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ClassicsOnline Home » HALFFTER, R.: Chamber Music, Vol. 1 - … Huesped de las nieblas … / Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Pastorale / Egloga (Madrid Community Orchestra Soloists)
Rodolfo Halffter’s music embraces almost every genre but he was primarily an instrumental composer. Born in Spain, and after the civil war resident in Mexico, Halffter became a leading figure in his adopted country. His three piano sonatas rank among his most important works for that instrument, combining Scarlattian playfulness with Romantic and avant-garde techniques. The other works on this disc, in which flute or violin duet with piano, abound in appealing Latin colour, poetic moods and refined, sometimes spirited, lyricism.
By Staff Writer
Winnipeg Free Press
Rodolfo Halffter (1900–1987)
Chamber Music • 1
Rodolfo Halffter’s catalogue embraces almost every genre, from stage works to solo miniatures, but he was primarily an instrumental composer, his thinking shaped and inspired by what we tend to think of as pure or absolute music.
Halffter was born in Madrid on 30 October 1900 and died in Mexico City on 14 October 1987, his life having been divided between his native and his adopted countries. He studied in Madrid with his mother and with Francisco Esbrí, and soon discovered the European avant-garde, including Schoenberg. He was part of the group of Spanish intellectuals known as the Generation of ’27 and played a key rôle in the cultural regeneration efforts associated with Spain’s Second Republic. He benefited from the support of figures such as pianist Fernando Ember and critic Adolfo Salazar, and was active as a composer from 1922 onwards, travelling the paths from neoclassicism to atonality, from external, principally French influences to Falla’s new nationalist idiom.
After the Civil War, Halffter emigrated to Mexico. He became professor of musical analysis at the National Conservatory, a post he held for thirty years, and played a full part in the country’s musical and cultural life, to the extent, indeed, that he became a national symbol. He founded the magazine Nuestra Música (29 issues of which were published between 1946 and 1953) and the publishing house Ediciones Mexicanas de Música, and taught several generations of Mexican composers.
Although he integrated fully into Mexican life, he never forgot his roots, and in later years increased his contacts with Spain. His musical idiom, though it retained its basic tenets, did evolve over time, moving closer to an avant-garde aesthetic which he handled with both freedom and individuality.
In 1981, Mexico’s Academia de Artes commissioned Halffter to write…Huésped de las nieblas…(Guest of the Mists) as a tribute to the Spanish Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. The composer chose not to write a vocal piece using Bécquer’s poetry, hence the allusion to “poems without words”, echoing Mendelssohn’s famous Songs without Words. He created poetry, but his verses are designed for flute and piano. The piece is dated 19 April 1981 and was first performed on 16 October of the same year during the seventh Spanish-Mexican Music Festival in Mexico City, with Marielena Arizpe on flute and Mario Lavista on piano (Lavista, himself a well-known composer, studied with Halffter and is the dedicatee of this work). Huésped was published by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música in 1982.
In musical terms, the composer approached the poetry as he had done in his earlier Homenaje a Antonio Machado—in other words, with the aim of translating the written word into an instrumental idiom. This is not a programmatic piece, and, as Jorge Velazco has noted, what it captures is Bécquer’s emotional intensity, not his language, since this is not in essence a Romantic work. It is made up of three short episodes, none of which is individually titled.
Halffter’s three sonatas are three of the most important works he wrote for the piano. He did not set out to write a cycle, and the first of them was originally entitled simply “Sonata”.
Composed in 1947, Piano Sonata No. 1 is the only one of the sonatas to be cast in three movements, the others each comprising four. It had its première on 18 July 1947 with its dedicatee, Miguel García Mora, at Mexico City’s Sala Schiefer as part of a Monday concert series. The sonata is a synthesis of Halffter’s compositional concerns at the time: its roots are firmly planted in the Scarlattian model, but listeners will also make out a hint of polytonality and the harmonic influence of Falla. Moreover, despite the fact that some have claimed to discern a certain Mexican flavour to the opening movement, this is actually a very Spanish work. Neither is it lacking in irony. The initial Allegro deciso is in sonata form with a D minor first subject that is both rhythmic and lyrical. The second subject is melodic and in F major. The development section is dazzling and individual, while the recapitulation introduces some fascinating variations.
The composer puts an attacca marking at the start of the Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo, which is a dramatic piece of writing with its stark contrasts and use of the instrument’s harmonic resonances. The closing Allegro con spirito, in a free rondo form, is based on a single but brilliant and malleable theme. The bitonal passages are particularly remarkable, as are the frequent changes of rhythm which breathe so much life into this short fragment.
The Pastorale, for violin and piano, predates the First Sonata, having been written in 1940, although it was not given its première until 3rd December 1944, when it was performed at New York’s Town Hall by violinist Samuel Dushkin, for whom Halffter had already written his Violin Concerto, one of his bestknown works.
This is a short, Moderato piece, yet it displays great harmonic sophistication. It too has a sense of Spanishness, without ever straying into traditional folkmusic. It is dedicated to Halffter’s Mexican friends of Spanish origin Cécile and Carlos Prieto.
Four years separate the First and Second Piano Sonatas, which are clearly related and yet quite distinct from one another. Sonata No. 2 was written in 1951 and dedicated to the leading figure in Mexican music of the day, composer and conductor Carlos Chávez. The première was again given by Miguel García Mora, on 4 August 1952 at the Sala Manuel M. Ponce in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City). It was published in 1955 by the Peer International Corporation on behalf of the Pan-American Union in Washington DC.
It opens with a luminous, optimistic Allegro in sonata form whose first subject unfolds in a flowing C major, modulating not to the dominant but to A major for a starkly contrasting second subject which begins to undergo modifications even before the development. The recapitulation is short and very much modified, and leads into an unusually extensive coda.
The second movement is an Andante poco mosso in a double ABC structure. In other words, this is a typical varied Lied form, here enriched by the use of polytonality and a mixture of binary and ternary rhythms.
Dance-like ternary rhythms create the lighthearted spirit of the third movement. Its Scherzo section proper is very agile and virtuosic, while its trio equivalent, here a Tranquillo, provides a contrast with the previous agitation. This in turn is followed by the mandatory return of the second part of the Scherzo, along with its irresistible vitality.
The Rondo finale is injected with great rhythmic force. Here the main theme is light-filled and insistent, its three main appearances alternating with other fragments to give an ABACAD structure as the sonata comes to a sparkling and resounding finish.
Égloga (Eclogue) was written at Christmas 1982, the result of a commission from the Academia de Artes. It was dedicated to oboist Leonor Saavedra; she and pianist Lilia Vázquez gave the first performance on 27 January 1983. The work was first published in 1985 by Real Musical in Madrid. It is a kind of pastoral rhapsody based on Halffter’s free and individual use of serial techniques, while maintaining a clear sense of Spanish colour. This is transparent, pared-down music in which anything ornamental has vanished, tranquil music which has something in common with the flute writing in Huésped de las nieblas, although here he consciously exploits the pastoral connotations of the oboe.
Halffter’s Third Piano Sonata has been the subject of more studies than either of the other two on account of its use of twelve-tone techniques and original notational symbols. It was written in 1967 following a commission from Eduardo Barreiras for a piece to be performed at the second Festival of Latin American and Spanish Music. The sonata was given its première at the Ateneo in Madrid on 20 October 1967 by the Mexican pianist Carlos Barajas. It is dedicated to the Spanish pianist and musicologist Antonio Iglesias and was published by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música and the Peer International Corporation. Rodolfo Halffter’s aim here was to reconcile the two worlds of sonata form and twelve-tone music. The first movement is an Allegro in whose first four bars the row is set out. In place of the traditional modulations of a tonal sonata we find modifications and transpositions, one might even speak of developments and recapitulations. A key role is played by thirds and ninths.
The Moderato cantabile which follows is a transfigured rondo. Oscillating between the lyrical and the dramatic, it brings in contrasting fragments to alternate with what might be considered the main theme. There is even a discernible coda, rounding off this very rigorous piece of formal writing.
More has been written about the Liberamente than any of the other three movements. Here highly structured fragments with strict metronome markings are alternated with others for which new notational symbols are used to expand or relativise the tempo. This combination of fixed and aleatory sections turns the music into a world of endless creative possibilities.
The final Impetuoso, written in normal notation, functions as a dodecaphonic rondo. The theme is fascinating—although it gives us the statement of the row, it also has clear Spanish roots. Its recurrences and alternative sections are woven together to create a subtle framework which is both formal and expressive, and which brings to an end this Third Piano Sonata, a landmark in Halffter’s compositional career.
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