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8.660155 - FALLA: Vida breve (La)
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Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

La vida breve


Manuel de Falla is universally acknowledged as the central personality of twentieth-century Spanish musical culture. Born in 1876 in Cádiz, Andalusia, he aspired as a young boy to be a writer but by the mid-1890s had decided to concentrate on music. To further his ambition of becoming a composer he studied in Madrid, his first works being for the piano. Between 1900 and 1904, seeking to earn a living, he wrote six zarzuelas, the light operas popular in Spain. These were financially unrewarding but in Madrid, Falla came under what he described as the ‘complex revitalizing influence’ of Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922), the great Catalan musicologist and composer. Pedrell inspired his students (among them Albéniz and Granados), to appreciate the historic traditions of Spanish music, with emphasis on folk elements and relevance to contemporary composition.


In 1905 Falla won first prize with La vida breve (Life is Short) in a competition for Spanish opera awarded by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, but, as no public performance for the work was offered in Spain, he decided to seek better prospects in Paris. In the bracing cultural atmosphere of the French capital, he became friends with various leading composers of the era, such as Albéniz, Debussy, Dukas, Ravel and Stravinsky. As well as receiving performances of several of his piano works and songs, La vida breve was eventually produced at the Casino Municipal, Nice, in 1913, and repeated at the Opéra-Comique in Paris the following year.


After returning to Spain at the outbreak of World War I, Falla’s reputation was rapidly in the ascendant in his native land. Performances of La vida breve (14th November 1914, at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid), and Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs), a few weeks later, confirmed his status among critics and public as the foremost contemporary Spanish composer. In April 1915, at the Teatro Lara in Madrid, came the première of one of his finest masterpieces, the ballet with songs, El amor brujo (Love the Magician). This was followed by the first performance (1916) of Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), for piano and orchestra, and the illustrious success of another ballet,  El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), first given in Madrid in 1917.


In 1920 Falla moved to Granada. Here, with the poet, Federico García Lorca, he organized the renowned Cante jondo flamenco competition of 1922, an attempt, regrettably not repeated, to conserve and revive the ancient art of Andalusian song. In Granada, Falla composed El retablo de maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show, an adaptation of various episodes from Cervantes’s Don Quixote), Psyché, the Concerto for harpsichord or pianoforte, Soneto a Córdoba (for voice and harp) and other works. His last completed composition was a set of four Homenajes (Homages) for orchestra, first performed in Buenos Aires in 1939, conducted by Falla himself. From 1927 until the end of his life, Falla worked on the cantata, Atlántida, a massively ambitious undertaking left unfinished but eventually concluded by his eminent disciple, Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), for its belated première in 1961.

Following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and devastated by the tragic murder of his friend Lorca, Falla left Spain in 1939 for Argentina. He died there in 1946 a few days before his seventieth birthday. He had suffered from severe ill health for many years, and this certainly limited his output. Yet though not a prolific composer, his works are models of musical perfection in expressive content and technical mastery.


La vida breve, in two acts, based on a libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw, is the story of Salud, the gypsy heroine, a victim of passion and betrayal. The curtain rises, after a short introduction, on a gypsy habitation. From one side comes the singing of men working in a forge, Get on with your job, for man was born to work! (Street vendors can be heard selling oranges, strawberries and figs.) Meanwhile Salud’s grandmother feeds her pet birds. Salud enters, anxious that Paco may not come, and is reassured by her grandmother. Eventually Paco arrives, vowing eternal love. Salud and Paco sing a moving duet, Grandmother returns to watch the couple, joined by Uncle Sarvaor (‘an old gypsy, dark, violent and ill-tempered’) who wants to kill Paco, knowing that he is marrying another girl the next day.


Act II is set in a narrow street in Granada. Behind the railings of a patio a wedding party is in full swing, the scene opening with flamenco singing to the bride and bridegroom, Carmela and Paco. A dance follows and Salud appears. She is aware of what is happening and questions whether to confront Paco. The arrival of grandmother and uncle brings embraces for Salud and curses against Paco, who grows pale. Salud thinks she hears Paco’s voice among the gathering and decides to enter the patio, repeating the words of the labourers at the forge, It is hard to be born an anvil instead of a hammer.


After a brilliant orchestral interlude, the scene changes to the courtyard in the house of Carmela and her brother, Manuel, where the party is held. While Manuel rejoices at the day’s happiness, Paco remains anxious. Uncle Sarvaor’s entry, followed by Salud, causes the guests to wonder if these are more gypsy entertainers, but Salud reveals she has come not to sing or dance but to confront Paco and remind him of his vows to her. When Paco accuses her of lying, Salud falls dead at his feet, overcome with grief. Grandmother and uncle conclude the opera with cries of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Judas’.


La vida breve, written when Falla was in his late twenties, is a powerful, spontaneous work, brimming with passion, variety of moods, and the vividness of Andalusia. The focus remains throughout on Salud herself, the other characters serving to accentuate the heroine’s tragic movement from youthful optimism to betrayal and death. Paco, however, is both sophisticated and disingenuous, offering specious pledges of love but selecting a wealthier girl from a higher social class as his bride. But he also deceives Carmela and Manuel as his callousness transforms the wedding day, which should be joyful, to shades of deepest tragedy.


The grandmother offers protective family love and mature wisdom, though both attributes are inadequate to protect Salud from the pitfalls of love. Uncle Sarvaor, from the darker side of gypsy experience, is the product of a hard existence resulting in a tendency to violence as well as a ready repertoire of fearsome curses. Overall the opera is set against the grim atmosphere at the forge where workers endure harsh daily labour. Their commentary on life, heard from the outset, becomes through Salud’s destruction the inescapable verdict, It’s hard for the man unlucky from birth. Salud’s misfortune is that, despite her beauty, she too is destined to discover the truth of this, and thus she sings her own version of the workers’ song before the final confrontation.

La vida breve is a dramatic parable about life’s tragic predicaments expressed through the beauty of Falla’s sublime music. But within this framework of tragedy a sense of utter vitality is always present, evoking the splendours of passionate love and life reflected in song and dance, even if inevitably matched against the frailties of human nature. Most of all Falla unfolds a vision of the undeniable ebullience of Andalusian life, depicted through the brilliant colours of the quintessential Spanish imagination.


Graham Wade

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