(b Camprodón, Gerona, 29 May 1860; d Cambo-les-Bains, 18 May 1909). Spanish composer and pianist. When he was a year old he moved with his family to Barcelona. His musical propensities soon became apparent, and his sister Clementina gave him piano lessons when he was about three and a half. A child prodigy, he made his first public appearance at about five, at the Teatro Romea in Barcelona. Shortly afterwards he began lessons with Narciso Oliveras. In 1867 he was taken to Paris where, it is said, he studied privately with Antoine-François Marmontel, eventually taking the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire; though impressed with his talent, the jury is said to have refused him admission because he was too immature. In 1868 Albéniz’s father lost his government post, and, to earn money, took Isaac and Clementina on recital tours of the Spanish provinces. Soon the family moved to Madrid, where Albéniz was enrolled in the Escuela Nacional de Música y Declamación (now the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música). His studies were constantly interrupted; having experienced the life of a travelling virtuoso, he repeatedly gave recitals in the provinces or wherever fate took him. He returned intermittently to Madrid and studied for a time with Eduardo Compta and José Tragó. His travels took him to Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1875 before he finally settled down to serious studies.
Albéniz returned to Europe and enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in May 1876 but remained there for only two months; by summer he was back in Madrid seeking financial aid. Through the intercession of Guillermo Morphy, secretary to King Alfonso XII, he obtained a pension to attend the Brussels Conservatory. There he studied the piano until 1879, first with Franz Rummel and then with Louis Brassin, obtaining a first prize. He did not, as many biographers claim, go on to study with Liszt, though he seems to have travelled to Budapest in August 1880 with the goal of meeting the Abbé. By mid-September 1880 Albéniz was again in Madrid pursuing his performing career. He made tours of Spain and appearances in the Spanish-speaking Americas. He also began to conduct, and by 1882 he had become administrator and conductor of a touring zarzuela company in Spain. It is probably from this time that his earliest attempts at zarzuela originate – El canto de salvación, ¡Cuanto más viejo …! and Catalanes de Gracia. In 1883 he moved to Barcelona where he studied composition with Felipe Pedrell. While still continuing to perform he gave piano lessons, and on 23 June 1883 he married his pupil Rosa Jordana. By the end of 1885 they had moved to Madrid, where, through the protection of his old friend Morphy, Albéniz firmly established himself in Madrid’s musical life, performing in the homes of nobility, organizing and participating in concerts and teaching. By 1886 he had written over 50 works, principally for piano, and on 21 March 1887 he gave a concert in the Salon Romero devoted solely to his own music. His own works were also featured in a series of 20 concerts given under the auspices of Erard, the French piano manufacturer, at the French pavilion of the 1888 Universal Exposition in Barcelona. A facile improviser, Albéniz composed quickly, producing a large body of solo piano pieces, much of it delightfully inspired salon music (dances, études and character-pieces) in simple forms, redolent with repeats. But he also undertook more ambitious projects, two piano concertos (op.78 and the Rapsodia española) and a four-movement symphonic piece (Escenas sinfónicas). By 1889 he was well known as a pianist-composer, with his compositions published by Spain’s leading music publishers. In March he gave concerts in Paris; a few months later he appeared in London, where his success ensured repeated visits. In June 1890 he placed himself under exclusive contract as a composer and performing musician to the manager Henry Lowenfeld and moved to London by the end of the year with his wife and children (Alfonso, Enriqueta, and Laura; two others, Blanca and Cristina, had died in early childhood). Notable among the concerts Albéniz gave under Lowenfeld’s management were two in November 1890 focussing on modern Spanish orchestral music, and a series of ten chamber music concerts that took place in the first half of 1891 (for which he invited his friend the violinist Enrique Fernández Arbós to participate).
Through Lowenfeld, who was associated with musical theatre, Albéniz agreed to compose music for a comic opera, The Magic Opal, written by Arthur Law. He also came into contact with Horace Sedger, manager of the Lyric Theatre, and became involved with its production of Incognita (an adaptation of Charles Lecocq’s Le coeur et la main, opening 6 October 1892). On 19 January 1893 The Magic Opal, a work in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan, had its première at the Lyric. After a successful run, it was revised slightly and staged at the Prince of Wales Theatre as The Magic Ring (11 April 1893) with Albéniz conducting. The next offering at the Prince of Wales, Poor Jonathan (15 June 1893), was an adaptation of Carl Millöcker’s Der arme Jonathan to which Albéniz contributed some numbers and acted as musical director.
Albéniz’s theatrical involvement brought him to the attention of Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, heir to the banking fortune of Coutts & Co. and financial investor in both the Prince of Wales and Lyric theatres. Money-Coutts, an amateur poet and playwright, had become a partner with Lowenfeld in the contract concerning Albéniz’s musical talents; by July 1894 Money-Coutts was Albéniz’s sole patron.
After Poor Jonathan, Albéniz moved back to the continent because of illness, settling in Paris. He soon resumed his performing activities in Spain, at the same time working on Henry Clifford, an opera based on the Wars of the Roses to a libretto by Money-Coutts. He spent the summer of 1894 in Paris completing the score as well as composing yet another stage work, San Antonio de la Florida, a one-act zarzuela to a libretto by Eusebio Sierra; this was first given in Madrid, at the Teatro Apolo on 26 October 1894, the composer conducting. Because it was more ambitious musically than the typical zarzuela in the accepted género chico style, San Antonio was not entirely successful. A month later Albéniz conducted his Magic Opal (presented in Sierra’s Spanish translation under the title of La sortija) at the Teatro de la Zarzuela and was again criticized for writing a work that did not conform to the established mould. Disgusted, he returned to Paris. Albéniz was not the only Spanish composer to encounter resistance from the establishment. Efforts to elevate the artistic content of the zarzuela as well as to create a Spanish national opera (vigorously supported by Tomás Bretón and Felipe Pedrell) repeatedly faced deep-rooted prejudices.
In March 1895 Albéniz appeared as a soloist in a concert series sponsored by the Sociedad Catalana de Conciertos in the Teatro Lírico in Barcelona. The series of five concerts, fostered by Albéniz, was conducted by d’Indy, and marked the beginning of their friendship. Ernest Chausson, whose Viviane was performed on the series, became a close friend of Albéniz as well. In time Albéniz formed close ties with Charles Bordes, Paul Dukas and Fauré, and became a cherished member of the French musical community.
On 8 May 1895 Albéniz conducted the première of Henry Clifford at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona. As was the custom there, the work was performed in Italian. Though not appreciated by the general public it proved a success with the critics, who felt that the music showed promise. Money-Coutts’s and Albéniz’s next endeavour was a one-act opera based on the novel Pepita Jiménez by Juan Valera. It had its première on 5 January 1896 at the Gran Teatro del Liceo (in Italian) to the decidedly enthusiastic applause of the general public; the press however were disappointed, having hoped for something more substantial from the composer of Henry Clifford. In March and April Albéniz set a group of poems by Money-Coutts and also began (though left incomplete) work on a choral piece Lo llacsó with text by the Catalan poet Apeles Mestres. Albéniz not only promoted Spanish music (his own as well as that of his compatriots) in the concerts he organized but also actively participated in the modernismo movement for the resurgence of Catalan culture, which had taken hold in Barcelona in the 1890s. By September Albéniz had expanded Pepita to two acts and, though he continued to give concerts, much of 1896–7 was devoted to promoting the opera’s performance. On 22 June 1897 Pepita, conducted by Franz Schalk, was produced in German at the German Theatre in Prague to great praise. Angelo Neumann, manager of the theatre, contracted Albéniz to compose two stage works, which did not however materialize. Instead, the composer embarked on a trilogy, King Arthur, to a libretto by Money-Coutts. Albéniz’s talent for inventing attractive vocal lines woven around a vibrant orchestral fabric had formed the compositional basis for Clifford and Pepita, operas that succeed from moment to moment. The immense undertaking of a trilogy, however, daunted rather than excited Albéniz’s imagination. Contrary to his usual speed, Albéniz took four years to finish Merlin (1898–1902), Lancelot was left incomplete after the beginning of the second act and Guenevere remained untouched.
Meanwhile, from 1896, in addition to composing songs, many on texts by Money-Coutts, Albéniz sought inspiration from his native land in works for solo piano and for orchestra. Notable was La vega (initially intended for orchestra), which marked a turning-point in his piano style; his deliberate exploitation of the sonorous properties of the piano, juxtaposing its different registers and utilizing the piano for its colouristic effects, foreshadows Iberia.
From 1898 to 1900 he taught advanced piano at the Schola Cantorum (among his students was Déodat de Séverac); he had to resign because of poor health and in 1900 left Paris for the warmer climate of Spain. In Barcelona he became associated with Enric Morera and the movement to promote the performance of Catalan lyrical works. He made repeated attempts to have Merlin and Pepita Jiménez produced in both Madrid and Barcelona but met constant opposition from the establishment. In 1902 Albéniz agreed to compose a three-act zarzuela to a libretto by Cristóbal de Castro, La real hembra. He set little more than the prelude and first two scenes however, and Castro never completed the libretto. Though Albéniz had support from the press, his international reputation was a liability. He was viewed as a Spaniard ‘in foreign attire’ and thus not only lacked commitment from the public and the impresarios but also suffered from their intrigues and jealousies. Since all efforts to secure performances of his lyric works failed, at the end of 1902 Albéniz returned to France where, esteemed by colleagues there, he felt he could more effectively advance the cause of Spanish music.
Suffering from Bright’s disease, he spent much time in the warmer climate of Nice. He resumed work on Lancelot, eventually putting it aside to revise the orchestration of Pepita for a performance in French at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. Pepita, along with San Antonio de la Florida (translated into French as L’ermitage fleuri), was given on 3 January 1905 to enthusiastic reviews. Albert Carré, director of the Paris Opéra-Comique, expressed interest in Pepita, but it was not given there until 1923. Although the Monnaie announced plans to perform Merlin the following winter in a French translation by Maurice Kufferath, the production did not materialize. In April 1905 Albéniz began a lyric drama in four acts entitled La morena, but this too was left incomplete. Heeding the advice of his friends and the dictates of his conscience, he returned to the composition of piano music. From 1905 to 1908 he wrote his masterpiece, Iberia, a collection of 12 ‘impressions’ (as the work was subtitled) in four books, wherein he captured and immortalized the sounds and rhythms of his native country. Whereas the first two books of Iberia, though difficult in certain aspects, emphasize colour, the remaining pieces show a greater density of texture and an increased demand for virtuoso technique, a change in style that can be attributed to the pianist Joaquín Malats (winner of the prestigious Diémier prize in 1903). Deeply impressed by Malats’s interpretation of Triana from Iberia, Albéniz composed the last two books under the direct influence of his esteemed compatriot’s phenomenal abilities, creating music of extreme technical difficulty. Albéniz attempted the orchestration of the first book of Iberia, but not satisified with the results he asked Arbós to accomplish the task. Arbós ultimately orchestrated Triana and El Albaicín (and Navarra, which was originally conceived as part of Iberia) as well. (The remaining numbers of the work were later orchestrated by Carlos Surinach.)
In 1908 Albéniz set more Coutts poems, which were ultimately published as Quatre mélodies. His final composition, Azulejos for piano, was left unfinished at his death. His remains are buried in the cemetery in Montjuïc in Barcelona.
Throughout his virtuoso career Albéniz’s playing was admired for its clarity and its exquisite delicacy of tone, qualities that were particularly lauded in his interpretations of Scarlatti. Although he made no commercial recordings, three improvisations on privately owned wax cylinders do survive and have been made available on The Catalan Piano Tradition (VAI Audio/International Piano Archive 1001, c1992).
Through his activities as a conductor, impresario, performer and composer within Spain as well as abroad, Albéniz, one of Spain’s foremost musicians, not only contributed to the rebirth of Spanish nationalism but also gained international recognition for Spanish music. Where Pedrell used folk music in his works as a basis for a national style, Albéniz preferred to suggest, rather than quote, rhythms and melodic elements to evoke the Spanish landscape. He achieved popularity at the beginning of his compositional career with salon music. With his dramatic works, his writing gained depth. By the end of his life he was creating dense polyphonic textures that combined underlying diatonic harmonies (freely mixing major and minor tonalities with modal elements), animated by vibrant ostinato rhythms, overlaid with basically simple melodic lines and gestures embroidered with chromatic filigree.
Founded in 1987 by Paloma O’Shea, the Fundación Isaac Albéniz is dedicated to promoting and aiding musical activities in Spain; it administers the International Piano Competition of Santander (founded in 1972) and also acts as a resource centre for Albéniz research in particular and Spanish music in general.