About this Recording
8.557629 - ESCUDERO: Illeta
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Francisco Escudero (1913–2002)

When Francisco Escudero died in 2002, Basque cultural life lost one of its most eminent artists. Composer, conductor and teacher, this distinguished musician spent his life creating an exceptional and very individual catalogue of works embracing almost all musical genres.

Escudero was born in San Sebastián in 1913 and began studying music with Beltrán Pagola and Conrado del Campo in Madrid. In 1932 he travelled to France and Germany where he worked with Dukas, Le Flem and Wolff, dedicating himself on his return to Spain to composing, teaching and conducting. The French influence is discernible in his early works, such as the String Quartet in G, but much stronger is the essentially Basque element to be found in his sacred and stage works, such as the oratorio Illeta and the operas Zigor and Gernika, as well as in the Concierto vasco para piano. Later he tried out more modern techniques to great effect in the Cello Concerto, and his final years were particularly prolific, producing the “Ultreia” Symphony, Sinfonia concertante and the Violin Concerto, among other works. Escudero was awarded the Gold Medal of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando and the Spanish National Music Prize three times. He spent most of his life in his native Basque Country, dying in San Sebastián in June 2002.

Escudero’s artistic sensibility and imagination stretched beyond purely musical considerations; his style is principally characterized by a personal and abstract conception of traditional Basque music, the result of much time spent studying and dissecting its themes and rhythms, and by a sound technical background. This did not prevent his use of the boldest avant-garde sound effects, which he integrated into his own harmonic system, with a kind of tonal freedom that resulted in frequent and unexpected clashes. Never one to refuse a compositional challenge, Escudero always came up with incredibly effective solutions, demonstrating enormous skill in developing and orchestrating motifs to create a musical fabric rich in gesture and chromatic harmony.

His desire to portray the different aspects of the Basque character, evident in previous works, reached the heights of emotion in Escudero’s Illeta, which depicts the reaction of his countrymen to death. Xabier Lizardi’s poem Biotzean min dut (My heart is broken), which deals with the grief experienced on the death of a loved one, inspired him to compose this imposing oratorio sung in the first person by the soloist and the chorus, who, as the townspeople, join the baritone in his mourning for the final farewell: the wake, funeral and burial. Escudero provides vivid musical depictions of all these, once again proving his mastery of a large orchestra and massed voices in creating a deeply spiritual setting as his response to the sentiments expressed by the text.

The work’s starting-points are a five-note motif, reflecting the influence of Gregorian chant on traditional Basque music, and a second theme introduced immediately afterwards by the cor anglais, both of which recur throughout the oratorio, acting as the links between its different episodes. Illeta employs a wide variety of descriptive effects and devices: at the beginning we hear the bells tolling for the grandmother who has died, and strident music representing cries of grief; in the second part we can hear the mourners rending their garments; and in the third part, the winter wind gusting at night in an extraordinary and disturbing orchestral interlude, and a tender, moving violin solo. Escudero also successfully builds up different atmospheres, such as the desolation of the townsfolk as they intone the Lord’s Prayer in Basque at the beginning, and join in the liturgy with the Dies irae in the third part. The play of different pressures and tonal combinations helps clarify the soloist’s range of feelings — intense grief, emotional emptiness, tenderness and sadness — culminating in a deeply moving finale on the words “my heart is broken!”

Santiago Gorostiza
English Translation by Susannah Howe

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