(November 23, 1876 - November 14, 1946)
Manuel de Falla was born into a well-off family in Cádiz on 23 November 1876; his father was a businessman, and his musical studies were initiated by his mother. The musical life of a small provincial town like Cádiz - though it was famous for the celebrated Musica instrumentale sopra le 7 ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce
specially composed by Haydn for her cathedral in 1785 - had little to offer to a boy like Manuel who had displayed a great disposition for music. When the family moved to Madrid in 1897 he enrolled at the Conservatory; here, in 1901, he met Felipe Pedrell, to whom he was always to be bound by deep friendship and respect. If we look back at the catalogue of his youthful works, alongside the typical pièces de salon inspired by Mendelssohn or Grieg we find a few zarzuelas
, the successful Spanish theatrical genre which was the only possible professional outlet for a talented young musician in early-century Madrid. In 1905 he won the competition for compositions held by the “Academia de Bellas Artes” with the opera La vida breve to a libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw, but when the work was not performed - although the prize promised this - Falla decided to leave Madrid to go to one of the great cultural capitals of Europe: Paris.
The seven years spent in the French capital were of fundamental importance for Falla’s development and career. It was here that his compositional language reached maturity; in contact with Debussy, Dukas, Ravel, Viñes and the other emigré Spanish musicians Albéniz and Turina, and in spite of many financial difficulties, Falla created his first great masterpieces. He finished revising La vida breve
, which was to be successfully performed in Nice in April 1913 and at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in January 1914; he completed the Cuatro piezas españolas
for piano, begun in Madrid and performed by Ricardo Viñes in a concert organized by the Societé Nationale de Musique; he wrote Trois mélodies
to texts by Gautier and Siete canciones populares españolas
for voice and piano; he also began composing Noches en los jardines de España
for piano and orchestra, which is clearly indebted to Debussy for its orchestral colouring. But in Paris, in addition to discovering the music of Debussy, Dukas, Ravel, and the Russian school - he was excited by the performance of Boris Godunov organized by the “Ballets Russes” - Falla made a sort of pact, together with Turina and Albéniz, to create purely Spanish music that was free from foreign influence. Paris was therefore the city that opened up the horizons of new European music for him, but at the same time it was the place that took him back to his Iberian origins, in accordance with that oscillating movement Malipiero was alluding to in the above quotation.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Falla returned to his native land, to Madrid, where he established his residence, and composed the ballets which were to make him famous throughout Europe. El amor brujo
, at first a “gitanería in one act and two scenes” written expressly for the cantaora and excellent ballerina Pastora Imperio in a version for chamber orchestra (1915), was reworked a year later for large orchestra and staged in Paris in 1925 with another great interpreter, “La Argentina”. The 1917 pantomime El corregidor y la molinera
, inspired by Alarcón’s novella, became the celebrated Sombrero de tres picos
for Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes” in London in 1919, with sets by Picasso. He also wrote the Fantasía bética
for piano, from the Latin name for Andalusia, and Homenaje for guitar in memory of Claude Debussy. In these operas Falla revisits the rich Andalusian folklore, the diversified heritage of the cante flamenco, from the nocturnal and magical enchantment of gypsy rites in El amor brujo
to the eighteenth-century atmosphere of Alarcón’s novella in El sombrero
, from the pianistic transfigurations of the guitar’s rasgueado in the Fantasía
to the transpositions for guitar of refined Debussian harmonies in Soirée dans Grenade
. But, curiously, he visits his native, magical Andalusia from distant, harsh Castile, as further proof of that ambivalent significance the folkloric document held for him: his music was hardly ever the result of research in the field - as was the case with Béla Bartók - but was rather the imaginative re-invention of a song, the quest for an expressive language that is immediate and extraneous to any form of historical evolution.
In September 1920 he moved definitively to Granada, to the little carmen of the Antequeruela Alta, on the slopes where the Alhambra stands. Here, together with Federico García Lorca and Gerardo Diego, he organized a competition for cante jondo in June 1922; he wrote El retablo de Maese Pedro
for puppet theatre, performed at M.me de Polignac’s palace in Paris on 25 June 1923, Psyché
for voice and instruments (1925), and the Concerto for harpsichord (1923-26) for Wanda Landowska. Falla’s musical language became drier, Andalusia was no longer the source of his inspiration as much as - now distant - Castile, alongside the revival of interest in eighteenth-century instrumental writing - above all Scarlatti’s - that characterized the horizon of European music in the ‘twenties. This is how Stravinsky remembered the London performance of the Concerto
and El retablo
in June 1927: “While in London I had an opportunity of hearing a very beautiful concert of the works of Manuel de Falla. With a precision and crispness meriting high praise, he conducted his remarkable El retablo de Maese Pedro
, in which he had the valuable assistance of M.me Vera Janacopoulos. I also greatly enjoyed hearing his Concerto for harpsichord
or piano, which he himself played on the latter instrument. In my opinion these two works give proof of incontestable progress in the development of his great talent. He has, in them, deliberately emancipated himself from the folklorist influence under which he was in danger of stultifying himself”.
Towards the end of 1926 he started work on an ambitious project, the scenic cantata Atlántida
to a text drawn from the homonymous poem by the Catalan Jacinto Verdaguer; the work was never to be finished,and accompanied him constantly for the rest of his life, right up to his death in Argentina in 1946. In his final years, his state of health and the dramatic political events leading to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 reduced Falla’s productivity. In 1933 he spent a few winter months in Majorca, where he composed the Balada de Mallorca
in homage to Chopin, adapting for unaccompanied chorus the Andantino
of Chopin’s second Ballade, to a text by the Catalan poet Verdaguer; Falla had already drawn inspiration from Chopin in 1918 in the theatrical work Fuego fatuo
, which was never published.
In 1935, to mark the death of his friend and teacher Paul Dukas, he wrote Pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas
for piano,which appeared in the monographic issue of “La Revue Musicale” in 1936. The outbreak of the Civil War, the killing of his friend Federico García Lorca by the Francoists, and the bloody violence of the conflict sorely tested the composer; yet even this suffering could not make him oppose the Franco regime which had set itself up as the defender of the Catholic values in which Falla had deeply believed since his youth. But he had decided to leave Spain at the first opportunity, and on 2 October 1939 he embarked at Barcelona to go to Buenos Aires for a series of concerts, invited by the Spanish Institute of Culture; he was never to make the return journey. Falla took with him the score of his latest symphonic composition, Homenajes
, a suite of four pieces dedicated to four musicians connected with Falla: 1) Fanfare sobre el nombre de E.F. Arbós
, written for the seventieth birthday of the famous violinist and conductor; 2) à Claude Debussy (Elegía de la guitarra)
, orchestration of the earlier homage for guitar; 3) à Paul Dukas (Spes vitae), orchestration of the homage for piano; 4) Pedrelliana
, the largest movement of the suite, inspired by themes from La Celestina
(1903), the unperformed opera by his great teacher Pedrell. Falla conducted the performance of this work at the Teatro Colón in the Argentine capital in November 1939.
In 1941 he settled at Alta Gracia, in the province of Córdoba, passing the last days of his life editing the ‘Versiones espresivas’ of some polyphonic works by Tomás Luís de Victoria, and working constantly on his most ambitious project, which he never finished: Atlántida
He died on 14 November 1946.