Isaac Albéniz –An essay on the man,his music and his relationship to the guitar


escrito por Daniel Wolff


Isaac Albéniz, one of the most important Spanish composers, regarded as the founder of the Modern Spanish School, was born in Camprodon, Spain, in 1860, and died in Cambo-les-Bains, France, in 1909. A precocious piano virtuoso, he had his first lessons with his elder sister Clementine and appeared in public recitals playing duets with her as early as age four.

In 1866, after studies with Narciso Oliveros in Barcelona, his mother took  him to Paris to study with Antoine Francois Marmontel, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire who also counted Bizet and Debussy among his students. After a few months   under his private guidance Albéniz was accepted as a student at the Conservatoire, but he spoiled the opportunity by breaking one of its large mirrors while playing with a ball (we must not forget that he was only a six year old child). His mother then took him back to Spain and shortly after he went on a concert tour around Catalonia with his father, in which he would use the same kind of tricks as the young Mozart, such as covering the keyboard so that he had to play without looking at the keys.

The Albéniz family then moved to Madrid, and Isaac started attending the conservatory under Mendizabal. By this time he was a prolific reader of Jules Verne’s tales, and through them felt the enticements of adventure up to the point when, in 1870, he ran away from home to travel around Spain on his own, playing wherever he could. He went through all sorts of incidents over this time, being once even robbed by highway bandits. Upon reaching Cadiz, the local governor threatened to arrest Albéniz and have him sent back to his parents. Albéniz’s solution was to hide himself on the steamship España, bound for Puerto Rico. He expected to entertain the passengers by playing the piano in exchange for his ticket, but was forced to land in Buenos Ayres, the first port on call.

In Argentina Albéniz experienced hunger for the first time, and had to spend a while sleeping on the streets. But shortly after he was playing at cafes and cabarets, being able to save enough money to start traveling north to Central America. By the time he was thirteen he reached Cuba where, by coincidence, his father had just been transferred as collector of taxes. The elder Albéniz’s first reaction after knowing that his son was to arrive in Cuba for a series of performances was to force him to settle down and put an end to his nomadic life. But when he met Albéniz and saw that he was now a mature and experienced man, although still in his teens, he decided to let him follow his own way, which was now to go to the United States.

America did not welcome Albéniz as well as he expected, and in 1874 he returned to Europe, this time willing to seriously develop his skills as a musician. He attended the Leipzig Conservatory under Jadassohn and Reinecke, and later studied with Louis Brassin (piano) and Auguste Gevaert (composition) at the Brussels Conservatory. In 1880 Albéniz met Franz Liszt and became his student, having traveled with him from Weimar to Rome. The same year he started touring Europe and South America as a mature virtuoso.

The year 1883 marked the end of Albéniz’s Bohemian life style. He married Rosina Jordana and settled in Barcelona, dedicating himself entirely to his family and his music. Little by little he gave up his concert career, concentrating on teaching and composing. At about the same time Albéniz met the Spanish musicologist Felipe Pedrell, who made a strong impact on his compositional style by directing him towards the creation of music based on Spanish roots.

By the end of the decade Albéniz decided to leave Spain and, after spending some time in Paris studying with Dukas and D’Indy, settled in London in 1890, where he agreed to set to music the libretti of British banker Francis Money-Counts in exchange of financial support. This gave light to operatic works such as Pepita Jimenez, Merlin and Henry Clifford. Returning to Paris in 1893 Albéniz established a close relationship with the French impressionist composers, being in 1896 appointed assistant piano teacher at the Schola Cantorum.

In 1898 Albéniz left Paris and lived in Barcelona and later in Nice, finally settling in Cambo-les-Bains, where he died two months later. After his death he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government.

Musical Style

Albéniz’s style, although basically Spanish oriented, is still considerably eclectic and embodied with a popular flavor. This is doubtlessly connected to his early experience  playing at cabarets, as well as to the extensive traveling in which he was involved during his youth, when he had the chance to listen to music from several countries and diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though such influences, along with others that appeared latter on his life, are clearly present in his music, Albéniz was able to create his own personal style and his relationship with Liszt might also have contributed to this process. As pointed out by Livermore: “The Hungarian, though moving in the Germanic circles of Schumann and Wagner, had managed to create his own climate by the side of theirs, and this Albéniz needed to do in Paris, where his own unique musical experience required a similar independence of expression if its opening success was to mature unspoilt.”[1]

In order to acquire such an independence of expression Albéniz turned to the musical sources of his native Spain, being first attracted by the Spanish anonymous songs. Those were collected by church organists in times gone, and organized in cancioneros by Felipe Pedrell during the second half of the nineteenth century. The teachings of Pedrell influenced other major Spanish composers such as Falla and Granados, and they all used specimens of Spanish anonymous songs in re-creating the native idiom through their own compositions.

It must be observed that the late nineteenth century saw the growth of Nationalism, especially in countries like Spain, whose musical tradition was overshadowed by a powerful Germanic preponderance. Nationalism sought vivid emotional expression, achieved by the introduction into music of a greater variety of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic phraseology, mostly derived from folk music. Albéniz was the first exponent of Nationalism in Spanish music, being therefore regarded as the founder of the Modern Spanish School, as stressed by Baker: “Almost all of the works of Albéniz are written for piano, and all without exception are inspired by Spanish folklore. He thus established the modern school of Spanish piano literature, derived from original rhythms and melodic patterns, rather than imitating the imitations of national Spanish music by French and Russian composers.”[2] A link may therefore be established from Albéniz all the way back to Scarlatti, whose hundreds of keyboard sonatas were permeated by Spanish musical elements. But Albéniz was also interested in “accomplishing a spiritual transfiguration of the [Spain’s] landscape, to transform it into creative abstract material,”[3] and so he adopted pictorial programs for his piano suites, much on the same way as Mendelssohn on his Scottish and Italian Symphonies.

However, it should be noticed that the Spanish musical idiom, which served as a source for most Spanish composers, is itself a convergence of diverse influences easily observed on three major events in Spain’s history, namely the adoption by the Spanish church of Byzantine liturgical music, the Muslim invasion (responsible for the inclusion of Moorish elements on all levels of music making) and the immigration of numerous bands of Gypsies, the later acknowledged as the major step towards the creation of a style nowadays regarded as the core of Spanish music: the flamenco.

Comprised basically of dance movements such as the polo, the fandango and the seguidillas, on which Albéniz based most of his piano pieces, the flamenco is the modern successor of the cante jondo, through which it may be better understood. The cante jondo, a misspelling for canto hondo (in Spanish: deep chant), refers to a group of Andalucian folk-songs of Gypsy origin, characterized by two major aspects: “the compass which rarely surpasses a sixth; and the often obsessive repetition of the same note, frequently embellished by an appogiatura from above or below.”[4] In flamenco dance movements the cante jondo section functions as a cadenza, primarily due to its monodic and ametrical character. Albéniz used this feature in El Albaicín, from the Suite Ibéria, and in Asturias (from the Suite Española) expanded it to the whole first part of the slow section (see example 1).

Example 1: Albéniz, Asturias





Example 1.b demonstrates also the presence of Arabic turns of phrase, a Moorish legacy connected with “an important Spanish artistic movement at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth known as alhambrismo, referring to the palace of Alhambra in Granada.”[5] Moorish melodic elements were frequently found in Albéniz’s music, who used to proudly state: “I am a Moor!”

In regard to the instrumental accompaniment, in flamenco music it is usually provided by the guitar, and one of its distinctive features, which Albéniz employed frequently in his music, is the use of minor second grids to accomplish rhythmic accents. Although the inclusion of such dissonant intervals over triadic chords led to the improvement of Albéniz’s tonal gamut, it is however not sufficient to completely understand his harmonic idiom. A frequent resource found in his pieces in the major mode is to modulate to triads of the parallel minor scale, as in Sevilla, from the Suite Española. Here, after an opening in G major, the theme reappears in E flat major and the entire slow section is in C minor. It is interesting to observe that the tonic notes of these three keys put together form a C minor chord, which is the key of the slow section, a common device in the nineteenth century’s quest for a higher level of tonal relationships.

Further harmonic achievements are found in Albéniz’s late works, especially after his studies in Paris. Typical impressionistic harmonic devices such as the use of modal harmonies and the whole-tone scale, as well as uncertain tonal centers, are frequently found in his Suite Ibéria, which he referred to as a set of “twelve impressions”. It should be mentioned that several scholars are of the opinion that Albéniz was not really influenced by the impressionist composers, but rather helped to create the so called “impressionist style”, as put by Marco: “Although the language of Ibéria is directly related to the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, it cannot be considered simply as a consequence of the French school. Its genius lies in its extraordinary technical complexity; years later Olivier Messiaen declared that it was his immediate antecedent.”[6]

In terms of form Albéniz wrote mostly short pieces, the so called “character” pieces of the Romantic period. Most of them were based on flamenco dance movements over which he superimposed traditional formal structures such as ABA. It is interesting to observe that the B section, which traditionally serves as a relief to the rather busy texture of the A section, often assumes the form of a cante jondo, which in flamenco music also works as textural and rhythmic break. But Albéniz was also aware of the needs for achieving a greater formal structure, something he accomplished by placing his pieces together in the form of suites, such as the Suite Ibéria, the Suite Española and Cantos de España.

Little has to be said about Albéniz’s orchestration since, like Chopin, almost all his pieces are written for solo piano. He did orchestrate Catalonia with help from Dukas but most of his orchestral scores, almost all of which are to be found in his operas, show a    distinctive pianistic approach. Writing about the opera Pepita Jimenez, Chase states that “the score reveals that Albéniz thought primarily in terms of the piano rather than the orchestra, a medium he never thoroughly mastered” (italics mine).[7] The famous orchestral version of certain movements of the Suite Ibéria was done not by Albéniz but by his countryman Fernando Arbós, and part of the suite was also later orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Albéniz’s style changed considerably over the years. His early pieces carried no marked Spanish character, being rather miniatures written in the facile salon style (waltzes, mazurkas, barcaroles, etc.) so common in the late nineteenth century. French influences can be seen only in 1889, starting with La Vega, but the major step towards maturity can be traced back to 1883, the year he met Pedrell. “What Albéniz derived from Pedrell was above all a spiritual orientation, the realization of the wonderful values inherent in Spanish music.”[8]

Albéniz and the Guitar


“Throughout the veins of Spanish music, a profound rhythmic beat seems to be diffused by a strange, phantasmagoric, colossal and multiform instrument – an instrument idealized in the fiery imaginations of Albéniz, Granados, Falla and Turina. It is an imaginary instrument which might be said to possess the wings of the harp, the heart of the grand piano and the soul of the guitar” (italics mine).[9]

This statement by Joaquín Rodrigo demonstrates the high place the guitar holds in Spanish music, even if only on an unconscious level. That is to say, when trying to capture the Spanish musical  idiom, Spanish composers pay tribute to the guitar’s characteristic sonorities even though they are writing for another instrument. Such is the case with Albéniz, as observed by Chase: “Taking the guitar as his instrumental model, and drawing his inspiration largely from the peculiar traits of Andalusian folk music – but without using actual folk themes – Albéniz achieves a stylization of Spanish traditional idioms that, while thoroughly artistic, gives a captivating impression of spontaneous improvisation.”[10]

The story tells that Francisco Tárrega, regarded as the founder of the modern guitar school, performed his guitar transcriptions of Albéniz’s pieces for the composer, who on the occasion manifested his preference for the guitar version rather than the original piano score. Following Tárrega several guitar virtuosos, among them Andrés Segóvia and Miguel Llobet, proceeded to transcribe Albéniz’s pieces for the guitar, the resulting output being nowadays a highlight in the instrument’s mainstream repertoire. Thus Segóvia wrote in 1947: “What artist or what critic, no matter how severe he may be, can condemn the transcriptions of the works by Albéniz for the guitar? They are true restitution to the instrument which furnished the original inspiration.”[11]

In order to better  understand the guitaristic aspect of Albéniz’s music, we may refer to a comparison with Domenico Scarlatti, whose sonatas are also often performed on the guitar. It has already been mentioned the existence of a link between Albéniz and Scarlatti, who he took as his keyboard master in line, but how deep does this connection run? First of all they both wrote mostly for solo keyboard and had a large output of miniature pieces. But what is most important is that the two of them made frequent use of Spanish folk music elements in their works. The minor second grids that Albéniz used to provide rhythmic accents were not unknown to Scarlatti, as can be seen in example 2. Here, the effect of the tone clusters resembles that of the rasgueados (a guitaristic effect, originally from flamenco music, consisting of the strong strumming of chords in a way to produce rhythmic accents, working almost as a percussive effect), demonstrating that  even when writing for the keyboard, Scarlatti had the guitar in mind.

Example 2: Scarlatti, Sonata K175/L429, mm.25-28





But unlike Scarlatti who, being primarily Italian, used elements from Spanish folk music only occasionally to enlarge his sources of inspiration, Albéniz turned to it completely in order to develop his own personal style. This makes transcriptions of his piano music for guitar not only possible but desirable, since the instrument is not only the one most used in flamenco music, but is actually highly associated with Spanish music as a whole. This becomes quite clear by comparing certain passages of Albéniz’s works transcribed for the guitar with the original piano version.

The above mentioned rasgueados, for example, are often used in continuous motion in order to produce a full  chord tremolo effect. Being impossible to reproduce it at the piano, Albéniz opted in Cordoba, from Cantos de España, to replace it by a left-hand octave tremolo on the bass, the remaining chord tones being played by the right-hand in quarter-notes (see example 3).

Example 3: Albéniz, Cordoba, mm.136-37







Asturias, from the Suite Española, serves as a good example of the campanella effect, which is obtained by a repeated pedal note on an open string while a melody is played on one or more of the remaining strings. In this particular case the melody is played on the forth and fifth strings against a pedal note B played on the second open string (a transposition from the original key G minor to E minor is required). The result is a clear separation between the moving melody and the pedal note which the piano can not completely achieve, especially when the pedal and the melody note are the same, as in the first and third beats of the first measure in example 4. The circles indicate the pedal notes played on the open second string.

Example 4: Albéniz, Asturias, m.1





As for typical guitaristic accompaniment figures Albéniz’ music is so full of them that an example may not be necessary here. I shall only mention the Suite Ibéria, which is permeated throughout its twelve movements – notably in El Albaicín, Triana and El Puerto – by such figures.

But there are also several pieces by Albéniz that cannot be played on the guitar, since the instrument is not capable of handling as many notes as the piano due to limited register and mechanical possibilities. In some cases a transcription for two guitars will be preferred, but in others no trancription will not be possible at all. Nevertheless, the fact that a certain piece is not playable on the guitar does not exclude the possibility that it was the instrument Albéniz had in mind while composing. He was after all writing for the piano and therefore had to suit his music to that instrument’s technical characteristics, even if from the bottom of his heart, the guitar was his true source of inspiration.



Arnold, Denis, ed. The New Oxford Companion to Music. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” East Kilbride: Thomson Litho Ltd.,1984.

______________. The New Oxford Companion to Music. S.v. “Nationalism in Music.” East Kilbride: Thomson Litho Ltd.,1984.

Baker, Theodore. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 7th ed. by Nicholas Slominsky. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” New York: Schirmer,1984.

Cavaterra, Jeremy. “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. I – Isaac Albéniz.” MSM Notes (September 1994): 6-7.

______________. “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. II – Manuel de Falla.” MSM Notes (October 1994): 4-5.

Chase, Gilbert. The Music of Spain. New York: Norton,1941.

Jacket notes. Concierto de Aranjuez. Renata Tarrago, guitar. Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid. Odon Alonso, conductor. Columbia ML5345, s.d.

Livermore, Ann. A Short History of Spanish Music. New York: Vienna House,1972.

Marco, Tomas. Spanish Music in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Cola Franzen. Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press,1893.

______________. “Albéniz, Isaac.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vols. London: Macmillan,1980. I:202-03.

Segóvia, Andrés. “A Note on Transcriptions.” Guitar Review 1, no. 3 (1947): 3.

Thompson, Oscar, ed. The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac.” New York: Dod, Mead and Company,1985.

© 2001  Copyright by Daniel Wolff. All rights reserved.

[1] Ann Livermore, A Short History of  Spanisch Music (New York: Vienna House,1972), 180.

[2] Theodore Baker, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th ed. by Nicolas Slonimsky, s.v. “Albéniz, Isaac” (New York: Schirmer,1984).

[3] Tomas Marco, Spanish Music in the Twentieth Century, trans. Cola Franzen (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press,1993), 8.

[4] Jeremy Cavaterra, “The Underrated Masters: Spanish and Latin American Composers, Vol. II-Manuel de Falla,” MSM Notes (October 1994):4.

[5] Marco, Spanish Music, 46.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Gilbert Chase, The Music of Spain (New York: Norton,1941), 154.

[8] Ibid., 153.

[9] Jacket notes to Concierto de Aranjuez, Renata Tarrago, guitar, Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid, Odon Alonso, conductor, Columbia ML5345, s.d.

[10] Chase, The Music of Spain, 155.

[11] Andrés Segóvia, “A Note on Transcriptions,” Guitar Review 1, no. 3 (1947): 3.

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