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ClassicsOnline Home » URCULLU: Guitar Works
Of the many mysteries that surround the history of the guitar, perhaps one of the most fascinating is that which shrouds the enigmatic figure of the nineteenth-century Spanish composer Leopoldo de Urcullu. We know virtually nothing about the man or his life, though he left a legacy of some quite extraordinary music revealing a guitarist who has been unjustly and inexcusably forgotten and whose life and works deserve to be far more widely investigated, disseminated and appreciated.
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By David Denton
Leopoldo de Urcullu (fl.1830–1843)
Of the many mysteries that surround the history of the guitar, perhaps one of the most fascinating is that which shrouds the enigmatic figure of guitarist-composer Leopoldo de Urcullu. Though he left a legacy of some quite extraordinary music, we know virtually nothing about the man or his life.
The fact is, not even such basic details as his date and place of birth or death are known. A few lines about his music have survived, however, within the pages of the Catálogo General de la Música Impresa y Publicada en Madrid (General Catalogue of Music Printed and Published in Madrid) issued by Sancha in 1834 and distributed through the music store of León Lodre. This is the earliest known publication to feature a list of various published works (solo guitar pieces and songs with guitar accompaniment) by Urcullu.
A whole century was to pass before the name of our mysterious guitarist (with the spelling now changed to Urcullo) was once again immortalised in print, this time in Domingo Prat's Diccionario de Guitarristas, published by Romero y Fernández in Buenos Aires in 1934. This volume is equally lacking in biographical detail: the entry devoted to Urcullu does no more than list the scores that formed part of the author's own personal archive. However, the Diccionario's entry for Florencio Gómez Parreño, a well-known Madrid lawyer who was also an exceptional composer and guitarist, and a friend of guitarist-composer Dionisio Aguado (1784–1849), reproduces the complete text of his poem A Zelmira, which had first appeared in issue No. 11 of a Madrid music journal called El Anfión Matritense on 19 March 1843. Its lines provide us with a few clues which, if nothing else, give us an idea of the regard in which Urcullu was held in his time, and help pinpoint a rough date of death.
Urcullu's name appears twice in this poem. The first mention reads as follows: "… I listen to beautiful compositions full of novelty and harmony by the eloquent and ill-fated Urcullu, reminding me of the young Sor …" As well as alluding to the quality and originality of his music, comparable to that of the Catalan guitarist-composer Fernando Sor (1778–1839), this tells us that in all likelihood, he had already died by the time this poem was first published. Bearing in mind that one of his works, the Cavatina en la ópera "Belisario", is based on Act One, scene three ("Il trionfo") of Donizetti's opera, which had its première in Venice in 1836, we can deduce that Urcullu must have died at some point between 1836 and 1843. Furthermore, given that Fernando Sor himself had died in 1839 and that at no point in his poem does Gómez Parreño refer to him as "ill-fated", it seems safe to suppose that Urcullu was younger than Sor and that his death must have been relatively premature.
The second mention of Urcullu's name in the poem – "… my spirit is enraptured by the music of Urcullu, Sor and Aguado …" – ranks him alongside the two most famous and eminent Spanish guitarists of the first half of the nineteenth century, thereby demonstrating the enormous esteem in which he was held by Gómez Parreño.
Regrettably, the most recently published encyclopedias to include an entry on Urcullu – Francisco Herrera's Enciclopedia de la Guitarra (Valencia, Editorial Piles) and the Diccionario de la Música Española e Iberoamericana, edited by Emilio Casares and published by the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores – refer only to the above-mentioned Catálogo and poem. No additional biographical details have emerged: modern musicological research has yet to shed any more light on the mysterious life of Leopoldo de Urcullu.
By way of consolation, we do have some of the music he wrote, which can now be enjoyed on this recording. These works are the perfect illustration of Gómez Parreño's words, revealing as they do a guitarist who has been unjustly and inexcusably forgotten and whose life and works deserve to be far more widely investigated, disseminated and appreciated.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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URCULLU: Guitar Works