Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Spanish Music

by Robert Bovington

Think of Spanish music and one immediately conjures up images of guitar music and flamenco. However, there is much more to the music of Spain than the soulful chants of gipsies and the strumming of guitars. Like everything else in this country, Spanish music is diverse. Every region has its traditions and folk music is part of that heritage; there have been important Spanish composers in the world of Classical music. Spanish popular music may not be as fashionable as that from Britain or America but it is still pretty good and then there is Zarzuela which is the Spanish form of operetta. So with all this musical wealth to discuss where do I start? Let's start at the beginning...

Ancient historians record that music existed in pre-history. Whether it was used as a primitive form of communications, or as an adjunct to communal labour, or to liven up religious ceremonies, there is no doubt that music existed before the dawn of recorded history. The cradle of Western music was undoubtedly that area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea - Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Hebrew nations - all had developed political and social cultures that were absorbed by the conquering Greeks and then by the Romans. As a consequence, music was a relatively sophisticated art form by the time it had spread into Western Europe.

Following the decline of the Roman Empire, it was the Christian Church that was destined to perpetuate and expand the musical heritage of antiquity. However, it was not a unified process, particularly in Spain with its mix of Roman, Visigoth, Jewish and Arab cultures. As a consequence, the early Christian music of Spain was different to that of the rest of Europe. Europe had its Ambrosian chant followed by the Gregorian chant. Spain had the Mozarabic chant. As far as 'non Christian music' is concerned, in the rest of Europe there were the travelling minstrels and troubadours. In Spain, popular songs of the time had Islamic influences. 

The Renaissance was a time of immense cultural upheaval. Artists of all kinds had become aware both of the classical past and the wider world beyond the narrow confines of medieval theology. In the field of music it was a time when the first great composers appeared - Tavener, Tallis, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd and - from Spain - Victoria. 

         Tomás Luis de Victoria
Tomás Luis de Victoria was the most famous composer of 16th-century Spain, and one of the best-regarded composers of sacred music in the late Renaissance. He was one of the great composers of counterpoint.

Two other Spanish composers of note during the Renaissance period were Guerrero and Morales. Francisco Guerrero wrote sacred music that included secular songs, masses, motets and instrumental pieces. Cristóbal de Morales also wrote sacred music including many masses.

The dominant Spanish composer during the Baroque period was Gaspar Sanz. A native of Aragón, he was virtuoso guitarist who went on to compose music for the instrument. He was also the author of the first learning method for the guitar and influenced several composers including Rodrigo.


During the 18th and early 19th century, Spanish classical music was in a period of decline. The only notable composers of this period were Arriaga and Sors. Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga is credited with being the first Spanish composer of Romantic symphonies in Spain. He was nicknamed the "Spanish Mozart" because, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he was a child prodigy and an exceptionally gifted composer who died at a young age. Fernando Sor was a guitarist and composer. He composed ballets, operas and piano music but he is best known for his compositions for the guitar. He has been nicknamed the "Beethoven of the Guitar". During this period most Spanish musical creativity moved into the realms of folk and popular music.

In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a classical music revival. During this late Romantic era, Spain produced many excellent composers who drew heavily on popular and regional music for their inspiration. These included Francisco Tárrega, Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina and Joaquín Rodrigo.

Francisco Tárrega was a guitar playing composer and one of the most influential. His transcriptions of works by Bach, Mozart and other composers helped further establish the guitar as a concert instrument. He is considered by many to be the father of the modern classical guitar.

Isaac Albéniz
by Robert Bovington
Isaac Albéniz was a composer best known for his piano works based on Spanish folk music. His most notable work is 'Iberia', an evocative collection of virtuoso piano pieces that captures the spirit of Spain, particularly of Andalucía.

Enrique Granados was, like Albéniz, a pianist and composer whose music was of a distinctively Spanish style. His best works were the 'Goyescas', which were his reflections of Francisco de Goya's paintings and tapestries.

Manuel de Falla
Cádiz Cathedral crypt
Manuel de Falla was born in Cádiz. He, too, was influenced by Andalucian folk music, particularly flamenco. Amongst his best works are the ballets 'El amor brujo' and 'El sombrero de tres picos'. 'Noches en los jardines de España' was another of his masterpieces.

Born in Sevilla, Joaquín Turina was another Andalucian composer who wrote distinctively Spanish music. His native city figures prominently in his works - like 'Sinfonía Sevillana' and 'Canto a Sevilla'. He wrote operas, chamber works and much else including the popular 'Danzas Fantásticas'.

Among my favourite pieces of Spanish music is 'Concierto de Aranjuez'. Joaquín Rodrigo, a composer and virtuoso pianist, wrote it. Despite being blind from an early age, Rodrigo achieved great success. He was best known for his music for the guitar but he wrote operatic and choral works, piano pieces, and many other forms of classical music.

My copy of 'Concierto de Aranjuez' has Narciso Yepes playing the guitar. He is one of a number of world-famous musical performers that Spain has produced. Perhaps the greatest of the guitarists was Andrés Segovia, a key player in the revival of the classical guitar in the 20th century.

Possibly the best living guitarist - apart from, maybe, Eric Clapton - is Paco de Lucía. He is mostly recognised as a skilled flamenco guitarist. However, he has successfully crossed over into other genres of music including jazz, funk, classical, and world music. In 2004, he received a Prince of Asturias Award in Arts. Another leading instrumentalist was cellist Pablo Casals.

Spain has had its fair share of opera stars during the 20th century. Currently Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Montserrat Caballé are among the greatest singers. There has also been Elvira de Hidalgo, Teresa Berganza, Alfredo Kraus, Conchita Supervia and, one of my favourite sopranos, Victoria de Los Angeles.

Victoria de Los Angeles

While we are on the subject of opera, Spain has its own form of light opera - Zarzuela comprises operatic and popular song, as well as dance. Its name derives from a Royal hunting lodge, the Palacio de la Zarzuela near Madrid, where this type of entertainment was first presented to the court.

In the world of popular music, Julio Iglesias stands out. He is Spain's best selling singer of all time having sold over 250 million records. His son, Enrique, is also a pop singer who has even made it into the British charts. Other popular singers include David Bisbal and Manolo Escobar. David Bisbal has had many hit records in Spain and has done quite well for himself since winning 'Operación Triunfo', the Spanish equivalent of 'Pop Stars'.

Spanish popular music might not compete with that of Britain and America but there is a healthy and diverse folk music culture, which ranges from the flamenco inspired music of Andalucía to the Celtic music of Galicia.

Andalucía is best known for flamenco music. Its influences might go back to Byzantine, Greek and Arab times but it is strictly an Andalucian art form, which allegedly originated in Cádiz. It has three forms - the song, the dance and the guitar and there are two main groups of songs - the more cheerful 'cante chicio' and the soulful, dramatic 'cante jonto' that deals with love, death and sorrow. Other types of Andalucian folk music exist, which includes the gaita rociera - a type of music played on an instrument called the tabor pipe.

Aragón has its 'jota' - a song that precedes and accompanies a courtship dance of the same name. The dancing couple hold their arms high and click castanets as they execute lively, bouncing steps to guitar music and singing. It is closely related to the fandango. 

The jota is said to have originated in Aragón but is now a popular form of folk music throughout Spain. Castanets, tambourines and flutes are the main instruments that feature in Aragónese music but other popular instruments are the guitarro, a small guitar-type instrument, the chiflo which is a sort of whistle or pipe and a gaita de boto which is a sort of bagpipe.

Bagpipe music is extensively played in the regions of Galicia, Cantabria and Asturias, which is understandable when you appreciate this part of Spain's celtic roots. Drum and bagpipe groups are one of the most favoured types of Galician folk music and in Asturias the folk music often combines bagpipes and tambourines. Cantabrian folk music often features drum and alto clarinet.

In the Balearic Islands there are folk music ensembles called xeremiers. Why are they called that? Because they play xeremies - bagpipes. They also play a flabiol, which is a five-hole tabor pipe.

The most popular Basque folk music is the trikitixa which is played on the accordion and tambourine. The other folk instruments used in this neck of the woods are mostly unpronounceable - this being the region of the Euskeralanguage - they are the txistu, the alboka and the txalaparta. The alboka is a double clarinet whilst the txalaparta is a huge xylophone for two performers. The txistu is, apparently, a three-holed flute.

Much of the folk music of the Canary Islands is influenced by Latin American music especially Cuban. The jota is also popular as are string bands featuring ukuleles.

In the large inland region of Castile, Madrid and León there has been a melting pot of traditions - Celtiberian, Celtic, Roman, Gypsies, Portuguese, Jewish and Visigothic cultures have all left their mark on the region's music. In the north of León, they share the musical tastes of their northern neighbours and bagpipe and tabor pipe music is played there. Jota is all the rage throughout the region and there is also a strong tradition of dance music all over Castile. Madrid is known for its chotis music, a local variation of the schottische dance.

In Catalonia, men and women join hands alternately in a closed circle to dance the sardana - the national dance of that region. Tenores and tabales, which are wind instruments similar to the oboe, accompany the dancers. Catalans also have their own versions of bagpipe and tabor pipe called respectively 'sac de gemecs' and 'flabiol'. The gipsies of Catalonia have their traditional music and dance that includes their version of the rumba - the rumba catalana.

Every region in Spain has its own traditional music, dance and musical instruments with strange names - like the zambomba, which is a sort of friction drum. This particular instrument is characteristic of Extremadura that, along with castanets, guitars, tambourines, triangles and accordions, is used in the jota. Dulzaina ensembles are popular in Navarra - this is another oboe type instrument. Murcia has rondallas, which are plucked-string bands whilst brass bands are popular in Valencia.

Everywhere, in this diverse country there is music - not just flamenco but town bands accompanying religious festivals, impromptu singing in a country inn, songs sung whilst olive picking. 

There are music festivals and jazz concerts and every major town has its theatre where all types of music are performed - classical, opera, jazz, flamenco and rock. Music plays an important part of everyday life and Spain would be much the poorer without it.

more blogs by Robert Bovington... 

"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

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