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Albéniz Isaac - Barcarola op. 23

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Albéniz Isaac – Barcarola op. 23

Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual; 29 May 1860 – 18 May 1909 was a Spanish virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor. He is one of the foremost composers of the Post-Romantic era who also had a significant influence on his contemporaries and younger composers. He is best known for his piano works based on Spanish folk music idioms.

Transcriptions of many of his pieces, such as Asturias (Leyenda), Granada, Sevilla, Cadiz, Córdoba, Cataluña, Mallorca, and Tango in D, are important pieces for classical guitar, though he never composed for the guitar. The personal papers of Albéniz are preserved, among other institutions, in the Biblioteca de Catalunya.
Born in Camprodon, province of Girona, to Ángel Albéniz (a customs official) and his wife, Maria de los Dolores Pascual, Albéniz was a child prodigy who first performed at the age of four. At age seven, after apparently taking lessons from Antoine François Marmontel, he passed the entrance examination for piano at the Conservatoire de Paris, but he was refused admission because he was believed to be too young. By the time he had reached 12, he had made many attempts to run away from home.

His concert career began at the age of nine when his father toured both Isaac and his sister, Clementina, throughout northern Spain. A popular myth is that at the age of twelve Albéniz stowed away in a ship bound for Buenos Aires. He then found himself in Cuba, then to the United States, giving concerts in New York and San Francisco and then travelled to Liverpool, London and Leipzig. By age 15, he had already given concerts worldwide. This story is not entirely false, Albéniz did travel the world as a performer; however, he was accompanied by his father, who as a customs agent was required to travel frequently. This can be attested by comparing Isaac’s concert dates with his father’s travel itinerary.

In 1876, after a short stay at the Leipzig Conservatory, he went to study at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels after King Alfonso’s personal secretary, Guillermo Morphy, obtained him a royal grant. Count Morphy thought highly of Albéniz, who would later dedicate Sevilla to Morphy’s wife when it premiered in Paris in January 1886.

In 1880 Albéniz went to Budapest, Hungary, to study with Franz Liszt, only to find out that Liszt was in Weimar, Germany.

In 1883 he met the teacher and composer Felip Pedrell, who inspired him to write Spanish music such as the Chants d’Espagne. The first movement (Prelude) of that suite, later retitled after the composer’s death as Asturias (Leyenda), is probably most famous today as part of the classical guitar repertoire, even though it was originally composed for piano. (Many of Albéniz’s other compositions were also transcribed for guitar, notably by Francisco Tárrega.) At the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, the piano manufacturer Érard sponsored a series of 20 concerts featuring Albéniz’s music.
Ex libris Isaac Albéniz by Ismael Smith, around 1921

The apex of Albéniz’s concert career is considered to be 1889 to 1892 when he had concert tours throughout Europe. During the 1890s Albéniz lived in London and Paris. For London he wrote some musical comedies which brought him to the attention of the wealthy Francis Money-Coutts, 5th Baron Latymer. Money-Coutts commissioned and provided him with librettos for the opera Henry Clifford and for a projected trilogy of Arthurian operas. The first of these, Merlin (1898–1902), was thought to have been lost but has recently been reconstructed and performed. Albéniz never completed Lancelot (only the first act is finished, as a vocal and piano score), and he never began Guinevere, the final part.

In 1900 he started to suffer from Bright’s disease and returned to writing piano music. Between 1905 and 1908 he composed his final masterpiece, Iberia (1908), a suite of twelve piano “impressions”.

In 1883 the composer married his student Rosina Jordana. They had two children who lived into adulthood: Laura (a painter) and Alfonso (who played for Real Madrid in the early 1900s before embarking on a career as a diplomat). Another child, Blanca, died in 1886, and two other children died in infancy. His great-granddaughter is Cécilia Attias, former wife of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Albéniz died from his kidney disease on 18 May 1909 at age 48 in Cambo-les-Bains, in Labourd, south-western France. Only a few weeks before his death, the government of France awarded Albéniz its highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Légion d’honneur. He is buried at the Montjuïc Cemetery, Barcelona.

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