. Falla supported and encouraged Rodrigo's efforts enormously and they remained firm friends. Rodrigo regularly expressed his gratitude for Falla's support during those years.

Paul Dukas
Manuel de Falla

Rodrigo's assistant, Rafael Ibáñez, went to Paris with him, continuing his role as secretary, copyist, reader and general helper. But a more significant and life-long connection came when he met the Turkish pianist Victoria Kamhi. She and Rodrigo married in Valencia in 1933, after which they returned to Paris in order for him to undertake further studies at the Conservatoire and the Sorbonne. Victoria was a highly-educated woman who spoke several languages. She gave up her performing career to devote herself to Rodrigo, and they were lovers and companions for more than 60 years.

Joaquín Rodrigo and Victoria Kamhi

The year after their marriage Rodrigo wrote Cántico de la esposa (Song of the Bride) as a gift for Victoria. He regarded this short work for soprano and orchestra, which sets an intensely spiritual text, as his best vocal work. [listen]

Rodrigo showed no interest in following the European avant garde, and his style is, to quote Grove, "fundamentally conservative". Like his older compatriot Manuel de Falla, Rodrigo espoused a Spanish form of neo-classicism. Rodrigo himself said his music was neoclassical and "faithful to tradition"; it’s Spanish to the core, often deriving its inspiration from Spanish literature. A good example is the symphonic poem he wrote in 1934, shortly after his marriage to Victoria. It's called Per la flor del lliri blau (For the flower of the blue lily) and is based on a tragic Valencian poem. It was his largest orchestral work to date, taking about 20 minutes to perform. [listen]

This work won new recognition for Rodrigo as he resumed his studies in Paris with Dukas. Dukas' death the following year was a bitter blow to Rodrigo who gave voice to his grief in a short piano work. It's called Sonada de adiós (Sounding of Farewell). [listen]

The later 1930s were difficult years for Rodrigo and his wife. In 1936 they moved to Baden-Baden in Germany and it was while they were there that the Spanish Civil War broke out. Scholarship support from Spain stopped and they remained refugees in Germany, teaching at an institute for the blind in Freiburg, until they could return to Spain in 1938. The late 1930s were hardly a stable time for Germany, either...

The return to Spain saw the Rodrigos connect again with Spanish cultural life, despite the difficulties of the Civil War. A meeting with guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza led to the suggestion that Rodrigo should compose a guitar concerto, an idea the composer readily agreed to. The result was his most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, the first movement of which is linked at the top of this article. Rodrigo composed the work while he was back in Paris in 1939 and Regino Sainz de la Maza gave the premiere in Madrid in 1940. Aranjuez is the royal palace near Madrid with famous gardens, and in the concerto Rodrigo seeks to evoke an elegance and a melancholy of bygone eras. In doing so, Rodrigo also happened to create one of the most famous, most arranged, and most recognisable melodies in the world. [listen]

Palace of Aranjuez
Gardens of Aranjuez

In writing this, his first concerto, it seemed that Rodrigo had found the form in which he could express his musical ideas best. Over the next forty years he wrote many more concertos, although his next-performed concerto was in fact conceived some years before the guitar concerto. The piano concerto is called Concierto heroico, a large-scale four movement work which reminds us that Rodrigo himself was a virtuoso pianist. [listen]

The Concierto heroico was premiered in 1942 and despite the second world war, the 1940s saw Rodrigo's professional stranding within Spain (where he now lived permanently) steadily grow. He held directorial and administrative positions for a number of organisations and received many awards.

In 1948 Rodrigo composed one of his most important works. It's based on one of the most important works of Spanish literature, Cervantes' Don Quixote. Called Ausencias de Dulcinea (Dulcinea's Absence) it's scored for baritone, four sopranos and orchestra and thus blends the worlds of song cycle and symphonic poem. The work won him the Cervantes Prize for that year and it is generally regarded as one of his most important pieces. It certainly proves that the accusation that Rodrigo simply repeated the "Aranjuez formula" for the rest of his life is completely false. [listen]

In 1951 Rodrigo was admitted as a permanent member of the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. At the ceremony his address was called "Taught technique and unlearned inspiration" and he also performed his Five Castillian Sonatas which had been specially written for the occasion.

The following year Rodrigo created the Concierto Serenata for the harpist Nicanor Zabaleta. Like the Castillian Sonatas it shows an indebtedness to the 18th century, and to the sounds of Scarlatti and Soler in particular. The video linked here features Zabaleta playing the work in a historic live performance from Spanish television. [listen]

The second of Rodrigo's works for guitar and orchestra was composed for Andrés Segovia in 1954. The Fantasía para un gentilhombre (Fantasia for a Gentleman) is a skilful reworking of Spanish Baroque dances and as such it stands alongside works of a similar nature, like Respighi's suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and Stravinsky's Pulcinella. [listen]

Andrés Segovia (L) with Rodrigo

Throughout the 60s and 70s Rodrigo travelled widely to teach and eventually became regarded as Spain's leading composer of the second half of the 20th century, a position Falla had filled for the first half. The steady stream of concertos are among his most popular works, but there are other pieces which are much less well-known today that show another side of his character.

One such work is Himnos de los neófitos de Qumrán (Hymns of the Neophytes of Qumrán). The first movement was premiered in 1965, and two further movements were added later, making the definitive work in 1974. The text is an adaptation (made by Rodrigo's wife) of extracts from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. It's scored for three sopranos, male chorus, and a small orchestra which does not use violins. This is a side of Rodrigo not often seen in the more popular concertos. [listen]

Famous Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, with Rodrigo and his wife

In the Concierto madrigal of 1966 [listen] - for two guitars and orchestra - Rodrigo again harks back to the past by basing the work on a Renaissance partsong, and again the popularity of this work has led many to think "that's all there is" to Rodrigo. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Qumrán hymns clearly demonstrate. Famous soloists commissioned works from Rodrigo late in his life, including James Galway in 1978 (the flute concerto known as Concierto pastoral - listen) and Julian Lloyd Webber in 1981 (the Concierto como un divertimento for cello and orchestra - listen), to name only two.

But one of Rodrigo's last works again flies in the face of the popular view. The Canticle of St Francis of Assisi was composed in 1982 to mark the 800th anniversary of the saint's birth. It falls very definitely into the world of Spanish mysticism and treads the paths of simplicity and depth, as did St Francis himself. [listen]

Honours continued to be showered upon Rodrigo in his final years, including prizes and honorary doctorates. His last works date from 1987, the year in which he turned 86, and King Juan Carlos I elevated him to the Spanish nobility (as 1st Marquess of the Gardens of Aranjuez) in 1991. Victoria Kamhi-Rodrigo died in 1997 and her famous husband died in 1999, a few months before his 98th birthday. Both are buried together in the cemetery at Aranjuez.

Coat of Arms of the 1st Marquess of the Gardens of Aranjuez

As might be expected I've only scratched the surface in this attempt to reveal a little of the hidden Rodrigo. There are many other orchestral works, as well as a substantial body of piano music and songs, plus choral music, incidental music for plays and works for solo guitar. But I hope it's revealed a little of the treasures which await if one looks "beyond Aranjuez" in the life and work of Joaquín Rodrigo.

I’ll allow Rodrigo the last word, with one of his beautiful early piano works, Zarabanda lejana (Distant Serenade). [listen]

Bust of Rodrigo, with an image of Victoria Kamhi in the background. España Park, Rosario, Santa Fe Province, Argentina

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2010.

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