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ClassicsOnline Home » MOMPOU, F.: Songs (Complete), Vol. 1 - Song of the Soul (Mathéu, Masó)
Frederic Mompou’s purely intuitive music has a unique place in Catalan history. He was initially inspired by the music of Fauré, but the early La cançó de l’àvia also represents an affinity with traditional Catalan folk-tunes, and his Quatre mélodies reflect a love of brevity. Mompou’s beautiful Damunt de tu només les flors [Track 1] is one of his most famous creations, while the sombre Cinq mélodies sur des textes de Paul Valéry is probably his greatest vocal work. Jordi Masó’s six-volume set of the complete piano works of Mompou has been widely acclaimed.
Frederic Mompou (1893–1987)
Complete Songs • 1
“I have absolute faith in the forms of expression I carry within me. I cannot subordinate my spontaneity to theories, the need for which escapes me. Music is a pure form of inspiration.” Frederic Mompou is a unique figure in the history of Catalan music (Vladimir Jankélévitch took this even further when, in 1969, he wrote, “Mompou is unique in the world!”), in that he was an intuitive composer who shunned theories (“first the work, then the treatise”, was his view), and loved brevity (“my only aim is to produce works in which nothing is missing but which are not over-long”). Even his earliest pieces reveal a distinctively personal, French-influenced idiom, which remained on the fringes of the aesthetic currents that characterized the twentieth century (“only one thing can be expected of a musician, namely that he always be faithful to that which he is”). On more than one occasion he declared his indifference to the great composers of the Germanic tradition—Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—and although links have been made between his work and that of Chopin, Satie, Debussy and even Webern, the most important influence on Mompou was Fauré, whose music first inspired him to devote himself to composing.
Although he wrote primarily for his own instrument, the piano, Mompou also composed a significant number of vocal works. His first two completed songs date from 1915 but are very different from one another in terms of character: L’hora grisa (The Twilight Hour), setting a poem by his childhood friend and fellow composer Manuel Blancafort, is not far removed from the minimalist stasis of the Charmes suite, while La cançó de l’àvia (Grandma’s Song) has more in common with the traditional Catalan folk-tunes of his long series of piano works entitled Canciones y danzas (Songs and Dances). This second song remained unpublished throughout Mompou’s lifetime and the lyricist’s name is unknown, although it may well have been the composer himself. Also unpublished were his three unfinished settings of symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck’s Quand l’amant sortit (When Her Lover Left), one of the Quinze chansons published along with his Serres chaudes (Hothouses) collection. Mompou created three surprisingly varying versions: that of 1914 is reflective, that of 1919 agitated and that of 1915 features a sinuous vocal line—as if the composer were experimenting with the different states of mind suggested by the poem.
The Quatre mélodies of 1925, which set poems in Catalan by Mompou himself, are a faithful reflection of his ideal of concision. “I always strive to achieve something very simplified, a true synthesis”, he stated in 1974. “Composers are usually happy to keep adding more and more pages to a score. I, on the other hand, enjoy cutting things out, eliminating anything I feel is superfluous, until I’m left with the essential. Then I’m happy.” The extremely succinct Quatre mélodies, similar in spirit to Japanese haikus, are a good example of this process of distilling music to its pure essence.
The Psalm is a mysterious work. Dated 30 May 1936, it was never intended to be published. The Latin text is based on that of Psalm 130 and the song is one of the composer’s few sacred works, other than the oratorio Los improperios (The Reproaches) and Ave Maria. In 1949 Mompou transformed the piano solo in the central section into the Pavana of the suite of piano miniatures entitled Ballet. Cantar del alma (Song Of The Soul, 1943) is based on La fonte (The Source), a poem by St John of the Cross, the mystic poet who years later would also inspire Mompou’s great masterpiece, Música callada (Silent Music). Built on a very unusual structure, Cantar del alma presents a plainchant-inspired vocal recitative which alternates with refrain-like interventions from the piano, so that voice and instrument remain separate throughout.
The very beautiful Deux mélodies of 1945, setting poems by Juan Ramón Jiménez, seem to anticipate the lyricism and dramatic intensity of the Combat del somni cycle composed at around the same time. Based on sonnets by poet Josep Janés (1913–59), a close friend of Mompou’s, Combat del somni (Dream Battle) originally comprised three songs written between 1942 and 1948: Damunt de tu només les flors (Above You Only Flowers: one of the composer’s most famous creations, and rightly so), Aquesta nit un mateix vent (Tonight The Same Wind: a restrained song of hypnotic qualities) and Jo et pressentia com la mar (I Sensed You Like The Sea: for Mompou, an unusually impassioned, turbulent piece). Then, in 1951, the composer added a fourth song to this triptych: Fes-me la vida transparent (Make My Life Transparent). The fifth, Ara no sé si et veig encar (Now I Know Not Whether I Can Still See You), was written in 1950 but remained unpublished and Mompou, years later, used some passages from it for Le vin perdu, the third of the Cinq mélodies sur des textes de Paul Valéry. For this reason he was always reluctant to publish Ara no sé si et veig encar, although it is no less inspired a piece than its fellows.
At Christmas 1966 Mompou wrote Mira quina resplandor (See What Splendour), a carol for children’s chorus. The version for solo voice and piano has remained unpublished until now. A few years later, in 1973, Mompou chose some poems by the French poet Paul Valéry to set to music. He had met Valéry in Paris in 1925, at a lunch held to mark the poet’s election to the Académie française. “During our conversation,” Mompou explained, “Valéry asked if there was any connection between my piano work Charmes and his collection of the same name. I should love to have replied in the affirmative, given the great admiration I had for his work, but I had to confess, in some confusion, that at the time I wrote my work (1920), I had not yet come across his.” The composer did however tell Valéry that it would be a pleasure to set some of his texts one day. And, almost fifty years later, he kept his word and created the Cinq mélodies sur des textes de Paul Valéry, probably his greatest vocal work. Although these pieces are still tonal, there is more harmonic tension in them than in the rest of Mompou’s songs, as well as an unusually angular vocal line featuring complex leaps. The overall tone of the set is bleak and sombre, with an atmosphere of desolation that not even the lighter nature of the fourth song, Le sylphe, can ease.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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