The world of music has its fair share of very colourful characters. One of my favourites is the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz (1860 – 1909), whose sister began to teach him the piano when he was 1 year old. She must have been a capable teacher, because he made his public debut, at the age of 4, in the Teatro Romeo in Barcelona, where audience members suspected they were the victims of some sort of hoax. To curb his father’s exploitation of him as a child prodigy, his mother took him off to Paris, when 7 years old, to study with a professor of music who taught Bizet and Debussy.
After his return to Spain, Albeniz was enrolled at the Madrid Conservatory of Music, but soon afterwards ran away from home and lived rough, supporting himself by playing the piano as a vaudeville stunt, dressed up as a musketeer. He stood with the keyboard behind him and played, palms up, with the backs of his fingers! Not content with these exploits, when he was 12, he stowed away on a ship bound for Buenos Aires before heading, via Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico, for the USA, where he gave concerts in San Francisco and New York. On his way back home, to chill out, he performed in Liverpool, London and Leipzig.
It was at the ripe old age of 15 that he ‘settled down’ to some serious, if not always self-disciplined, study of music, including encounters with Debussy and Ravel. His most significant association, however, was with the Spanish composer Felipe Pedrell. This motivated him to become a composer, and to look to Spanish folk-music and dance for inspiration.
He continued to ‘land on his feet’ when he moved to Paris at age 33. In return for writing the music for the worthless operas of the English banker, Francis Money-Coutts, he received an annual stipend of $10,000! It was his piano music, however, with its irresistible Spanish rhythms and melodies, that made him famous. His life of teaching and composing ended sadly, however, with the death of his daughter, and the incurable illnesses of his wife and himself.
Albeniz’s masterpiece is the piano suite ‘Ibéria’, which captures the essence of different regions of Spain. Equally listenable is the Suite Española with its Spanish dances. His music is brim full of national colouring, and evokes the sound of guitars, flamenco rhythms, and dances like the jota and sevillana. Here is a video of his ‘Asturias’. It was written for piano, but its repeated notes and chords strongly evoke the guitar – on which instrument, it’s splendidly played here by Ana Vidovic …..