About this Recording
8.557332 - BLANCAFORT, M.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Villalba) - Peces de joventut / Cancons de muntanya / Notes d'antany
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Manuel Blancafort (1897-1987)

Manuel Blancafort (1897-1987)

Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1

 

Manuel Blancafort i de Rosselló was born on 12th August 1897 in the spa town of La Garriga, near Barcelona, into an educated, middle-class Catalan family. His parents owned a famous hotel in the town which was frequented by many artists, intellectuals and politicians. An enterprising man, and an enthusiast for technological innovation, his father had also set up a factory in La Garriga to produce pianola rolls, and this in effect became Blancafort’s music school.

 

Blancafort studied music first with his father, and then with Joan Alsius, who taught him the basics of composition. Then, as a teenager, he began to work in the family factory. It was his job to examine music scores in minute detail and convert the notes into series of perforations on rolls of paper. He was therefore able to learn all about different styles of writing, from the classical composers to the latest works by Debussy, Ravel and Schoenberg, among others, and to complete his musical education — to all intents and purposes he was self-taught. Life at the hotel also gave him the opportunity to meet a number of musicians and composers, including Joan Lamote de Grignon and Frederic Mompou, both of whom gave him advice and looked over his early compositions.

 

It was his meeting with Mompou, in 1914, that was to prove the most significant for the young Blancafort, not only musically but also aesthetically and spiritually. Mompou took on the rôle of elder brother, supporting Blancafort and guiding him as he took his first steps as a composer, as well as helping him find his way around the rich and innovative musical scene of 1920s Paris. 

 

The première of Blancafort’s El parc d’atraccions (The funfair), given by the pianist, Ricardo Viñes, in Paris in 1926, was enthusiastically received by that city’s demanding public, and Maurice Sénart, one of the leading French publishing houses, took an interest in the young composer and went on to publish most of his works.

 

Unfortunately, a promising career was soon brought to an end: the demands of family life (he was to have eleven children), the closure of his father’s factory (caused by the growing success of the gramophone), and problems arising from the Spanish Civil War combined to oblige Blancafort to set up home in Barcelona and spend most of the rest of his life working for an insurance company. Despite the restrictions this entailed, he was nevertheless able, with the support of his remarkable wife, to find a few precious moments in which he could compose, eventually building up a sizeable catalogue of works which represent “the living synthesis of Catalan musical culture” (Manuel Valls).

 

Spanish isolation during the Franco years, and in particular the closure of the French border, made it difficult for Blancafort to achieve any international fame for his work, but he won prizes and official distinctions in his native country from 1949 until his death in Barcelona on 8th January 1987.

 

Blancafort’s work is clearly rooted in Catalan traditions, and its emotional and aesthetic content is always bound to a stable formal structure. This “classical” approach, in the strict sense of the word, where intellect reigns over sentiment, is present in even his earliest works. In these, despite numerous touches of Romanticism, the composer succeeded in creating, in his own words, “something that stands up”. His music has a clarity and simplicity far-removed from the German transcendentalism in fashion at the time, his aim being to compose music which was “tonal, logical and concise”. To this end he took French music as his model, although he believed it was not a question of “giving Catalan music a French flavour … it has to speak of things Catalan in a European idiom”.

 

Blancafort’s choice of the piano for his first compositions was quite natural, given his years of close contact with the pianola, his feeling for French aesthetics and his friendship with Mompou, a fine pianist.

 

The early works (1915–19) recorded for this first volume demonstrate Blancafort’s preference for short pieces, either complete in themselves or as sections of a cycle, and for the simple form of the Lied, as well as his interest in everyday subjects and intimate feelings, influenced by the natural world and by a sense of nostalgia and longing: “I have always loved silence and isolation … I grew up in a world of melancholy which I myself created”. The young composer was setting his imagination to music as he searched for a personal idiom.

 

The seven Peces de joventut (Youthful pieces), most of which are written in minor keys, are a good example of this fundamentally romantic attitude, and are a direct introduction to the composer’s world. His first work, Record (Memory), was probably written and rewritten many times before reaching this final version. It brings together the aspects typical of his later production, simplicity of language, and a fine melodic and harmonic sensibility within a well-structured framework, and owes a clear debt to Grieg’s Lyrische Stücke.

 

The mysteries of nature were an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Blancafort, as can be seen for instance in the nine Cançons de muntanya (Mountain songs — genuine songs without words) in which we hear the gentle lullaby of the wind caressing the branches (I) and a soothing snowfall on to a frozen landscape (III); we are present at sunset (VI and VIII) and in a valley covered by a dawn mist (II); we feel the sadness of remembrance and farewell (IV and VII) and the joy of reaching the summit in the dazzling light of day (V and IX).

 

The eight pieces that make up Notes d’antany (Notes from years gone by) are steeped in the same introspective atmosphere as the previous works and are strikingly mature. Lament (Lamentation) and La lluna brilla (Moonlight) anticipate the Nocturns (written 20 years later), Record d’infantesa (Childhood memory) expresses nostalgia for a bygone age, while the autumnal light which opens the cycle, En arribar la tardor (When autumn comes), with a russet carpet of fallen leaves, Al jardí (In the garden), dissipates and is swept aside by the merriment of friends in Els joiosos companyons (The happy friends) and the spring birdsong of Ocells al cel d’abril  (Birds in the April sky).

 

Blancafort often turned to song in his early days, attracted by its miniature structure and popular nature. This can be seen in his 12 Cançons, as can his interest in traditional Catalan tunes. He believed strongly in the importance of nationalism in music and was keen to follow in the footsteps of Albéniz, Granados and Falla, but with a Catalan bias. The last four songs, like the Tema popular from Notes d’antany (which takes its theme from the traditional Catalan song La filla del carmesí), are full of rich and inventive harmonies. Cançó en la solitud, Cançó del capvespre, Cançó en l’ermita and Cançó a la platja (Song of solitude, Song of twilight, Song of the hermitage and Song of the beach) once again set to music the poetic vision of a young man inclined to solitude and with a love of nature.

 

The composer was also fascinated by the theme of childhood. In the same way as Debussy’s Children’s Corner, Cançó de la canalla (Children’s song) and Cançoneta per adormir (Lullaby) take us back to our younger days, using the carefree joy of a children’s round and the soporific effects of a gently monotonous song, while in Cançó del pastoret (The little shepherd’s song), the shepherd plays his flute in harmony with the echo from the mountains.

Miquel Villalba

 

English version: Susannah Howe


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