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8.557275 - ARAMBARRI: 8 Basque Songs / In Memoriam / Spanish Fantasy
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Jesús Arámbarri (1902-1960)

Jesús Arámbarri (1902-1960)

Eight Basque Songs • In Memoriam • Spanish Fantasy


Jesús Arámbarri is a significant figure in the history of twentieth-century Basque music. A romantic, scholarly and sensitive musician of extraordinary insight and finesse, he drew not only on the tradition established by Felipe Pedrell, Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz, but also on the work of his fellow Basque composers José María Usandizaga, Jesús Guridi and Father José Antonio de Donostia. Although his fame rests primarily on his work as a conductor, he also composed a series of stylish and expressive pieces, earning him a rightful place of honour within the ranks of Basque composers.

            Arámbarri was born in Bilbao in 1902 and began his musical education there before travelling to Paris, where he stayed until 1932, to study composition with Dukas and conducting with Golschmann. He then went on to further conducting studies with Felix Weingartner in Basle. Some of his most important works date from his student years: the Four Impromptus, the orchestral prelude Gabon-zar sorgiñak, the String Quartet in D, the Canto elegíaco for piano written in homage to Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, and the Eight Basque Songs for soprano and orchestra (1932).

            On his return to Bilbao Arámbarri worked almost exclusively as a conductor and only wrote a few more works, most of which were conceived as tributes to those who had most influenced his career: Ofrenda (1946) for Manuel de Falla, In memoriam (1939) for Juan Carlos de Gortázar, and Dedicatoria (1949) for Javier Arisqueta. His only other compositions are the ballet Aiko-Maiko, the zarzuela Viento Sur and the orchestral works Fantasía española and Castilla. As well as taking charge of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, he also appeared as guest conductor with all the major Spanish orchestras, introducing audiences to a large number of new works. He was appointed permanent conductor of Madrid’s Banda Sinfónica in 1953 and died in 1960 while conducting the ensemble at the Parque del Retiro.

            Arámbarri’s sound academic background, his feeling for the folk-music of his native region and his ability to give form and colour to any kind of musical image, enabled him to create music characterized by its elegance and restrained Romanticism, with celebratory as well as dramatic and sombre resonances in his tribute pieces. He excelled above all in orchestral writing and had a sharp sense of the practicalities of performance, acquired through his long experience of conducting other people’s works and composing his own from the perspective of the performer-composer relationship.

            Short orchestral pieces have a special place in Arámbarri’s production - even his earliest works demonstrate his predilection for melodic, transparent writing which draws its inspiration from existing material, such as the Basque folk-songs which lie behind Gabon-zar sorgiñak (Witches on New Year’s Eve) and the Four Impromptus. He was known for the way in which he isolated different orchestral timbres: his motifs almost always pass from one instrument to another within a relatively small ensemble. Exchanges between different sections then produce very clearly defined colour contrasts, with very little blending. There is something playful, childlike and joyous in this search for opposing or contradictory sounds (the harmonic progressions are controlled with greater precision in the more lyrical Impromptus).

            The Eight Basque Songs, taken from love-songs and lullabies collected by Resurrección María de Azcue and Padre Donostia, show Arámbarri’s development as a composer. The influence of Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas can be discerned, although Arámbarri’s treatment is very different. Rather than transforming the songs into anything more sophisticated, he allows them to speak for themselves, with the accompaniment of gentle rhythms and subtle, velvety strings, always within a moderate dynamic range. The harp plays a major rôle throughout the cycle and the winds are employed with great wit towards the end.

            A sense of pent-up emotion is woven through the tributes to Manuel de Falla - Ofrenda (Offering) - and Juan Carlos de Gortázar - In memoriam. The former, written one day and first performed the next, borrows the rhythm of the farruca from the older composer’s Three-Cornered Hat, over which the sorrowful voice of the cor anglais gradually unfolds a tune that develops motifs taken from Falla’s music. The latter quotes from the chorus of Guridi’s Así cantan los chicos, whose text was by Gortázar, and from the Gregorian Dies irae.

            Although the Fantasia española - Arámbarri’s contribution to the Parisian trend for Spanish-flavoured pieces - is not lacking in the colours traditionally associated with that country’s music, castanets included, the composer did not strictly adhere to the idea held in Paris of “Spanish atmosphere”. Once again his preference for isolating the melodies and entrusting them to the more lyrical instruments (the oboes among the wind, and cellos among the strings) is evident, giving the “local colour” motifs derived from the tonadilla and the seguidilla a different treatment. Lyricism also lies at the heart of the intermezzo from the zarzuela Viento Sur (South Wind, 1952) which dramatises a true story dating from 1890, when bets on a race between the fishing-boats of Ondárroa and San Sebastián caused the ruin of the village of Ondárroa. This is a brief episodic fragment for reduced forces, in which the zarzuela’s principal themes are initially introduced by the string and woodwind sections, then given to solo oboe and violin, creating a dialogue whose restrained expressiveness helps establish an oppressive, dramatic atmosphere.

Santiago Gorostiza


English version: Susannah Howe

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