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Manuel de Falla: Manuel de Falla (b. Cadiz, 23 Nov 1876; d. Alta Gracia, 14 Nov 1946).
According to Stravinsky, who was a friend of Manuel de Falla for more than twenty years, the Spaniard was 'as modest and withdrawn as an oyster', and he also said of him that his nature was 'the most unpityingly religious' he had ever known. Such comments contrast strangely with the bold colours and often passionate emotional character of much of Manuel de Falla's music, which has come to represent for us the 'Spanish' spirit at its most ebullient, even though it reflects only a part of the Iberian heritage. Manuel de Falla was the son of a merchant who could afford a private tutor for his children, and was born at Cadiz, that ancient seaport to the west of Gibraltar, where Andalucia looks out to the Atlantic instead of in to the Mediterranean. The more cosmopolitan character of Cadiz doubtless gave Manuel de Falla a broader outlook as he began to develop a childhood interest in music with piano lessons, which brought him into a local circle of enthusiastic amateur music-makers, and which led him in due course to his first adolescent compositions.
The family moved to Madrid when Manuel de Falla was twenty, and although he never formally attended the Conservatory there, he successfully passed seven years of its examinations after only two years' private piano study. During this time he tried his hand at the zarzuela, that distinctively Spanish form of operetta. He composed two in collaboration with Amadeo Vives, a well-known zarzuelista, and five on his own, but only one was performed - Los amores de la Ines in 1902 - and that without much success. After composition studies with Felipe Pedrell, however, Manuel de Falla achieved an apparent breakthrough when his first opera proper, La vida breve (Life is Short), won the first prize in a Madrid competition in 1905. But a competition prize is no guarantee of performance; the opera was still unperformed and the score was in his luggage when, in 1907, he decided to seek wider opportunities in Paris.
Manuel de Falla spent the next seven years there, becoming a friend of Debussy, Dukas, Ravel and Stravinsky, as well as of other Spanish exiles like Albeniz. He played them La vida breve on the piano, and their enthusiasm for it eventually found the opera a publisher and a production -first at Nice in 1913, and later the same year at the Opera-Comique in Paris. Meanwhile, Manuel de Falla helped to support himself by giving piano lessons, accompanying singers at soirees and doing translation work. He added to his own works the Four Spanish Pieces for piano and some settings of poems by Gautier; started on Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and finished the Seven Spanish Popular Songs just as the onset of war in 1914 decided him to return home.
Back in Madrid, Manuel de Falla next achieved three major works which became universally popular. One was Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for piano and orchestra, a concerto of haunting poetry more than virtuosity. Another was El amor brujo (Love, the Magician), originally conceived as a gypsy ballet for the celebrated flamenco dancer Pastora Imperio and her family, who first performed it at Madrid in 1915. No folk melodies are used in it, but Manuel de Falla's music evokes the essential character of Andalucian gypsy dance and song in its distinctive blend of tension and languor. It includes the celebrated Ritual Fire Dance, later transcribed for all kinds of probable and improbable instruments, and used for all manner of equally unlikely dances, but which actually derives from an incantation intended to ward off evil spirits while the gypsies were forging their pots and pans.
The third major work of this period was another ballet, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-cornered Hat), written at the instigation of Sergey Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. Based on a Spanish novel which in turn derived from a humorous folk-tale of a resourceful miller's wife and an importunate town official, the scenario was by Martinez Sierra (the librettist of La vida breve). Diaghilev let Manuel de Falla and Sierra stage this first as a mime-play at Madrid in 1917; the composer then extended his first drafts to meet the requirements of a full-scale ballet. It was eventually premiered in London in the Diaghilev company's first post-war season at the Alhambra Theatre in 1919. Destined to become a classic of its kind, the remarkable original collaboration included choreography by Massine and designs by Picasso (both still used in present-day productions), with Massine and Tamara Karsavina as the Miller and his Wife, and Ernest Ansermet conducting.
All these works are distinctively Andalucian in musical flavour, in the cast of their melodies and in their rhythms and dance-forms, as also is the Fantasia Baetica, a piano solo composed in 1919 for Artur Rubinstein. From 1920, however, when Manuel de Falla actually went to live in Andalucia for the first time since his childhood, and made his home in Granada, he deliberately turned away from what he felt to be the excesses of his previous style. He became friendly with the poet Lorca and they experimented with puppet plays, Manuel de Falla supplying the piano accompaniment. The outcome was a puppet opera, Master Peter's Puppet Show, based on an episode in Cervantes' Don Quixote and written originally for a puppet theatre - a private one owned by the wealthy Paris hostess, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, where it was given in 1923. Among those who took part was the distinguished harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska, and as a gesture of thanks Manuel de Falla composed for her the Harpsichord Concerto of 1926. In this the Andalucian flamboyance he discarded is replaced by Castilian restraint and sobriety, in a work which shares with the Puppet Show a keener feeling for instrumental texture and sharper colour.
A man of sensitive nature, retiring personality and firm principle, Manuel de Falla shrank from the horrors of the Civil War in Spain, and succumbed to an illness which bound him to his house for four years. In 1939 he was invited to Buenos Aires for a concert tour and, once in Argentina, he decided to stay, his decision reinforced by medical advice. He settled at Alta Gracia in the Sierra de Cordoba, looked after by an unmarried sister; he composed the Homenajes for orchestra but became an increasingly sick man. Most of his available time was spent on a project which had occupied his thoughts since the 1920s - the setting of an epic Catalan poem by Verdaguer in which the legend of lost Atlantis is the starting-point for a kind of masque of Spanish history. L'Atldntida was still unfinished when Manuel de Falla died on the 14th November 1946; his body was brought back to Spain for burial in the crypt of Cadiz cathedral. A friend and pupil, Ernesto HalfTter, completed L'Atlantida from the surviving manuscript, and it was eventually heard for the first time at a Barcelona concert in 1 96 1 and was produced as a scenic cantata at La Scala, Milan, the next year. The result, however, added less than Manuel de Falla must have hoped to a reputation which otherwise remains secure as the foremost Spanish composer of his time.
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