About this Recording
8.225292-93 - GRANADOS, E.: María del Carmen [Opera] (Wexford Festival Opera, 2003)
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Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
María del Carmen

Whether Enrique Granados should be regarded as a Spanish or as a Catalan composer has been the subject of some discussion. He was born in Lérida (Lleida in Catalan), the capital of the least Catalan province of the four that make up Catalonia, and the name of the present opera, María del Carmen, is profoundly Castilian. This fact, and the opera’s plot to the libretto by Barcelona playwright José Feliu i Codina, were what provoked strong reproaches from the Catalanista world in which Granados was living and in which, in some ways, he actively participated.

Granados achieved his first great operatic success with María del Carmen, in which the action is set far from Catalonia in Murcia, in the south-east of Spain. From its première in the Teatro de Parish in Madrid on 11th November 1898, conducted by the composer, the opera was very well received. The critics emphasized its fine orchestral writing and the profound lyricism of its popular melodies. The success of the première is demonstrated by its run of nineteen performances. It remained in the Madrid repertoire until 9th January 1899, when Queen Maria Cristina awarded Granados the Charles III Cross in recognition of his creative work.

Its appearance in Catalonia, on 31st May 1899, in the Teatro Tivoli in Barcelona, was less of a triumph: a pro-Catalanista section of the audience demonstrated their rejection of the work by whistling and by shouts of angry protest. They were indignant that Granados had distanced himself from Catalan culture and had used neither a Catalan plot nor Catalan music. Hence it is not surprising that a Barcelona critic suggested that the only applause at the première came from a claque, hired for the occasion. They also criticised Granados for his choice of libretto. Less partial elements of the Catalan press, however, praised the orchestration and the dramatic sense of the music.

For all the petty intrigue, María del Carmen had eleven performances in the Tivoli, and there was even a brief revival at the end of 1899. After a few performances in Valencia, probably instigated by his father-in-law, the influential impresario Francesc Gal, the opera was not performed again until December 1935, when it was revived in Barcelona with the famous soprano Conchita Badia under the baton of Joan Lamote de Grignon. Since then the work which Granados himself considered his best opera has been largely ignored until today.

María del Carmen was created at an important time in Catalan culture. In the Spain of the mid-1880s, modernism was a lively cultural movement that in Catalonia crystallized the ideals of the ‘Renaixença’. Modernism completely dominated the cultural and musical life of Catalonia and Barcelona, which was then much more avant-garde than Madrid, a city dominated by zarzuela and farce, and deaf to the crisis that the decadent Kingdom of Spain was going through as its last colonies, the Philippines and Cuba, gained their independence in 1898. People such as the architects Domènech i Montaner and Gaudi, the painters Casas, Hugué, Nonell, Picasso and Rusiñol, writers such as Maragall, Mestres and Miralles, or musicians such as Albéniz, Morera, Pedrell, and Granados (who also painted), were all main actors in this unique movement in Catalan culture. It was defined by Federico de Onis as the Spanish form of the universal crisis and spirit that around 1885 heralded the dissolution of the nineteenth century. Granados, however, brought up in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and married to the Valencian Amparo Gal Llobera, was one of modernism’s less radical exponents.

At this time Catalonia and its capital Barcelona were in cultural ferment. Many modernist societies emerged whose main objective was to cultivate and promote Catalan folk-music. Works such as the symphonic poem Catalonia (1899) by Albéniz, and the lyric trilogy Els Pirineus (1902) by Pedrell, were part of this trend. Granados, too, would actively cultivate Catalan music in stage works such as Blancaflor, to a libretto by the poet Adrià Gual, Petrarca, Picarol, Follet and Gaçiel (all four to texts by Apelles Mestres), in songs such as Canço damor, Locell profeta, Elegia eterna and Cant de les estrelles; and above all, the stage poem Liliana, a mature work first given on 9th June 1911 and representing the culmination of his uneven relationship with the modernist movement.

Although Granados distanced himself from the political elements in Catalan nationalism, he nevertheless had strong aesthetic and social ties with his cultural environment. These ties were integral to him not only as a musician but also as an amateur painter and a man who loved literature. His admiration for the Wagnerian world, which had a firm following in Catalonia, inevitably brought him closer to modernism, and to collaboration with the Barcelona Wagner Society, and even inspired a piano piece Eva y Walther. The influence of Wagner on Catalan artists and society was strong and Wagnerism underlies some of Granados’s works, contemporary criticism of María del Carmen, with the importance given to the orchestra, and the absence of the conventional divisions between arias and dialogue, familiar to the public from zarzuelas.

It was the lot of Granados to live at a time when avant-garde trends in Barcelona were extraordinarily active, probably to a much greater extent than he, with his conservative background, could assimilate. Perhaps because of this, and despite his determined involvement in Barcelona’s developing aesthetic trends, he was always regarded by his colleagues as a conservative incapable of really understanding the renewing dynamics then at work.

At bottom, and as his teacher Felipe Pedrell observed, Granados was a composer unwilling to bow to any predetermined formula. Like Albéniz, he wrote solely on the basis of his own judgement, free of any aesthetic compromise. Hence it is not easy to define theoretical coordinates where his style and manner of composition are concerned. He certainly did absorb influences during his stay in Paris, where he knew musicians associated with the Schola Cantorum, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns in particular. He mixed this legacy with his enthusiasm for the German Romanticism which formed a large part of his repertoire as a pianist.

Nevertheless his music does not follow the formal structure of thematic development so characteristic of the German repertoire. It conforms more to the characteristic formula of Spanish poetry, returning again and again to the same idea but from different perspectives. Thus he tended to repeat melodies more than he developed them, adding different and increasingly brilliant decoration to each repetition. Generally less chromatic than Franck or Wagner, his elaborate harmonic schemes confer a distinction and brilliance to his style that bring it close to the works of those two composers, both of whom he admired very much. His music is always refined and extremely elegant.

Like Wagner, Granados frequently uses the devices of self-quotation and thematic references to other works. Without actually creating a true scheme of leitmotifs, he often links harmonies and melodic motifs with specific dramatic events, thereby conferring a Wagnerian flavour to certain works, including María del Carmen, which must be ranked with Goyescas as among the best operas of a composer who always felt a fervent and intense vocation for the lyric theatre.

Granados remains imperfectly known and understood as a composer. Not even his Catalan and Spanish countrymen can come to any agreement on him. For some he is the last Romantic, for others the Spanish Chopin, and for others, the Spanish Grieg. Whatever the truth, he is the most important Spanish composer of his time, together with his countrymen Isaac Albéniz and the Cadiz-born Manuel de Falla. That other Catalan, Pablo Casals, once compared these three geniuses of Spanish and worldwide music. The great cellist said that the most original and poetic inspiration belongs to Granados, de Falla he considered the best composer, and Albéniz the most advanced. He was probably right.

Justo Romero

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