Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), Symphonic Impressions for Piano and Orchestra

Manuel de Falla y Matheu was born November 23, 1876, in Cádiz, Spain, and died November 14, 1946, in Alta Gracia, Argentina. He composed Noches en los jardines de España from 1909 through March 27, 1916. It was premiered April 9, 1916, at the Teatro Real in Madrid, with Enrique Fernández Arbós conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, and José Cubiles as soloist. It is dedicated to the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in March 1927, featured pianist Rudolf Reuter and were led by Alfred Hertz; at the most recent performances, in November 2002, Alicia de Larrocha was soloist and Osmo Vänskä conducted. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, harp, celesta, and strings, plus the solo piano. In 1926, Falla’s colleague Eduardo Torres adapted this piece for piano plus chamber orchestra, but these performances employ the full symphonic orchestration. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

As a teenager, Manuel de Falla y Matheu set his sights on becoming an author, but by the time he was twenty he acquiesced instead to a consuming passion for music. His youthful piano studies paid off, and he advanced quickly through conservatory instruction, graduating in 1899 from the Madrid Conservatory with a first prize in piano and a thorough education in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. Nonetheless, Falla’s first steps in his chosen profession were far from dynamic. Unable to scrape together a living by composing serious music and not quite a good enough pianist to find acclaim in the recital hall, he turned to the closest enterprise that might prove commercially viable, the composition of zarzuelas, peculiarly Spanish stage works that might be described as a regional variation on operetta. He composed six zarzuelas between 1900 and 1904; only one reached the stage, and it left him no better off than before.

Still, those early experiences helped clarify his goals, and in 1905 he won an important prize for his first certifiable masterpiece, La vida breve, a true opera. But plans to produce it fell through, and Falla, recognizing that Spain was too far off the beaten path of culture for his restless talent, left in 1907 for where the action was—Paris. He remained there until 1914, associating closely with Dukas, Debussy, and Ravel. During those years he refined his craft as a musical Impressionist without sacrificing the Spanish flavor that lay at the root of his inspiration. The outbreak of World War I forced his return to Spain, but this time Madrid proved more amenable to his talent. Further stage works rich in Spanish flavor flowed from his pen, beginning with El amor brujo (1915), and in 1916 Falla heard the premiere of his first major symphonic work, which had occupied him since 1909: Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), a set of three “symphonic impressions”—his term—for piano and orchestra.

Most of his work on this piece had been carried out in Paris, where composers were swept up in a flurry of enthusiasm for sounds evoking Spain. Ravel’s piano suite Miroirs (with its Alborada del gracioso movement) and Rapsodie espagnole appeared in the century’s opening decade, as did Debussy’s piano piece La soirée dans Grenade (in his collection Estampes) and his orchestral movement Ibéria (from Images). The disposition of Falla’s musical forces in Noches en los jardines de España also signals French precedents. Though the work is scored for piano and orchestra, it is not a concerto in the traditional sense. Instead, the piano plays an obbligato role that is not overtly virtuosic. This is not to imply that it is a simple piece for a pianist to play when, in fact, its technical and interpretative challenges are many. But rather than plumb the opposition of soloist and orchestra, after the fashion of a traditional Romantic concerto, Falla creates a scenario in which the piano slips into and out of the symphonic texture with great subtlety, adding important highlights to the overall timbre. In this regard, Nights in the Gardens of Spain traces its ancestry to such French models as Vincent d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (1886) or Debussy’s Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (1889-96).

Initially imagined as four nocturnes for piano, Nights in the Gardens of Spain evolved over eight years, with frequent interruptions, into its final three-movement symphonic form. (A movement focusing on Cádiz was apparently sacrificed along the way, and he may have considered yet another movement involving Seville.) Its genesis can be dated at latest to January 13, 1909, when the composer wrote from Paris to his family in Madrid to ask that they send him a copy of the book Jardins d’Espanya, by the Catalan artist Santiago Rusiñol. He soon began to acquire further “artistic” source material, including Granada (Guía emocional) by Gregorio Martínez Sierra and Tierras solares by Rubén Darío, which Falla annotated heavily, particularly in its chapter concerning Seville. (Martínez Sierra would later insist—inaccurately, it seems—that the inspiration began when the composer encountered his book at the Spanish Bookshop on the rue de Richelieu in Paris.). A native of Cádiz, Falla had never visited Granada (160 miles to the east), and his musical impressions of that city’s Generalife Palace and Sierra de Córdoba gardens therefore sprung from pictures and literary descriptions rather than from first-hand experience, a curious state of affairs one would never guess from the specificity with which he illustrates them in his music.

For the premiere, the composer presented an introduction to his new work through a program note:

The author of these symphonic impressions for piano and orchestra considers that, if his aims have been successful, the simple enunciation of their titles should be guidance enough for their listeners.

Even though the composer of this piece—as must occur with any work that legitimately aspires to be musical—has followed a strict plan in terms of tonality, rhythm, and motifs, a detailed analysis of its purely musical structure might perhaps divert us from the real reasons it was written, which were none other than to evoke places, sensations, and feelings.

Let us merely point out that the second and third nocturnes are joined without interruption by a period which scatters the notes from the beginning of the main theme of the Danza lejaña like distant echoes under a melodic tremolo at the violins’ upper register, bringing the period to an end with an ascending pattern of octaves on the piano, resolved in the tutti which begins the third and final nocturne: En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba.

The thematic element of this work is based (as is generally the case with this author’s compositions, La vida breve, El amor brujo, etc.) on the rhythms, modalities, cadence, and ornamental factors that characterize Andalusian folk songs, but that are rarely used in their original form; and the instrumental work is often marked by certain effects unique to folk instruments.

Bear in mind that the music of these nocturnes does not try to be descriptive, but rather simply expressive, and that something more than the echoes of fiestas and dances has inspired these musical evocations, in which pain and mystery also play a part.

Still, it may be of interest to realize that the principal theme, which governs much of the Generalife movement (celebrating the rose- and jasmine-scented gardens surrounding the palace of the Alhambra in Granada), is based on the rhythm of the jaleo, a choral song accompanied by (and danced to) hand-clapping. At one point in the first movement, this theme expands into a melody Falla said he heard while living in Madrid, where a blind beggar played it incessantly on a battered, ill-tuned violin. The piano introduces this tune, after which the orchestra takes it up.

The second movement, the Danza lejaña (Distant Dance), is less specific in its geography, although it, too, seems to be anchored somewhere in Andalusia, a giveaway being the prominent use of a descending tetrachord that is a nearly constant feature of flamenco. The piano’s roulades suggest highly ornamented violin playing (as Falla suggested in his essay), or perhaps guitars, and the spirit of more energetic dance gradually intrudes on the scene, taking on increasing liveliness after the transition to the finale.

James M. Keller

An earlier version of this note appeared in the programs of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Javier Perianes with Josep Pons leading the BBC Symphony (Harmonia Mundi) | Alicia de Larrocha with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca) | Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Juanjo Mena conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos) | Daniel Barenboim with Plácido Domingo conducting the Chicago Symphony (Teldec) | Also, a DVD with picturesque scenes, with Alicia de Larrocha joining Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Decca)

Reading: Sacred Passions: The Life and Music of Manuel de Falla, by Carol A. Hess (Oxford) | Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898-1936, by Hess (University of Chicago Press) | Manuel de Falla: His Life and Music, by Nancy Lee Harper (Scarecrow Press) | Manuel de Falla: His Life and Works, edited by Gonzalo Armero and Jorge de Persia (Omnibus Press)

(June 2015)