At the End of a Year

Spanish Music at the New Year’s Eve Concert

Young Flamenco dancers in Seville
(Photo: iStock)

Spain: the large country between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Europe’s door to Africa and the New World, once the centre of an empire in which the sun never set. Spain attracts visitors with cliffs and beaches, with paella and tapas and with a lifestyle that is a pleasant change from the “nine to five” routine of Central Europe thanks to the siesta, where the night belongs to the day and even death is celebrated in the bullfight. It is not surprising that the country has been the most popular foreign destination for British and German travellers for years. And sounds probably occur automatically to anyone who thinks about Spain: guitars and castanets, wistful songs and – an integral part of them – expressive dancing. Classical music is also full of Spanish sounds: the Andalusian gypsy Carmen in Bizet’s opera of the same name, Rossini’s clever barber, Mozart’s hot-blooded Don Juan, Ravel’s bolero rhythm, Chabrier’s delightful portrait of the country in España and the shimmering colours of Debussy’s Ibéria. None of these composers were Spaniards, however. The music sounds Spanish – and the works are no less “authentic” for it.

Musical melting pot

Music in Spain has assimilated and combined influences like a melting pot for hundreds, even thousands of years. The Christian church adopted the Byzantine chant, the Moors added their Islamic culture: the Arab ūd became the lute (“laúd”), the predecessor of the vihuela and guitar, and “olé”, the three-letter exclamation of approval that so aptly characterizes the country and the people, supposedly comes from “Allah”. Jewish communities brought their traditions, the “gitanos” (gypsies) arrived and settled there. Italian masters influenced Spanish court music and later the musical theatre, from which the zarzuela developed. Spanish virtuosos such as Pablo de Sarasate and Isaac Albéniz were active in other countries, while Latin-American music began to have an impact. What the Iberians had brought over the Atlantic to the West was combined there with songs of the original inhabitants and slaves from Africa and then returned home, transformed and enriched, to Europe – for example, Carmen’s habanera.

The search for a Spanish national musical idiom intensified at the end of the 19th century, when its basis was found in the inexhaustible sources of folk music. Just as Béla Bartók collected and studied folk music in Hungary, in Spain it was Felipe Pedrell, the man who can be called the father of Spanish music; Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla studied with him. Falla, in particular, stripped the touristic veneer (which was criticized even at that time) from folklore, revealed its roots, admired the genre of the cante jondo (the oldest songs of the flamenco tradition) in their original form and incorporated them into his own music. All this in the bright light of French Impressionism, since Falla, like many of his contemporaries who definitely wanted to compose Spanish music, matured as an artist in Paris. They met often during the years before and after the turn of the century – Albéniz and Granados, the pianist Ricardo Viñes, who introduced Falla to Ravel and Debussy, and Joaquín Rodrigo. Argentinian and Brazilian composers such as Camargo Guarnieri and Heitor Villa-Lobos also spent time there, as did Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s student, Igor Stravinsky. Spanish art music developed in Paris, the musical capital of Europe at that time, through international exchange.

Principle of Hope

The New Year’s Eve concert of the Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko marks the end of a year that from the first month took a different course than intended and expected. It was the year in which Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday was to be celebrated, also at many concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, of which only a small number could be presented as planned. It so happens that Beethoven had composed a Spanish work himself. The story of his only opera is set in a Spanish state prison, a few miles from Seville. The singspiel text, which came from France, had already relocated the scene to the neighbouring country in order to conceal the obvious parallels to France’s own revolution. But it involved more than that. Fidelio is not a work about Andalusian freedom fighters but European heroes of mankind. We need them more urgently today than ever. One of the major pandemic-related cancellations for the orchestra was the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, with a new production of the opera Fidelio, which was also to be presented in a concert performance in Berlin.

Beethoven and his opera will nevertheless be represented at the New Year’s Eve concert, with the “Leonore” Overture. Fidelio is the story of a struggle for justice, the universal good and right, which demands heavy sacrifices from the individual. It tells of a woman who does not give up hope, even in a seemingly hopeless situation, and supports her fellow human beings unreservedly (“Whoever this may be, I will save him!”) – and of a man who in isolation summons up all his strength to preserve his humanity. The overture begins with the musical image of the solitude of Florestan’s dungeon and ends with rejoicing that expands the happiness of two reunited lovers into a celebration of the “Principle of Hope” (Ernst Bloch), which encompasses all of humanity. Then heaven opens up for all peoples and nations and offers the responsible individual all the possibilities of this world. After such a serious beginning, we can also celebrate – alone, together, for all, here’s to a happy new year: olé!

Malte Krasting

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Don Giovanni; painting by Max Slevogt
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Célestine Galli-Marié as Carmen and Alice Ducasse as Frasquita
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore
(Photo: akg-images)