With his customary self-effacement, Pablo Picasso once affirmed: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. While it is a matter of debate for art critics whether Picasso could really paint like Raphael, it is a deep truth that the absolute simplicity of childhood is but rarely reached by adults, and only at the price of a long itinerary of asceticism and purification.
There are some masterpieces in the keyboard literature which achieve this unearthly whiteness; not by chance, these pieces are frequently perceived as transcendent, as deeply spiritual, as heavenly. The Christian tradition maintains that God is absolutely simple; thus, to strive for simplicity is to be in quest of a divine quality. One thinks, for example, of Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations (especially in its da capo reappearance after the cycle’s itinerary); of Beethoven’s Arietta from Sonata op. 111; of Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige. When a composer manages to realize a masterpiece by using very few notes, this is a clear sign that he or she knows which notes really matter, and how to fill them with meaning. In their very different styles, Bach, Beethoven and Debussy knew perfectly well how to handle oceans of notes; yet, some of their most perfect works are realized with an impressive economy of means. This ideal seems to inspire the aesthetics and creativity of Federico Mompou’s entire itinerary as a musician, throughout his long and productive life.
Indeed, he was not alone, among the composers of the twentieth century, in seeking perfection in small-scale works and in the rejection of redundance and opulence. Yet, his aesthetical choices were also very different from those of the musicians who seemingly adopted a similar outlook. Different from Webern, for example, who also favoured the aphoristic style, Mompou did not embrace strict serialism, and preferred to maintain a clear, though free, connection with the tonal world. Different from pointillists such as Erik Satie, Mompou chose to renounce magniloquence without ridiculing or satirizing it. Different from the mainstream minimalists, his quest for a “minimal” style did not express a nihilistic attitude, nor did it mirror almost hallucinatory patterns.
Mompou’s world, by way of contrast, seems to be constantly inhabited by this childlike (but never childish or puerile) attitude; one is tempted to say that this composer did not have to strive for it in the same fashion as Picasso did.
Federico Mompou was born in Barcelona, Catalunya, on April 16th, 1893, in a family rich in artistic talent. His mother was French-born, and her parents were famous bell-makers; thus, Federico’s education took place in an environment marked by both religious piety and music. This tradition was deeply rooted in the family; the Dencausse bells had been famous for no less than five centuries, and some of their best “instruments” could be heard from the Notre Dame and Montmartre cathedrals of Paris.
While one of Mompou’s siblings became a famous painter (indeed, one of his drawings was reproduced on all of Mompou’s compositions published in France), Federico demonstrated his gifts as a musician, and received his education at the Conservatory of Barcelona. He gave his first public performance at the age of 15, but soon it became clear that his quiet and shy personality was not ideally suited for a virtuoso career as a pianist.
One year later, Mompou was deeply impressed upon hearing the French composer and pianist Gabriel Fauré playing his own Quintet op. 59; this event on the one hand inspired the young musician to pursue his composition studies, on the other slightly discouraged him from embarking on an activity as a concert musician.
However, Mompou decided to perfect his skills as a pianist under the guidance of Isidor Philipp, one of the greatest pianists of the era, who taught him in Paris; at the same time, Mompou continued his musical education under Ferdinand Motte Lacroix and Marcel Samuel Rousseau. The following years were spent between Barcelona (where he sought refuge from the impending war) and Paris (where he returned in 1921, residing in the French capital for some twenty years); gradually, Mompou acquired substantial fame as a composer, and obtained important honours from both the French and the Catalonian governments.
Eventually, he settled in Barcelona, where he remained for the rest of his long life, and where he became one of the most respected and admired musicians of the second half of the twentieth century. These two geographical and cultural poles, i.e. Paris and Barcelona, represent thus not only the places where Mompou spent most of his life, but also the two main sources of his artistic inspiration.
He had arrived in Paris as a piano student in the same year when Debussy had published his Préludes for the piano; he had lived in, and loved deeply his Catalunya. From Paris he had acquired an extraordinary artistic refinement and an exquisite taste for the dynamic, timbral and tonal nuances. From Barcelona and Catalunya, he had learnt how folk tunes, in their seeming naivety, may express the deep wisdom of the people, and also the simple and sincere faith which the French metropolis frequently seemed to have lost.
These elements seem to converge in his piano masterpiece, Música callada, recorded here in its entirety. This long and impressive suite was written between 1959 and 1967, and represents the summit of Mompou’s art and of his creative perspective. It is divided into four albums (1959, 1962, 1965 and 1967), and includes twenty-eight pieces of variable length. All of them, however, are concise, and their average duration is two minutes. These pieces demonstrate, among others, the vastity of Mompou’s literary and artistic interests, displaying quotes and epigraphs excerpted from works by Juan Ramón Jiménez, Josep Janes, Paul Valery and Tomas Garcés. Above all, however, the main source of inspiration for the whole cycle (and possibly also for other of Mompou’s works) is the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite poet and reformer who experienced the sacred as a revelation to be pursued in the darkness and solitude of the soul. St. John of the Cross wrote memorable lines, which, at first sight, may strike today’s readers as almost nihilistic in content; the “nada”, the “Nothing” is frequently evoked, though in a fashion which is simply the contrary of today’s nihilism. St. John believed that the mystery of God is unattainable by human beings as long as “the world”, i.e. evil, sin and egoism, possess them; thus, the itinerary leading to God must pass from a total spoliation.
St. John’s lines, chosen by Mompou, are striking: “The tranquil night / At the approaches of the dawn, / The silent music, / The murmuring solitude, / The supper which revives, and enkindles love”. This “silent music” (música callada in Spanish) is what inspired Mompou. He understood St. John’s lines not as oxymora, but as true experiences: the summit of music is silence, in a solitude which is inhabited by a soft murmur. Speaking of this cycle, Mompou affirmed: “this music has no air or light. It is a weak heartbeat, you cannot ask it to reach more than a few inches into space, but its mission is to reach the profound depths of our soul and the secret regions of our spirit’s spirit. This music is quiet (callada) because one listens to it within. Contained and reserved. Its emotion is secret and only becomes sound from resonance under the cold cape of our society. It is my desire that this music should bring us closer to the warmth of life, and the expression of the human heart, that is always the same and constantly changing”. For Mompou, St. John had found “a music which is the very voice of silence”; this “muted music” allowed solitude itself to become music. He was in quest of a music which could be heard intimately, inside one’s soul, with restrain and pudor; “its emotion is secret, and it takes no aural form except through its resonances inside the coldness of our loneliness”. Thus, the cycle opens with Angelico, “a music of angels”, “the music of the first sonorous Solitude, dreamily gliding between earth and heaven”. The sounds of mysticism, however, are not found only in the quiet and serene atmosphere of this first piece; for instance, the fifth (Legato metallico) represents the sacred through the sounds of bells. It is, in Mompou’s words, “a far bell articulating its obsessive notes”, which “seems to come from another world”. Angels, solitude and bells are found also in the eighth piece, Semplice, where the heavenly music “fluctuates and vibrates and slowly rises from the depths to the heights”. Mompou thus achieves an almost miraculous artistic feat: this cycle is organic and consistent although it was composed over eight years; it is deeply spiritual without becoming “fleshless”, as T. S. Eliot would have put it; it is inhabited by an intensely mystical mood without losing touch with the variety and fantasy which enlivens the artistic creation. Bells, angels, solitude, but also folksong, traditional tunes, diverse atmospheres and a rich palette of colours contribute, together, to the creation of a vast fresco made of miniatures, of a true mosaic composed of shining tiles.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Giancarlo Simonacci, pianist and composer, was born in Rome, where he studied music at the Conservatorio “Santa Cecilia”. He then took advanced courses in composition with Aldo Clementi and piano in piano with Carlo Zecchi at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He is active as a piano soloist and plays regularly in a piano duo with Gabriella Morelli, also performing frequently with singers and other instrumentalists.
As a composes and performer he takes part in the foremost international festivals and concert series. His compositions have been published by BMG Ricordi, Edipan, Rugginenti and Accord for Music, and he also recorded for RAI (the official Italian television and radio network), Discoteca di Stato Italiana, Radio Vaticana and ORF (Austria). Silence Records produced a CD, interpreted by Francesco Negro, dedicated to his piano works. He has made recordings for CRI, Edipan, Fonotipia, RCA, Domanimusica, Mr Classics, Irtem, AFM, Atopos and Twilightmusic.
Particularly noteworthy are his recordings of the music of John Cage, for Brilliant Classics, which were well received by the press both in Italy (Messaggero, La Repubblica, La Gazzetta di Parma, La Stampa, Musica, Suonare News, Amadeus, Classic Voice etc.) and abroad (ABC, Magazine Klassics, Piano, Le Monde de la Musique, Diapason, Scherzo, BBC Music Magazine, Los Angeles Times etc.). For Brilliant Classics he has recorded the complete piano works of Ildebrando Pizzetti and complete works for cello and piano of Morton Feldman with his son Marco and a CD with works of Giulio Ricordi for 4 hands piano (duo G. Morelli – G. Simonacci).
For Da Vinci Classics he has recorded the piano works of Stefano Golinelli.
For over 40 years Giancarlo has taught piano at the Sassari, Frosinone and Rome conservatories. He has also given numerous masterclasses, seminars and conferences in Italy, Spain and Austria.
Frederic Mompou (b Barcelona, 16 April 1893; d Barcelona, 30 June 1987). Catalan composer. Essentially a piano miniaturist and songwriter, he created a small but highly personal body of work. He began to study the piano at the Barcelona Conservatory and gave his first public recital at the age of 15. In 1911 he travelled to Paris where he studied privately with Ferdinand Motte-Lacroix (piano) and Marcel Samuel-Rousseau (harmony). He remained in Paris until 1941, when he returned to Barcelona. A shy, somewhat timid person, he nevertheless moved in well-connected circles throughout his life and made notable friendships, including Poulenc and the painter Mirò, with the second of whom he had something in common as a creative artist, in terms of the surface simplicity of their work and their reliance on distinctive symbols or gestures drawn from their Catalan environment and folklore. For many years, until disabled by a stroke, he lectured on his own music at Música en Compostela, an annual gathering of international students at Santiago de Compostela.
Mompou’s op.1 is the set of nine Impresiones intimas (1911–14). According to the composer’s own account, these miniatures – which exhibit a mixture of adult musicality and naive, childlike emotional directness – were written in response to hearing Fauré. However, if they do display influences, it is more those of Debussy, Ravel and Mompou’s nationalist forebears, while his own distinctive voice, which remained little changed over the course of his life, is already evident. There followed a series of works bearing descriptive titles – Scènes d’enfants, Pessebres, Suburbis (the titles used are in the language of the country where the work was first published) – in which the example of Satie becomes more evident. Like Satie, Mompou turned his own technical limitations into a personal aesthetic, which he termed primitivista. This is immediately obvious on the page in an extreme economy of notation. But this apparent simplicity belies the composer’s struggle for perfection. Even the shortest of miniatures were worked on or revised over a period of years. Satie is also discernible in the use of such performance directions as ‘Chantez avec la fraîcheur de l’herbe humide’ in Scènes d’enfants. But there is no sense of Satiesque irony in Mompou, whose naive approach remains rooted in Romanticism. He had little in common with Les Six.
Aside from the French influence, Mompou owed much to his Spanish and Catalan nationalist forebears. As with Falla, the structural and modal idiosyncracies of folk music pervade his work. Indeed the far greater virtuosity of Falla’s music belies a great deal that the two composers have in common. Modes and figurations typical of Andalusian and other regional idioms are to be found in Mompou, but more often his melodic writing is rhythmically and structurally suggestive of Catalan folksong. Occasionally authentic or quasi-authentic Catalan melodies are used, such as ‘La filla del Marxant’ in the last of the Scènes d’enfants. The long series of 14 Cançons i danses are all, with the exception of numbers 5, 6, 10 (which uses two of the Cantígas de Santa Maria of Alfonso el Sabio) and 13 (the only one for guitar) and the danses of 3, 9 and 14, based on traditional Catalan tunes, which are enfolded in rich, sophisticated harmony. This combination of diatonic melody with rich, often chromatic harmony, is the basis of all Mompou’s music.
Many of his miniatures set out to evoke the essence of a particular mood, either a response to a scene in life or something more abstract: he believed in the ‘magical’ power of harmony to be quite precise in this respect. His Cants mágìcs and Charmes may be seen as an attempt to imagine how a medieval practitioner of the occult might have used this power. In the four volumes of Música callada (1959–67) – ‘quiet’ or ‘silent’ music – whose texts are taken from St John of the Cross (a writer set by Mompou on a number of occasions), he creates a mystical, spiritual series of moods. Here, as with late Falla, there is an increased austerity compared with earlier works, but the structural simplicity remains unchanged. A final substantial group of pieces comprises a body of often very beautiful songs, many of them settings of Catalan texts. Of these, Combat del Somni may perhaps be singled out as an example of Mompou at his most expansive and haunting, while the two sets of Comptines, which set traditional counting-game rhymes, exemplify his interest in the world of childhood. Late in his life, Mompou produced some more ambitious choral and stage works, including the oratorio Improperios, while many arrangements and orchestrations of his music have been made by other hands.