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MANUEL DE FALLA (1876-1946)

Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas

April 14, 2019: Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Jason Vieaux, guitar

In 1907 Spanish composer Manuel de Falla went to Paris, where he formed friendships with Debussy, Dukas, and Ravel that greatly influenced his career. At the time of the Paris production of his opera La vida breve in the winter of 1913–14, a Spanish singer in the cast asked Falla for advice about which Spanish songs she should include on a Paris recital. He decided to arrange some Spanish songs himself using his own system of harmony, which he had just tried out for the harmonization of a Greek folk song requested by a Greek singing teacher.

This system stemmed from Falla’s study of Louis Lucas’s L’acoustique nouvelle, a mid-nineteenth-century treatise he had picked up as a young man in Madrid at an open-air book stall, and which was to influence his later style profoundly. It consisted of deriving harmonies from the natural resonance of a fundamental tone, that is, its overtones, then using these as new fundamental tones. Though Falla never lost sight of traditional harmony he claimed that this system, which anticipated harmonic theories of the twentieth century, revolutionized his entire conception of harmony.

The composer completed the Siete canciones in Paris before the outbreak of World War I forced him to return to Madrid in 1914. Ironically, He did not permit the singer who had sought his advice to perform them on a Spanish-themed program in Paris because of a bad experience he himself had had performing on a similar Spanish program. The songs were first performed by Luisa Vela (who had just sung in the Madrid premiere of La vida breve) accompanied by the composer in Madrid on January 14, 1915. The first Paris performance was delayed until May 1920. The songs are dedicated to Madame Ida Godebski, a great friend of Falla; Cipa and Ida Godebski’s famous salon in Paris was a gathering place for many other composers and writers including Roussel, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gide, Valéry, and Cocteau.

Falla chose to set seven folk songs from various regions of Spain. García Matos, in his detailed study of Falla’s sources in the Madrid periodical Música in 1953, found that two of the songs closely follow the folk sources as to the tunes and texts, two were retouched slightly, one was modified slightly and expanded, one reworked considerably, and one was probably created from a combination of sources.

The songs have been performed far and wide in all manner of arrangements, often titled Suite populaire espagnole. Ernesto Halffter, student and friend of Falla, orchestrated the accompaniment, and subsequent adaptations have appeared for various instruments, notably a well-known arrangement for violin and piano by famous Polish violinist Paweł Kochański. (No. 2 is omitted in the violin arrangement and its offshoots, as is No. 1 in the arrangements for guitar; various order changes are also common.)

“Asturiana” takes the listener to the North of Spain for a peaceful lament. The passionate “Jota” takes the name of one of the most widely known Spanish song and dance forms, associated with the region of Aragon. Falla employs the characteristic alternation of sections of rapid accompaniment in 3/8 meter with those in a slower tempo for the melody line.

“Nana” is a lullaby, which Falla said he heard as a child from “his mother’s lips before he was old enough to think.” The tune stems from Andalusia, and as such differs from other Spanish cradle songs because, according to the composer, much Andalusian vocal music originated in India. The geographical origin of the “Canción” is uncertain, although Falla followed the popular theme fairly faithfully according to Matos. At the end a canon between the voice (violin in this case) and the accompaniment provides textural interest. The last song, “Polo,” of Andalusian origin, reflects the flamenco or Gypsy world. The original piano accompaniment evokes the guitar’s punteado style—returned here to its source of inspiration—and the accents represent palmadas (hand-clapping) by the spectators.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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