Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946)


[Bullet6] Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) (1914-15)

[Bullet6] Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1926)


Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) (1914-15)

for Mezzo-soprano and piano.

The De Falla Fella with a doibyDuring the 1994-95 Season, the Sierra Chamber Society presented a performance of a work by Spain’s foremost twentieth century Composer, Manuel Maria de Falla y Matheu. That late masterpiece, the Harpsichord Concerto (1926), evoked the asceticism and mysticism of Catholic Spain, as well as the brittle keyboard music of Scarlatti.

Today’s offering, by contrast, composed over a decade before the Concerto, is redolent of the sensuous rhythms, exotic melodies, and brilliant tonal colors of the music of Spain. These brief songs span an emotional range as varied as the Iberian landscape - from the fierce passions of the joys and pains of love, to the tender intimacy of a mother’s lullaby. The work is, as well, a travelogue, representing the various regions of Spain.

The Seven Spanish Folksongs were composed during a period of intense creative activity, following Falla’s return to Spain (at the outbreak of W.W.I), after a seven year stay in Paris. (Falla was a very superstitious man, who believed, among other things, that life was divided into seven year periods. True to his belief, he died a few days before his 70th birthday, neatly completing his tenth seven-year period.) Though he composed very little during his Parisian years, he was befriended by France’s leading composers: Dukas, Debussy and Ravel, who were greatly impressed by his early opera La Vida Breve (1904-05). It was, however, after his return to Madrid that all he had absorbed in matters musical came to fruition. He produced a string of masterworks that have become perennials in the concert repetory; El Amor Brujo (Love the Magician)(1915), Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1916), and the brilliant (in all senses of the word) ballet The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), commissioned by Diaghlev’s Ballet Russe, with scenery by his countryman Pablo Picasso.

The Seven Spanish Folksongs feature songs from different regions of Spain, and while the texts are authentic folk material, the melodies are often varied and the accompaniment treated even more freely - in the "Impressionist" style of the time.

The first two songs, El Pano Moruno and Sequidilla Murciana are from the Murcia region in Southeast Spain. A sequidilla is a moderately fast dance of Southern Spain in triple meter, with a text based on four line poems. In performance, these lines can be broken up and freely repeated, and are often interspersed with guitar passages.

The sad third song, Asturiana, is from the Asturias region of Northern Spain, while in contrast, the lively fourth song Jota, typifies the music of the Aragon Region of Northeastern Spain. The Jota is a rapid dance in triple time performed by one or more couples and accompanied by castanets. This song seems a forerunner to the famous jota in The Three-Cornered Hat. The fifth song, Nana, a traditional lullaby, is said to have been sung to Falla as an infant by his mother and his wet nurse. The sixth song, Cancion, is based on a melody known throughout Spain, while the seventh song, Polo, comes from Andalusia and evokes flamenco music of the Andalusian gypsies.

The work was first performed at the Atheneo Academy Salon in Madrid in 19l5 by soprano Luisa Vela with the composer at the piano.

1995-96 Season, Program II, Sunday December 3, 1995

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Manuel De Falla (1876-1946)

Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello (1926)


That DeFalla Fella"Don Manuel was a tiny man with large eyes burned deep into his bald skull. His head was very fine, with a fringe of iron-gray hair like a low tonsure. His skin was waxen brown. He carried a cane like a soldier, forcing service out of it. His mouth was very narrow. He stood at the table to talk, resting his large hands on it. His features were elongated as if by a combination of spiritual discipline and disease. He had the fanatic, suppressed asceticism of St. Francis as imagined by El Greco."

Lincoln Kirstein

Director of the New York City Ballet


Despite a rather small output of work, Manuel Maria de Falla y Matheu remains Spain’s foremost twentieth century composer. Born in Cadiz, he received his earliest musical instruction from his mother. As a young child, he appeared in performance with his mother in her piano four hand arrangement of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. This work had been written by Haydn for the Cathedral of Cadiz. After working with several private teachers, Falla attended the Madrid Conservatory where he studied under two of Spain’s finest musicians, Felipe Pedrell and pianist Jose Trago. Although he had the potential to be a fine concert pianist, Falla chose the path of composition rather than performance. It was Pedrell who introduced Falla to the riches of the folk music of Spain and the possibilities of using it to build a national art. After completing his studies in Madrid, he traveled to Paris on what was intended to be a seven week trip, but which wound up being a seven year stay (1907-1914) during which he was befriended by France’s leading composers; Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Though clearly assimilating much from the musical banquet that was Paris, he composed only four short piano pieces and three songs. It was not until his return to Spain that he would put to use all that he had absorbed, and produce a series of distinguished works, all of which remain frequently heard through performance and recording - El Amor Brujo (1915), Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1916) and his most brilliant (in all senses of the word) work The Three Cornered Hat (1919). This work was commissioned by Diaghilev for the famed Ballet Russe, with sets and costumes by De Falla's countryman Pablo Picasso.

Despite the great success of these works, along with his earlier opera La Vida Breva, Falla was loathe to become a composer of tourist office Spanish music, such as was dished up by the French, the Russians and a Pole or two. Yet, he was to be influenced by a young Russian, Stravinsky (the Stravinsky of Le Noce and Symphonies of Wind Instruments with their primitive and religious folk elements and the crisp Neo-classicism of Pulcinella). Like Stravinsky’s works of the post World War I period, Falla’s works of the Twenties were in marked contrast to the large, lush orchestral works which gained him fame. Whether it was the aesthetics or economics, (most likely a combination of both), Falla’s works of the Twenties were all on a small scale marked by economy of means and conciseness. During this decade, he produced only five works: a piece for solo guitar, Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1921), Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas (1922) for voice and piano, Psyche (1924) for voice and chamber ensemble, the chamber opera El Retablo de Maese Pedro (1923) Master Peter’s Puppet Show, (based on an episode from Don Quixote), and the Harpsichord Concerto (1926). After having performed the harpsichord part written for her, in El Retablo, Wanda Landowska commissioned what was to become the Harpsichord Concerto. Though containing less than thirteen minutes of music, the Concerto took Falla three years to complete.

Of this work the great authority on Spanish and Latin American music, Gilbert Chase, has written: "It is a very brief work, in three movements (Allegro, Lento, Vivace), and magnificent effects of sonority are obtained with the utmost economy of means. In the slow movement, which this writer considers the most original, the most beautiful, and the most Spanish of all Falla’s musical utterances, the impression of vastness - as though one were in the interior of some great cathedral, conveyed by the sweeping arpeggios of the harpsichord and the ingenious spacing of the solo instruments, is truly overwhelming.

In the first movement of the Concerto, Falla uses the delightful Sixteenth Century song by Juan Vazquez, "De los alamos vengo, Madre", which undoubtedly had its original inspiration in popular sources. So naturally is this blended with the other themes, and with the general texture of the composition, that its presence seems to have escaped the attention of most commentators. The last movement, with its characteristic alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 time, sparkles with a very Scarlattian - and very Spanish - rhythmic vivacity. The Harpsichord Concerto marks the culmination of Falla’s Hispanism. Never has the eternal essence of Spain been so nakedly embodied in music. It is Manuel de Falla’s masterpiece."

The work was dedicated to Wanda Landowska and introduced by her at a festival of Falla’s music conducted by Pablo Casals in Barcelona on November 5, 1926.

Although he lived for another twenty years, the Concerto was the last major work he completed. His deep ascetic religiosity led him to support the Franco Nationalists whom he saw as a check to the anti-religious sentiment of the Left. He was appointed President of the Institute of Spain by Franco in 1935. He was quickly disillusioned by the Franco Regime and in 1938, resigned his post and emigrated to Argentina where he was cared for by his sister and where he died in 1946.

1994-95 Season, Program II, Sunday December 11, 1994

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All original material on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way