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8.225240-41 - USANDIZAGA: Mendi Mendiyan (High in the Mountains)
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José María Usandizaga (1887-1915)
Mendi Mendiyan

Although José María Usandizaga was not born into a musical family, his talents were obvious from an early age, and his parents soon enrolled him in the conservatory of his native city, San Sebastián, where he studied with Beltrán Pagola. At the age of fourteen he moved to the Schola Cantorum in Paris, studying piano with Grovlez and composition with Vincent d’Indy. An immensely talented pianist, he seemed set for a career as a soloist, when arterial disease in one of his hands temporarily prevented him from playing, leading him to focus on composition instead. Works dating from his student years in Paris include the Suite in A, Dans la mer, the Symphonic Overture on a Gregorian Theme, and the String Quartet, Op. 31.

In 1906 Usandizaga returned to Spain and within a few years had become a leading figure in theatrical circles, such was the impact of the three stage works he had time to write in his short life. The first of these, the pastoral folk-opera Mendi Mendiyan (High in the Mountains), first given in Bilbao in 1910, was one of the most important works in the nascent Basque nationalist movement. His greatest popular success was Las golondrinas (The Swallows), first performed in Madrid in 1914 as a zarzuela, and converted into an opera by his brother and fellow composer, Ramón. Usandizaga’s final opera was La llama (The Flame), and this too was completed by his brother and given a posthumous première, in Madrid in 1918.

His other works include Umezurtza (The Little Orphan Girl) and Ytzaia for orchestra and chorus, the overture Bidasoa, the tone-poem Hassan y Melihah, the orchestral fantasy Irurak bat, En la aldea están de fiesta (They are celebrating in the village), for organ, the Fantasy for cello and piano, a string quartet, and the Basque Rhapsody, Chopin-waltz and sketches of impromptus for solo piano, as well as many other choral works, including the rhapsody Euskal Herri Maitiari. Usandizaga had always suffered from poor health, and he died in San Sebastián in 1915, after a long struggle with tuberculosis. One of the most promising careers in the history of Basque music was thus cut tragically short.

The success which met the first performance of Mendi Mendiyan marked the beginning of a new phase in Basque music, one whose dominant features were opera and nationalism. Despite his youth, Usandizaga proved himself more than capable of breaking new ground with the rural Basque setting of Mendi Mendiyan, his first incursion into opera, and opening the way for future, more ambitious works with which he (along with his contemporary, Jesús Guridi) would establish the foundations of Basque music.

In the absence of a Basque-language theatrical tradition, and given the necessity of choosing a story to set, either from legend or history, or a folk-tale, it was José Power, the president of the Bilbao choral society, who undertook the task of supplying the composer with a suitable libretto, which was then translated into Basque by José Artola, a poet from San Sebastián. It tells of the tragic events that unfold in a small rural community in the Aizkorri mountain range at the turn of the twentieth century. The protagonist Andrea’s love for the shepherd Joshe Mari provokes the jealousy of Gaizto, who also loves Andrea. Rejected by her, and discovering that she and Joshe Mari are in love, Gaizto seeks out his rival after the village festivities and in a fit of passion kills him with an axe. Andrea refuses to come down from the mountains in winter, clinging to the cross raised on the spot where her lover fell. There are no real secondary story-lines and the linearity of the plot makes it a little flimsy. The village setting of Act Three seems more of a pretext for the inclusion of folk-songs and dances and other typical scenes, and there is no humour or ambiguity. On the other hand, however, we do find a master-stroke of verismo in the contrast achieved by the use of the village festivities as a backdrop for the unfolding events, and the tragic ending is genuinely moving.

Echoing the nationalist trends that had emerged in various European countries in the nineteenth century, Mendi Mendiyan attempts to create an authentically Basque operatic style, taking its inspiration from folk motifs, and making full use of the songs and dances suited to a theatrical representation of life in the Basque Country. So, for example, we have songs from the Soule province, Eguntto batez nindaguelarik — an aria for Joshe Mari — and Txorittua, nurat hua? — for Kaiku — as well as the titi biliti — music traditionally played as part of the festivities surrounding the alarde, or military parade, held every year in the town of Hondarribia — and other folk tunes used in the village scene.

Given his well-rounded international training and acute instinct for drama, Usandizaga shaped his work according to the formula established by Wagner, whose influence on European opera was so profound, making great use in his musical structure of a system of leitmotifs. These depict the different characters, as well as the situations they face and their states of mind, by means of changing harmonies, orchestration or rhythms. Love, fear and passion too are characterized to such an extent that it is barely necessary to follow the text once you have recognised the themes. The story flows through a framework of motivic fragments contained within some remarkable orchestral writing. Usandizaga takes only the essence of the folk-songs he uses, although he does occasionally include an entire song. Much of the vocal writing is dialogue — there is just a brief duet at the end of Andrea and Joshe Mari’s love scene — and there is little concertante writing, apart from the isolated choral numbers. In general, the singing takes the form of syllabic recitative, with short note values, and melodies inspired by the turns and cadences characteristic of Basque folk-music.

The “wolf” motif, which provides the basis for the Act One prologue, creates a disturbing atmosphere for the opening of the work. Central to the action are Andrea’s thoughts and concerns: the nightmare that reveals her essential innocence, her love for Joshe Mari, and the unease she feels about Kaiku’s story, all are underpinned by themes from French-Basque song. Dark omens are introduced at the end of the act by Andrea’s grandfather, Juan Cruz, with the words ‘agur mendiko paketasuna’ (Farewell to the peace of this mountain).

One of the opera’s best-known numbers, Joshe Mari’s ‘Alare’, set to the tune mentioned above, opens Act Two and after this, his feelings of tenderness for Andrea grow in intensity in a passionate orchestral passage based on the ‘love’ theme. The dramatic tension increases in the wolf-hunt episode, one of the most turbulent of the entire work.

There is nothing at the start of Act Three to suggest the tragedy that is about to occur. We are transported to a most authentic representation of a Basque romería: a procession to the village church, followed by a service and then singing and dancing. We hear the march to the sound of the titi biliti, the Ave Maria and then the festivities, in the shape of the aurresku [a male courtship dance] and the ariñ ariñ [another traditional Basque dance, this time for couples], until the church bells play the Angelus. As the village folk leave the square, and after a passionate love duet between the two young people, we are precipitated into Gaizto’s vengeance and the death of Joshe Mari.

The epilogue, perhaps the opera’s most succesful element, introduces a musical atmosphere quite distinct from what has gone before. Andrea’s grief, the first she has ever experienced, is accompanied by the bells of the church clock-tower and far-off shepherds’ songs. Snowfall is portrayed by the violins, while Andrea recalls her happy childhood, as she weeps next to the cross, before deciding to return home with her brother Txiki. As the orchestra interprets her sorrow, the work comes to an end with the folk-song that inspired the ‘Joshe Mari’ motif.

Santiago Gorostiza
English translation: Susannah Howe

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