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ClassicsOnline Home » HALFFTER, R.: Chamber Music, Vol. 2 - Giga / 3 piezas breves / 2 Sonatas / Homenaje a Antonio Machado (Madrid Community Orchestra Soloists)
The Spanish-born, Mexican-based composer Rodolfo Halffter’s chamber music embraced influences from both the Old and New Worlds, his compositional approach shifting freely between nationalism, neo-classicism and the avant-garde. The works on this second volume (volume 1 is available on 8.572418) span most of his career, from the two Sonatas de El Escorial (1928) to Epinicio (1979). Whether referring back to the Renaissance or the time of Scarlatti and Soler or exploring the exciting possibilities opened up by modern musical techniques, his music fascinates listeners with its dancing rhythms, delicate sonorities and highly individual character.
By Lee Passarella
Rodolfo Halffter (1900–1987)
Chamber Music • 2
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.
The Giga, Op. 3, for guitar, was written in 1930 at the request of another intellectual and musician of the day, guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza. He is the work’s dedicatee and gave its première in Madrid on 18 November 1931. Emilio Pujol supplied the fingering for the Paris edition of 1934. A short piece, it falls into the Scarlattian aesthetic of the time, with a lively dance-like air, both delicate and nuanced.
Having performed the final three movements of Halffter’s Homenaje a Antonio Machado all over the world, Nicanor Zabaleta prepared a transcription for publication in around 1950/51. When Unión Musical Española actually came to publish the Tres piezas breves, Op. 13a, however, it was in a version revised and with fingerings by María Rosa Calvo Manzano, much to Zabaleta’s displeasure. The music’s roots lie deep in early Spanish music and in its harp version it echoes, while modernising, of course, the language of Renaissance vihuelists. It is fascinating to compare this version with the piano original and see how the different instrumentation affects the music both technically and aesthetically.
The Dos sonatas de El Escorial, Op. 2, for piano, came out of a time when a new aesthetic was emerging, one of neoclassicism and modern idioms, when Falla was encouraging the study of Scarlatti and Soler. Halffter was introduced to Falla by Adolfo Salazar, took lessons from him, and during a visit to Granada showed him several of his own works as well as working with him on the analysis of some of Scarlatti’s sonatas. The Two El Escorial Sonatas are influenced by the works of Antonio Soler, who spent part of his life at the El Escorial monastery.
The sonatas were the first of Halffter’s works to be performed in public. Their première was given by Enrique Aroca on 26 June 1930 (they had already been published by this time, by Unión Musical Española in 1928). They are works of crystalline sonorities, a compendium of the technical and aesthetic ideas he would go on to develop in the future. The first is clearly inspired by Scarlattian style and is dedicated to the poet Rafael Alberti. Its Spanish structure can be seen in the alternation between duple and triple metres. The second sonata is dedicated to the writer Esteban Salazar Chapela (1900–65), who later went into exile in England. It is similar in nature to the first, but is notable for its rhythmical uniformity and abundant use of sevenths.
Before he wrote his three piano sonatas, Halffter had already composed his larger-scale piano work Homage to Antonio Machado, Op. 13, which was written in 1944 and first performed by Miguel García Mora at the Sala Schiefer in Mexico City on 29 November that year. It was later published by both Ediciones Mexicanas de Música and Unión Musical Española.
Before Machado’s death (in 1939), Halffter had been considering setting some of his poetry to music, but in the end he decided to write an instrumental tribute in the shape of these four movements. The first, in concentrated sonata form, is the most ambitious and the most formally strict. Entitled simply Allegro, it combines neoclassical style and Spanish rhythms with bithematic sonata form. This movement is headed by a quotation from Machado’s poem España en Paz (Spain at peace), while the remaining three borrow lines from his collection Soledades (Solitudes). The Allegretto tranquillo is in Lied form with an ABA structure and a modal, nostalgic feel, while the following Lento is similar in structural and expressive terms, these being the most emotive of the four movements. The Allegro finale has a dance-like air and is therefore both livelier and more conclusive in tone. It is not hard to see why Zabaleta chose to omit the more pianistic and formal opening movement when he adapted this music for the harp.
In 1935 Halffter composed the score for the ballet Don Lindo de Almería to a scenario by José Bergamín. This famous work, the composer’s Op. 7, was the basis for two instrumental adaptations, both realised that same year: the Suite, Op. 7b, for two string orchestras and percussion, and the Divertimento, Op. 7a for an ensemble comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and string quartet. This is a reduction of the ballet, rather than a suite, and is divided into four movements (Allegretto, Andante calmo, Allegro deciso e energico and Tempo di marcia). We do not know what inspired Halffter to write this version, nor when its première took place. It was only published by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música in 1990, three years after the composer’s death.
Of all Halffter’s works, Laberinto, Op. 34, is the one that makes the most in-depth use of aleatory elements. Composed in 1972, it was first performed on 3 April 1973 by María del Carmen Higuera at the Instituto Cultural Hispano-Mexicano in Mexico City. It is dedicated to the pianist María Teresa Rodríguez and was published by both Ediciones Mexicanas de Música and Unión Musical Española. Subtitled Cuatro intentos de acertar con la salida (Four attempts to find the way out), the work has four movements, each bearing the number of the attempt as its title. While the four are all very different, they share the same tone row and all end on the note F, which is not part of that row. Intento primero is a short, rapid piece in which the row forms the theme and elements in traditional notation link quite naturally to others in graphic, aleatory notation. The “second attempt” is based on the continually modified repetition of a single motif. It is as if the composer wanted to play with the twelve-tone dogma of nonrepetition without altogether discarding orthodox techniques. As each “attempt” is longer than its predecessor, the third is quite extensive, and is structured into three different formal schemes. The fourth is even more complex and is also a recapitulation of the first three. In its dazzling five structures, fixed and aleatory elements complement each other, while a key role is played by the pulse.
Written in 1978 in response to a commission from the Academia Mexicana de Artes, the Capricho, Op. 40, for violin, was premièred on 22 August that year by the Mexican violinist Manuel Suárez, its dedicatee, and was published in 1980 by the magazine Plural, the cultural supplement of the Excelsior newspaper. It is a short but virtuosic work with a three-part structure. It begins in energetic manner, then the writing becomes more tranquil and lyrical before a return to the opening rhythms—a technical showpiece yes, but so much more besides.
Also commissioned by the Academia Mexicana de Artes, Epinicio, Op. 42, for flute and piano, was written in 1979 and dedicated to María Elena Arizpe, who gave its première on 21 April 1980 at the Instituto de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. The original version was for solo flute, the piano part being a later addition. Halffter is here playing with multiphonics—the production of several notes at once—a technique that was still very new at the time. This work too is based on serialism, and is designed as a triumphal ode or song (the meaning of the Greek word epinicion). There is a definite hymn-like air to the music, as well as a compelling discourse that drives its virtuosity towards an affirmative goal, though not to the exclusion of purely cadenza-like passages.
Secuencia, Op. 39, for piano, was commissioned by Mexico’s Ministry of Education and was first performed at the Instituto de Bellas Artes on 20 June 1978 by Jorge Suárez, to whom the first of the work’s three sections is dedicated. Here too, the twelve-tone system is handled in a highly personal and individual way. It opens with a Preludio constructed using motifs from the tone row to make one forceful and one very delicate theme. The contrast between the two, and the way in which they overlap one another within a fascinating rhythmical structure, results in a supple and attractive piece of music. The central Interludio is dedicated to Mexican musicologist Uwe Frisch. Formally elaborate, it comprises three versions of an A section, three of a B section and then two new versions of A before the coda. The finale is a Postludio dedicated to the Mexican composer and musicologist José Antonio Alcaraz, and adopts an ABA structure with an extended coda. The virtuosity of the writing does not detract from the music’s structural and expressive elements.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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