“Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz – The Greatest Guitar Piece Of All time?

The Signature Spanish Sound…

Asturias” by Albeniz is considered as a strong contender for the most popular and greatest guitar pieces of all time.

Curiously, however, it wasn’t written for the guitar but for the piano…

Spain’s powerhouse piano virtuoso and composer, Isaac Albeniz (1845-1909) came along at a time when Spain was trying to establish its national and cultural identity.

Spain had been devastated by wars and political instability for over 100 years so there was an appetite, desire and demand for music that was uniquely Spanish; that would help define what it was to be Spanish and create a new vision for Spain.

Compared to France and England, Spain had become the poor cousin and they wanted to catch up.

Isaac Albeniz

“Robbed From The Guitar And Gave To The Piano”

Albeniz along with Enrique Granados were well placed and ambitious to provide that music.

So the “Spanish National School” as they were known drew their influence from Flamenco and in particular Flamenco guitar.

When Albeniz heard Tarrega, the great Spanish guitarist, play his arrangement of Asturias he said “that’s exactly how I conceived it to be”.

So the Spanish Nationalist composers, Albeniz, Granados, De Falla, Turina, Mompou and Rodrigo ‘robbed from the guitar and gave to the piano’.

Then the Spanish guitarists, Tarrega and Segovia set about reclaiming their heritage by making transcriptions and arrangements of those piano pieces, like Asturias.

So it makes sense that those great piano pieces should work well on the guitar and make great guitar pieces.

The Child Virtuoso

Young Isaac was originally coached by his sister Clementina who was a talented pianist.

She noticed him climbing up to the piano at the age of 2 and try to copy what he’d heard her play so she was moved to teach him.

Clementina claimed that Isaac knew all of his scales by the age of 3 and a year later at the age of 4 gave his first public performance with his sister.

That’s incomprehensible!!!???

Members of the audience actually threw toys on stage at the end of of the recital, of course the little Isaac began playing with the toys.

His mother was determined to advance his progress so she sort out the best teachers in in Barcelona and then in Paris.

He studied with the great French piano professor Antoine Francois Marmontel who taught an unbelievable number of pianists that would go to be leading performers, composers and teachers including Debussy.

The list of his students is impressive beyond description.

Albeniz’s concert career began in earnest at the age of 9.

Originally his father booked performance dates for Isaac and his sister Clementina throughout Spain.

But later his work as a customs officer drove him to Cuba and South America where he would book concerts for the children all over the North and South American regions. The kids literally played their way from New York San Francisco down to Buenos Aires!

By his early teens Isaac was a seasoned professional.

He’d travelled extensively and had given concerts all over Europe and had built a reputation as a formidable performer by his late teens.

In the 1890’s Albeniz lived in London for a few years where he met a wealthy English Baron.

Francis Money-Coutis was a poet who had conceived the idea of a trilogy of operas on the story of King Arthur.

Felip Pedrell

The Baron Francis Money-Coutis

The Baron wrote the librettos (lyrics) for his operas and commissioned Albeniz to compose the music.

The Baron Money-Coutis was so pleased with him that he actually put Albeniz on a wage for life which made Albeniz free to compose, create and spend his time mixing with musics luminaries and heavyweights like Debussy, Ravel & Stravinsky.

From all reports he was great company, even the life of the party.

When he was 22 he began studying composition with the Catalan composer, guitarist and musicologist Felip Pedrell.

Pedrell, who had a keen interest in Spanish music, encouraged Albeniz to compose music that was identifiably Spanish.

Pedrell was a influential force on the next generation of Spanish composers and his students included Enrique Granados, Manuel De Falla as well as Albeniz all of whom would compose music that’s unmistakably Spanish.

After hearing the the opening phrase of “Asturias” we know for sure we’re hearing music from Spain.

Enjoy!

Steve

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