Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz (May 29, 1860 -- May 18, 1909) was a Spanish pianist and composer, most famous for his musical interpretations of Spanish dance and folk song.

Albéniz was born in Camprodón in northeastern Spain. His musical education was clearly thorough, though he never felt comfortable in the Conservatory setting. He was trained on the piano by his sister starting at the age of one, and was performing publicly by the age of four. He was denied entrance to the Paris Conservatory at age seven due to his immaturity, but enrolled in Spain's Royal Conservatory in Madrid shortly afterward. He was unhappy there and often ran away from home. Though he was rumored to have run away to South America at age twelve, he actually accompanied his father, a customs inspector, to Cuba, and began touring the western hemisphere. He returned to Spain at the age of 15. After a short stay at Leipzig (hoping to study with Franz Liszt) he moved again to Brussels before untertaking a successful tour of Europe. He never had the opportunity to meet Liszt, let alone study under him.

In 1883 Albéniz met fellow Spanish musician Felipe Pedrell, a nationalist who was deeply committed to Spanish art, music, and culture. Pedrell is credited with influencing the young Albéniz to write music incorporating Spanish folk music and dance, though Albéniz' own talent as a performer and composer propelled him to stardom. He took up teaching in Madrid starting in 1885, and became one of the preeminent touring performers of the era. In 1890, he moved to London to perform and tour, and moved on to Paris in 1894. He devoted his time at the end of the nineteenth century to composing operas, but returned to solo piano compositions almost exclusively after the turn of the century.

The last decade of Albéniz life was a difficult one. His own life was cut short by Bright's Disease. His wife, whom he deeply loved, was also ill, and they lost one of their three children during this time. Despite this, Albéniz continued composing, including his masterpiece -- the Suite Iberia. He finally died from complications of his illness in Cambó-les Bains in 1909. Despite his later troubles, he was apparently a very happy man, and enjoyed his life, his family, and his art to the fullest.

One of Albéniz' most famous works is his Opus 47, the Suite Española, number one. Although Albéniz' main instrument was the piano, this suite was arranged and often performed for the classical guitar. The Suite Española as it is now published consists of eight pieces, each named for a region of Spain:

Each movement is an impression of each region, based upon a music or dance style found in each region. One thing that should be noted is that the original suite only consisted of four movements -- Cataluña, Cuba, Granada, and Sevilla -- and the eight-movement work was only published posthumously, and probably included pieces not originally intended by Albéniz as part of Española. In fact, the famous Asturias movement may have been misnamed by the publisher, as it is very evocative of the culture of southern Spain rather than the northern province of Asturia. Despite this, all of these pieces are clearly impressionistic views of the life and culture of Andalucia. It is hard to listen to Granada (as I am right now) without imagining walking through Moorish castles, with sunlight, shadows, and breezes washing across ancient courtyards.

His other major work is the Suite Iberia, composed and published during the last decade of his life. It is a solo piano work, also based upon impressions of Spain. It is composed of four books, each with three movements highlighting one region of the country or facet of Spanish culture:

  • Evocacion
  • El puerto
  • El Corpus Christi en Sevilla
  • Rondena
  • Almeria
  • Triana
  • El Albaicin
  • El polo
  • Lavapies
  • Malaga
  • Jerez
  • Eritana

Iberia is considered one of Albéniz' most technically challenging pieces, and even he apparently had difficulty performing it. This may have been deliberate; he was a virtuoso performer, and it's not hard to imagine him wanting to compose music to push his talent to the limit.

In addition to these, he is also known for his operas composed during the 1890's. His operatic works include The Magic Opal, Henry Clifford, and Pepita Jiménez. The latter two were collaborations with his English patron Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who wrote the librettos. His last operatic work, Merlin, went unperformed during his lifetime, and he never finished the two companion pieces he planned, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Most of his major works are easy to find. Andres Segovia often arranged and performed his pieces, and John Williams still does. Several of the Española movements can be found on Williams' recording of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (CBS Masterworks MDK 45648). The pianist Alicia De Larrocha is said to have recorded one of the best renditions of the Suite Iberia, though I haven't heard it yet.

This last link is a very detailed biography and discussion of his life and work in context of Spanish history, culture, and nationalism.

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