IBERIA: 12 new “impressions”, in four books

“Iberia is the wonder for the piano; it is perhaps on the highest place among the more brilliant pieces for the king of the instruments.”— Olivier Messiaen

“Albéniz appears to me a real genius, occupying a wholly unique and precious niche amongst the greatest pianistic composers of all time.”— Percy Grainger

“Some of his music is needlessly difficult to play, but all of it is of that happy kind that pleases both the greater and smaller musical publics.”— Percy Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, 1955


Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) wrote many charming, easy-to-play salon pieces for the piano, with Spanish flavor. But his twelve Iberian “impressions” are totally different. If the salon pieces are postcards of Spain, the Iberia pieces are rich romantic-impressionistic canvases. Composed in a bit over two years near the end of his life, when he was sick with kidney disease, this set of carefully constructed tone poems is his masterpiece. Extremely dense and complex, they combine Lisztian piano writing, modern (1906-1909) French techniques, and Spanish rhythms and harmonies, which had been influenced by Moors, Jews, and Gypsies through the years. Interestingly, all of the melodies (with one exception) are inventions of the composer, not actual folk tunes.


BOOK I

Evocación

A contemplative mood is set with this immensely sad and beautiful introductory piece, originally called Preludio. It is written in A-flat minor, with a key signature of seven flats. The same notes could have been written in G-sharp minor, which has only five sharps, but Albéniz had a strong general preference for flats. Most of the twelve pieces are in flat keys, and often, sometimes comically, he will write harmonies in multiple flats and double-flats, rather than in their simpler natural versions.

El Puerto

A colorful zapateado, a heel-clicking dance, with a lyrical middle section and a languorous coda. It has a certain rough humor, with abrupt mood changes and sudden accents. Originally titled Cadix, it evokes the port city of Cádiz.

El Corpus en Sevilla

The march that begins this is the only pre-existing Spanish tune used by Albéniz in Iberia. In describing a religious procession through the streets of Seville, the virtuosic music rises to Lisztian climaxes, with some finger-twisting fireworks near the end. But it is the slow, extended middle section with strumming guitars, and the haunting coda with church bells, that are the true beauties of this piece.


BOOK II

Rondeña

Ronda is a village in Andalusia. This is a cheerful, energetic dance with frequent alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 bars. Leonard Bernstein famously used this rhythm in his West Side Story song, America. Also, there is a slow cante jondo (deep song) section in the middle, and two themes are combined later in an exciting climax and a beautiful coda.

Almería

A serene, gently rocking song of great beauty, alternating with another slow cante jondo theme, then rising to an agitated climax before subsiding again into calmness. Almería is a port town on the southern coast of Spain.

Triana

Probably the most well-known piece of Iberia, it is heard frequently in its orchestrated version by Enrique Fernández Arbós. The early sections have sharp rhythms, but the lyrical second theme (a marcha torero, traditionally played when a bullfighter enters the ring) is the heart of the music. Triana is the gypsy quarter of Seville.


BOOK III

El Albaicín

Describing the gypsy quarter of Granada, El Albaicín has a flamenco-like beginning which leads to an exotic scale-like theme, for which Albéniz wants the piano to imitate the sound of two woodwinds. These two ideas are developed in surprising ways, with great contrasts of mood and texture. Debussy considered this “a perfect piece.”

El Polo

“Toujours dans l'esprit du sanglot,” Albéniz writes, “always with the feeling of sobbing.” El Polo is filled with melancholy tunes and jazzy dissonances. There are no dotted rhythms here — just one note on every beat, with some tied beats. Nevertheless it is extremely interesting rhythmically. The hypnotic dance rhythm has unexpected accents (ONE two three, (four) FIVE (six)) that keep you slightly off-balance. Albéniz writes in the score, “Polo is an Andalusian song and dance, and has nothing to do with the sport of the same name.”

Lavapiés

“This piece must be played joyfully and freely,” writes the composer. It is purposefully dissonant, raucous and clangorous because it is describing the cacophony of a popular section of Madrid. This is the only piece of Iberia that concerns northern Spain; all the rest are in Andalusia, the south. At one point in the manuscript, Albéniz actually asks the performer to play “with exaggeratedly bad taste”! That’s not easy. And the final page is marked, “intentionally mischievous.” Lavapiés is perhaps the most difficult of all the twelve pieces in Iberia, and Albéniz told his friends that he had almost burned the manuscript in despair because he thought he had written something unplayable.


BOOK IV

Málaga

Málaga is a city on the Mediterranean coast. This piece is bursting with rhythmic energy, drama, and soaring melody. But the real gem is the lyrical second theme, with soft, piquant chords above it. When Carlos Surinach orchestrated this piece, he used three flutes to play these accompanying chords, to great effect. In 1928, Maurice Ravel wanted to orchestrate six pieces from Iberia for a commissioned ballet, but Albéniz had already promised the orchestration rights to his friend, Arbós. Even though Arbós graciously offered to forfeit his exclusivity when he heard of Ravel’s predicament, Ravel was no longer excited by the project, and instead, to fulfill his commission, he composed his famous Bolero.

Jerez

Jerez is where Sherry wine comes from. Albéniz writes “bolero aburrío” at the top of the manuscript. A “boring” bolero? Is this another of the composer’s little jokes? Certainly it is a bolero dance in slow 3/4 rhythm. Perhaps it is tiresome because it lacks the fast triplets common to many boleros (think of Ravel’s). But the dance is hypnotic and sensual, and at times dramatic, as it winds through many variations. The pieces in Books III and IV are more complicated than those in the first two Books; they are more challenging to both the listener and the performer.

Eritaña

Eritaña is not a city or a section of one, but the name of a tavern just outside the gates of Seville. In Bizet’s Carmen, the tavern in Act II is located “Près des remparts de Seville”...could it be the same tavern? It is fun to imagine Carmen and her friends dancing there to these swirling rhythms. Albéniz uses the words, “playful”, “graceful”, and “joyous” in the score. What a happy way to end this great work!

These notes © Peter Schaaf. To download a pdf file of the
notes, biography, and timings from the CD, click HERE.