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ClassicsOnline Home » HALFFTER, E.: Piano Music
Ernesto Halffter was one of the most important Spanish composers of the twentieth century, yet
he considered himself simply, and modestly, a pupil of Manuel de Falla. His piano works, which
he began writing when only thirteen, span his entire career and reflect not only the influence of
Scarlatti, but that of the Spanish Renaissance, Stravinsky, Ravel, with whom he studied
extensively, and the French composers of Les Six. The two Piano Sonatas can be described as
twentieth-century versions of Scarlatti. Suite de las doncellas, the piano version of the ballet
Sonatina, here receives its first complete recording. Homenaje a Rodolfo Halffter, his elder
brother, is one of several homages to friends and artists important to Halffter in his creative and
everyday life. Dos piezas cubanas includes a memorable Habanera which exudes the indolence and
drowsiness of the warm Caribbean climate.
By David Denton
Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989): Piano Music
E. Halffter / G. Gonzalez: Piano Transcriptions
Ernesto Halffter Escriche (Madrid, 16 January 1905 – Madrid, 5 July 1989) is one of the most important Spanish composers of the twentieth century. Yet he considered himself modestly, just as a pupil of Manuel de Falla, whom he admired, both as an artist and as a morally exemplary human being. Nevertheless, Halffter was aware of his all-round musical talent, and that he was not lacking in ideas.
His father, Ernest Halffter Hein, a Prussian jeweller, who had settled in Madrid and married a Spaniard, Rosario Escriche Erradón, was completely supportive of the idea of his eldest and third-born sons, Rodolfo and Ernesto, choosing music as a profession. Perhaps this interest in music was inherited from their grandparents, Andalusians hailing from Écija (Seville), who were both opera lovers, while, according to Yolanda Acker, the musicologist and specialist in the works of Ernesto Halffter, their grandfather, Emilio Escriche, was also an excellent painter.
Ernesto began his education at the Colegio Alemán in Madrid and soon stood out in the world of music, as did his brother Rodolfo, for whom he wrote opera libretti. His earliest composition dates from 1911, when he was just six years old. In 1922 Ernesto's piano teacher, the Hungarian Fernando Ember, performed his pupil's first piano works, including the three pieces from Crepúsculos at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid. A short time later after their first meeting in 1923, the young Halffter sent Falla the score of his Trio for violin, violoncello and piano, on which the Andalusian composer, wrote "Bravo!"
Crepúsculos already showed signs of the great composer who, at the age of twenty, would receive the Premio Nacional de Música for his splendid Sinfonietta, a prize he would again be awarded in 1983 for his 'continuous contribution to Spanish music'. This piano triptych was initially titled Tres piezas líricas (Three Lyric Pieces). The composer wrote a program for the first, El viejo reloj del castillo (The Old Castle Clock), which might have been based on one of the legends by the great romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, whose Rimas (Rhymes) Albéniz, Falla and Turina turned into very beautiful songs. According to the critic Adolfo Salazar, the third, Una ermita en el bosque (A Hermitage in the Forest), had a certain rural flavour in the style of Granados. The second, Lullaby, reflects the impressionism Ernesto experienced several years later, from 1926 to 1928, in the Paris of Les Six. Halffter felt a close affinity to some of its members such as Poulenc, Auric and Milhaud. In Madrid he also formed part of the group of composers representing the so-called 'Generation of 27' or 'of the Republic', the famous literary (and musical) group launched during the very creative Roaring 20s, which dominated Spanish music until 1936. The group was based around the Residencia de Estudiantes, the institution derived from the very liberal, lay, and innovative Institución Libre de Enseñanza.
The premiere of the Marche joyeuse took place at the Residencia de Estudiantes in 1922. This piece is admirable for its charm and modern spirit, much in keeping with that of the generation of writers and artists featuring García Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí, Gerardo Diego, Aleixandre, etc. It was published with a cover by Salvador Dalí and soon formed part of the repertory of the famous Artur Rubinstein. Halffter reveals his very clever and ingenious use of bitonality and a varied array of rhythms.
In 1926 Halffter began composing his Sonata per pianoforte, which would not be completed until six years later. It could be described as a modern version of Scarlatti or of the spirit behind the Spanish harpsichord school. But upon closer listening, there are traces of a composer who, without discarding his customary joviality, is capable of revealing a side to his music that was as serious and profound as that of his admired Falla. It could also be a disguised homage to Granados, clearly cited towards the end of the Sonata, in both his Goyesque and Scarlattian aspects. The Sonata per pianoforte, dedicated to Janine Cools, was given its premiere by the pianist, Leopoldo Querol, in Madrid in May 1934. This was the only sonata of the three Halffter was required to compose in a contract he signed with the publishing house Max Eschig of Paris, of which the composer Eugène Cools (1877-1936) was Director.
L'espagnolade formed part of the album Parc d'attractions, a collective homage to the French pianist and teacher Marguerite Long (1874-1966), which took place at the 1937 Paris Exposition. This involved numerous foreign composers who resided in Paris at the time, including Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), Marcel Mihalovici (1898-1985), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994), Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) and Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977). L'espagnolade is an ironic pasodoble, a charming imitation of an Andalusian musical form that flourished during the mid-nineteenth century. The premiere, given at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in 1938, was entrusted to the French pianist, Nicole Henriot (1925-2001), one of Marguerite Long's favourite pupils.
Grüss (salute, greeting) follows the tradition of the German romantic Lied. The composer himself did not consider the piece to be of the slightest importance and never published it himself as he believed composers of his generation would not take it seriously. However, it exudes an intimate charm like that of other pieces of the same genre by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Gade or Grieg. It is as if it had been composed in 1840 instead of 1940. The title reveals its obvious Germanic precedents (similar to a romance without words, album leaf, or lyric piece), but it was also a Christmas greeting for his father, Herr Ernest Halffter. Max Eschig published Grüss in 1994.
In 1943 the composer (married to Alicia Camara Santos, the Portuguese pianist, since 1928), composed incidental music to Carlos Salvagem's heroic farce Dulcinea, premiered at the Teatro Nacional in Lisbon in January 1944. Halffter arranged the work into a symphonic suite, presented in Madrid on 9 December 1945 during a benefit concert for the Press Association at the Teatro Monumental, when the composer himself conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica Arbós. The work consists of various parts, Preludio y alborada, Los pastores, Nocturnos, Serenata, and Final. As well as a version for violoncello transcribed by Gaspar Cassadó, and a piano and violoncello transcription by Maurice Gendron, the penultimate Serenata was also arranged for the piano. In ternary form, the opening section evokes the plucking of the guitar, accompanying a short melody whose text could well be You are my love, Dulcinea. In the centre section, there is a sad and desolate nocturne, in which the guitar strums while Don Quixote serenades his beloved, a peasant whom the knight believes to be a princess.
"Cuba had been lost and now it was true. It wasn't a lie…", wrote Rafael Alberti in his evocative poem Cuba dentro de un piano ( Cuba Inside a Piano), which Xavier Montsalvatge so beautifully set to music. But a shattered, post-war Spain began to miss the gem of the West Indies, though Cuban influence was still felt as is very clear in the Pregón, with its Afro-Cuban and Spanish rhythms. And even more so in the Habanera, one of those well-written works that cannot be forgotten, even on a single hearing. This straightforward beautiful piece exudes the indolence and drowsiness provoked by the warm Caribbean climate with melancholic naturalness. Both the Pregón and the Habanera are featured in the film Bambú. Directed by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, it is a love story set in Spanish Cuba during the period of its independence following the war between Spain and the United States in 1898. The film, starring Imperio Argentina, Sara Montiel, Fernando Fernán-Gómez and Luis Peña, was premiered in Madrid on 15 October 1945. Regino Sainz de la Maza, the guitarist who premiered Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, also appeared in the movie.
Preludio y danza, composed for the inauguration of the Alonso Ortiz family house at El Escorial, dates from June 1974 (being premiered in the new house by Manuel Carra on the 11th of that month). It consists of two sections of the same length, including a Prelude in the style of the eighteenth-century recercadas by Sebastián Albero (1722-1756), slightly austere despite being very arpeggiated and finishing with a cadenza. This is followed by a very Halffterian dance of a characteristically Spanish nature.
Ernesto Halffter began writing Suite lírica in 1940 during his Lisbon period, reflected in works such as Rapsodia portuguesa and Seis canciones portuguesas. But the extract titled Llanto por Ricardo Viñes was probably composed between 29 April (the date of Viñes's death in Barcelona ), and 20 December 1943, the day it was premiered by the Portuguese pianist, Elena da Costa.
Federico Sopeña was fully justified when he commented that 'the history of modern music (i.e. the first half of the twentieth century) could not be written without Ricardo Viñes'. A number of very significant twentieth-century piano compositions were dedicated to Ricardo Viñes Roda (1875-1943) and he himself premiered a great number of works. Educated in Lérida, his native city, and later in Barcelona under Joan Baptista Pujol (piano) and Pedrell (harmony), in 1890 he launched a career that would lead him to form part of the principal artistic and intellectual circles of Paris, where Halffter benefited from his expertise and friendship. Viñes, a man of vast musical and literary culture, was described by Professor Tomás Andrade de Silva as 'the most unique pianist Spain ever had, both for his intimate awareness of sonority and for the inspired architectural conception of his interpretations'. Llanto por Ricardo Viñes, which did so much for Spanish music abroad, is the Madrilenian composer's sad and solemn lament for the great Catalonian pianist. In the style of pieces Falla dedicated to Debussy and Dukas, its arpeggiated chords give a somewhat medieval atmosphere to the opening of the work. The poetic chords and sombre motives that follow signify a serene farewell.
Although Spanish keyboard music was already very advanced by the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with composers such as Cabanilles and Rodríguez Monllor, the work of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) provided a tremendous inspiration, as can be seen in the music of Antonio Soler and others. Nationalistic piano music, from Granados to Falla, Rodolfo Halffter, Rodrigo and Ernesto Halffter, paid special attention to the Neapolitan genius. The presence of Scarlattian elements could already be perceived in the composer's early music as well as in the famous Sinfonietta and Sonatina. Sonata homenaje a Scalatti presents a musical form similar to those created by the the Italian musician at the Spanish court, transformed into the neo-baroque aesthetic of the twentieth century. Genoveva Gálvez gave the premiere at the Prado Museum, Madrid, on 14 September 1985, the year of Scarlatti's bicentenary. Towards the end of the sonata, Halffter quotes the theme from the well-known Cat's Fugue from D. Scarlatti's Sonata in G minor, K. 30. Genoveva Gálvez played the work on the harpsichord, which seems closer to the composer being celebrated, but Halffter conceived the work for piano, and this justifies its performance on either instrument.
I had the privilege of hearing the composer himself perform Nocturno otoñal: recordando a Chopin, at his last home in Madrid. To commemorate the centenary in 1987 of the birth of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982), the founder of the Santander International Piano Competition, Paloma O'Shea, commissioned a series of works in homage to the great Polish pianist, one of the most eminent performers of Chopin's music. In this work, written in the autumn of his life (he died two years later in Madrid on 5 July 1989), Ernesto expressed the melancholy of time irremediably running out.
But Halffter would still complete three piano pieces in homage to the memory of three Spanish colleagues and friends – llian Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) of Seville, Federico Mompou (1893-1987) of Barcelona, and his brother, Rodolfo Halffter (1900-1987) from Madrid. Guillermo González premiered all three works, the first two during the inauguration of the Manuel de Falla Archive in Granada (9 March 1981), and Homenaje a Rodolfo Halffter at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, Madrid (5 December 1992).
Homenaje a Turina, composed in July 1988, refers to the Andalusian qualities of the great Sevillian maestro's music. It even quotes from the villancico De los álamos vengo by the polyphonist Juan Vázquez of Estremadura (also cited by Falla in the Harpsichord Concerto and also Rodrigo in one of his famous Madrigales amatorios). The main character of the villancico tells his mother that he is coming "from the poplars of Seville, to see my pretty girlfriend".
Some of Mompou's recent ancestors had been bell makers and perhaps this explains his attentiveness to sonority, essential in such an intimately emotive output, and of such extreme simplicity at its core, stripping away all that is not absolutely necessary. In the concept of his Homenaje, Ernesto took into account Mompou's sparse and intimate style and his unique sense of the qualities of sound.
The death of his older brother Rodolfo on 14 October 1987, from whom he must have learned many insights into music, must have been a tremendous blow to Ernesto Halffter. Geographically and ideologically they had been far apart yet they cared for each other deeply and for some time shared an aesthetic that has already totally disappeared. Hence the serious and poignant expressiveness of this Homenaje, which evokes a common past and recalls his beloved brother quoting from the first of Sonatas de El Escorial, Op. 2, heavily influenced by Scarlatti. When Guillermo González asked Ernesto Halffter about the meaning of the mysterious harmonies at the end of the work, the composer replied: "I was thinking about Rodolfo's soul. As he was such a good man, he could only be in heaven".
The second compact disc begins with an important novelty, the original piano version for the ballet Sonatina, which Halffter wrote between 1927 and 1928. The work was inspired by the famous poem of the same title by the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío (1867-1916), which begins with the lines La princesa está triste, ¿qué tendrá la princesa? (The princess is sad. What is wrong with the princess?), from Prosas profanas (1896). The symphonic version of the work, conducted by the composer, was performed at the Palacio de la Música in Madrid on 11 February 1928. Antonia Mercé "La Argentina" and her Spanish Ballet subsequently premiered the work that year in Paris on 18 June, with sets and costumes by Beltrán-Masses.
Piano versions of two of the dances from Danza de la Pastora (The Shepherdess's Dance) and Danza de la gitana (The Gypsy's Dance) became very popular after they were premiered by José Cubiles. Max Eschig published the complete piano version in 1929, yet until now it has never been recorded. This version consists of the suite of dances from the part known as Las Doncellas (The Maidens), consisting of three dances. Rigaudón evokes the Sinfonietta and the world of Scarlatti, in accordance with Darío's modernist poem mentioned above, in which 'está mudo el teclado de su clave sonoro' (the keyboard of the princess's sonorous harpsichord is silent). The central section exudes the orientalism of the sad princess who 'piensa acaso en el príncipe de Golconda o de China' (is perhaps thinking about the Prince of Golconda or of China ). Zarabanda, the second dance, is serious and reflective, in a style resembling Falla in Concerto or El Retablo, and expresses the spirit of the verse 'La princesa no ríe, la princesa no siente,' (The princess doesn't laugh, the princess doesn't feel). Halffter's eighteenth-century vein reappears in Giga, the last dance from Las Doncellas, to tell us that the princess 'quiere ser golondrina, quiere ser mariposa, tener alas ligeras, sobre el cielo volar…' (wants to be a swallow, she wants to be a butterfly, to have light wings, fly over heaven…). Between the famous Danza de la pastora, (which would undoubtedly cheer up any depressed princess), and Danza de la Gitana, clearly related to the dances from Falla's El amor brujo, is an elegant and rococo Fandango. Danza final once again transports us to the Scarlattian world of the initial Rigaudón but with a richer harmony.
The pasodoble Valencia II dates from 1923, when Ernesto Halffter was invited by friends to a bullfight. At first he didn't want to go, but once he was there, he became completely fascinated by one of the bullfighters, Victoriano Roger y Serrano, known as Victoriano Valencia II in the bullfighting world and the dedicatee of a pasodoble for piano that is a rarity in Halffter's output. This is not the case with Panaderos, a popular eighteenth-century theme danced as part of the so-called Escuela Bolera. The great ballerina, Mariemma, played an essential role in rescuing from obscurity this Spanish school of dance. Panaderos belongs to an incomplete suite called Doredianas, conceived as a homage to Paul Gustave Doré (1833-1883) the great artist from Alsace and one of the most important illustrators of the nineteenth century. Doré well known for his drawings for The Bible, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote (1862), Orlando Furioso (and also his illustrations in the works of Perrault, La Fontaine, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Tennyson, Milton, etc), was very attracted to romantic Spain, its monuments, characters and landscapes. The other piece from Doredianas, Boleras de la Cachucha, is based on a popular dance from Andalusia in ternary metre, famous throughout Europe during the nineteenth century. (This is perhaps reminiscent of the success of Fanny Elssler (1810-1884), known as 'the Spanish dancer of the North', despite being Viennese and the daughter of Joseph Haydn's copyist and secretary.) The dance takes its name from the word Cachucha, a kind of cap or bonnet, and its music was used by composers from Pedro Albéniz (1795-1855), who used it in La barquilla gaditana, to Gottschalk, Glinka, Giménez and Ernesto Halffter.
In 1923, the year of the Cuarteto de cuerdas (String Quartet), Tres piezas para orquesta, Sonatina-Fantasía and Peacock Pie (tres piezas para guitarra), an emergent composer called Ernesto Halffter wrote his three Piezas a cuatro manos (Pieces for four hands). Sometimes called Trois pièces enfantines (comprising Sérénade, Valse and Marche), these pieces are actually three miniatures, since the first lasts half a minute and the others are only one minute each. However, they are a perfect example of the mastery of their precocious composer, reflecting the style of Satie and his famous contemporary Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). According to critic and composer Adolfo Salazar, a true champion of Halffter's many merits, 'the brief Sérénade cannot not be conceived with one note more or one less'. The Valse is a gem of clarity and elegance while Petite marche (as Salazar refers to it), is indeed 'of an extreme melodic beauty and a crystalline timbre. Belén González, a pupil of Guillermo González, joins him for this performance of Tres piezas infantiles.
This is an essential recording demonstrating the Spanish and international stature of the piano works of Ernesto Halffter, a person full of human kindness and charm.
Andrés Ruiz Tarazona
English translation by Yolanda Acker, edited by Graham Wade
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HALFFTER, E.: Piano Music