April 10, 2011

Composers A-Z: Albeniz

I'm going to start a feature here where I name my favorite composers A-Z. It will be difficult to choose just one (especially with the next letter, B) but I'll do my best, and give some great compositions by the composers I choose. For A, I've chosen Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909).

Plus he's got mad facial stylings
Albeniz is one of those composers that all pianists profess to like, but never play. I'm one of those people actually. I love his piano music, but I've never played any of his music although I plan on doing it some day in the distant future. A pianist himself, Albeniz' compositional style is a mixture of the late-Romantic pianist-composers (read: Liszt) and the local influence of Spanish rhythms and gypsy/folk harmonies and dance idioms.

What I find engaging about Albeniz' music is the variety of textures and colors he manages to highlight on the keyboard. By using a variety of articulations interspersed with off-beat rhythms and extended "jazz-like" (it's not jazz though) harmonies, his music is evocative and carries the listener's interest throughout each piece.

Because he was a pianist himself he wrote mainly for his own instrument, primarily in the form of short pieces, often dances. Many of his pieces are overtly Spanish-influenced and have titles that evoke either traditional or exoticized Spanish hallmarks. His most famous work for piano is the monumental Iberia, a set of four volumes of short piano pieces evoking the titular Iberian Peninsula. The pieces are extremely difficult but are not necessarily expected to played as a whole. One can hear a good deal of Debussy in these pieces, but rather than Debussy or Ravel imitating Spanish composition (although Ravel would claim that he wasn't imitating anything, since he was born on the border between France and Spain) Albeniz doesn't need to imitate anything. A slightly easier work by Albeniz is the Suite Espagnole, a set of eight pieces, each depicting a different region in Spain, with the exception of the last which is titled "Cuba". Many of Albeniz's piano compositions have also been arranged for guitar, an interesting turn-around considering how much his piano writing was influenced by Spanish, and flamenco in particular, guitar playing.

Here is a video of probably his most famous individual piece, Asturias, which has become strongly associated with the classical guitar repertoire, but let's be honest, it sounds way better on the piano.

There were some "A" composers who I considered for this inaugural Composers A-Z. My honorable mentions are:
  • John Adams (1947 -  ) - for Phrygian Gates...and pretty much only that. Well, and the Violin Concerto.
  • William Albright (1944-1998) - He's recorded the complete Joplin rags, waltzes and everything, and he's written a whole bunch of bad-ass pieces on his own. Three cheers for cracked out rags!
  • Charles Henri Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) - I'm not very familiar with the repertoire of Alkan but many people absolutely swear by him. I have the feeling though that if I got into his catalog he'd take over this article from Albeniz. Busoni claimed him to be the best of all post-Beethoven piano composers, and basically he seems like the best composer most people have never heard of. Probably because he's French, and that's not even a joke.
  • Jean-Henri d'Anglebert (pronounced DONG - L'BEAR) (1635-1691) - For this picture:
Brother's got a lazy eye, so what?

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