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ClassicsOnline Home » FALLA: Vida breve (La)
By Andrew Lamb
By Robert Tomas
By Robert Maycock
BBC Music Magazine
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
La vida breve
Manuel de Falla is universally acknowledged as the central
personality of twentieth-century Spanish musical culture. Born in 1876 in
Cádiz, Andalusia, he aspired as a young boy to be a writer but by the mid-1890s
had decided to concentrate on music. To further his ambition of becoming a
composer he studied in Madrid, his first works being for the piano. Between
1900 and 1904, seeking to earn a living, he wrote six zarzuelas, the light
operas popular in Spain. These were financially unrewarding but in Madrid,
Falla came under what he described as the ‘complex revitalizing influence’ of
Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922), the great Catalan musicologist and composer.
Pedrell inspired his students (among them Albéniz and Granados), to appreciate
the historic traditions of Spanish music, with emphasis on folk elements and
relevance to contemporary composition.
In 1905 Falla won first prize with La vida breve (Life is
Short) in a competition for Spanish opera awarded by the Royal Academy of Fine
Arts of San Fernando, but, as no public performance for the work was offered in
Spain, he decided to seek better prospects in Paris. In the bracing cultural
atmosphere of the French capital, he became friends with various leading
composers of the era, such as Albéniz, Debussy, Dukas, Ravel and Stravinsky. As
well as receiving performances of several of his piano works and songs, La vida
breve was eventually produced at the Casino Municipal, Nice, in 1913, and
repeated at the Opéra-Comique in Paris the following year.
After returning to Spain at the outbreak of World War I,
Falla’s reputation was rapidly in the ascendant in his native land.
Performances of La vida breve (14th November 1914, at the Teatro de la
Zarzuela, Madrid), and Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish
Folksongs), a few weeks later, confirmed his status among critics and public as
the foremost contemporary Spanish composer. In April 1915, at the Teatro Lara
in Madrid, came the première of one of his finest masterpieces, the ballet with
songs, El amor brujo (Love the Magician). This was followed by the first
performance (1916) of Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens
of Spain), for piano and orchestra, and the illustrious success of another
ballet, El sombrero de tres picos
(The Three-Cornered Hat), first given in Madrid in 1917.
In 1920 Falla moved to Granada. Here, with the poet,
Federico García Lorca, he organized the renowned Cante jondo flamenco
competition of 1922, an attempt, regrettably not repeated, to conserve and
revive the ancient art of Andalusian song. In Granada, Falla composed El
retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show, an adaptation of various
episodes from Cervantes’s Don Quixote), Psyché, the Concerto for harpsichord or
pianoforte, Soneto a Córdoba (for voice and harp) and other works. His last
completed composition was a set of four Homenajes (Homages) for orchestra,
first performed in Buenos Aires in 1939, conducted by Falla himself. From 1927
until the end of his life, Falla worked on the cantata, Atlántida, a massively
ambitious undertaking left unfinished but eventually concluded by his eminent
disciple, Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), for its belated première in 1961.
Following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and devastated
by the tragic murder of his friend Lorca, Falla left Spain in 1939 for
Argentina. He died there in 1946 a few days before his seventieth birthday. He
had suffered from severe ill health for many years, and this certainly limited
his output. Yet though not a prolific composer, his works are models of musical
perfection in expressive content and technical mastery.
La vida breve, in two acts, based on a libretto by Carlos
Fernández Shaw, is the story of Salud, the gypsy heroine, a victim of passion
and betrayal. The curtain rises, after a short introduction, on a gypsy
habitation. From one side comes the singing of men working in a forge, Get on
with your job, for man was born to work! (Street vendors can be heard selling
oranges, strawberries and figs.) Meanwhile Salud’s grandmother feeds her pet
birds. Salud enters, anxious that Paco may not come, and is reassured by her
grandmother. Eventually Paco arrives, vowing eternal love. Salud and Paco sing
a moving duet, Grandmother returns to watch the couple, joined by Uncle Sarvaor
(‘an old gypsy, dark, violent and ill-tempered’) who wants to kill Paco,
knowing that he is marrying another girl the next day.
Act II is set in a narrow street in Granada. Behind the
railings of a patio a wedding party is in full swing, the scene opening with flamenco
singing to the bride and bridegroom, Carmela and Paco. A dance follows and
Salud appears. She is aware of what is happening and questions whether to
confront Paco. The arrival of grandmother and uncle brings embraces for Salud
and curses against Paco, who grows pale. Salud thinks she hears Paco’s voice
among the gathering and decides to enter the patio, repeating the words of the
labourers at the forge, It is hard to be born an anvil instead of a hammer.
After a brilliant orchestral interlude, the scene changes to
the courtyard in the house of Carmela and her brother, Manuel, where the party
is held. While Manuel rejoices at the day’s happiness, Paco remains anxious.
Uncle Sarvaor’s entry, followed by Salud, causes the guests to wonder if these
are more gypsy entertainers, but Salud reveals she has come not to sing or
dance but to confront Paco and remind him of his vows to her. When Paco accuses
her of lying, Salud falls dead at his feet, overcome with grief. Grandmother
and uncle conclude the opera with cries of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Judas’.
La vida breve, written when Falla was in his late twenties,
is a powerful, spontaneous work, brimming with passion, variety of moods, and
the vividness of Andalusia. The focus remains throughout on Salud herself, the
other characters serving to accentuate the heroine’s tragic movement from
youthful optimism to betrayal and death. Paco, however, is both sophisticated
and disingenuous, offering specious pledges of love but selecting a wealthier
girl from a higher social class as his bride. But he also deceives Carmela and
Manuel as his callousness transforms the wedding day, which should be joyful,
to shades of deepest tragedy.
The grandmother offers protective family love and mature
wisdom, though both attributes are inadequate to protect Salud from the
pitfalls of love. Uncle Sarvaor, from the darker side of gypsy experience, is
the product of a hard existence resulting in a tendency to violence as well as
a ready repertoire of fearsome curses. Overall the opera is set against the
grim atmosphere at the forge where workers endure harsh daily labour. Their
commentary on life, heard from the outset, becomes through Salud’s destruction
the inescapable verdict, It’s hard for the man unlucky from birth. Salud’s
misfortune is that, despite her beauty, she too is destined to discover the
truth of this, and thus she sings her own version of the workers’ song before
the final confrontation.
La vida breve is a dramatic parable about life’s tragic
predicaments expressed through the beauty of Falla’s sublime music. But within
this framework of tragedy a sense of utter vitality is always present, evoking
the splendours of passionate love and life reflected in song and dance, even if
inevitably matched against the frailties of human nature. Most of all Falla
unfolds a vision of the undeniable ebullience of Andalusian life, depicted
through the brilliant colours of the quintessential Spanish imagination.
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