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(1905 - 1989)

Ernesto Halffter Escriche (Madrid, 16 January 1905 – Madrid, 5 July 1989) is one of the most important Spanish composers of the twentieth century. Yet he considered himself modestly, just as a pupil of Manuel de Falla, whom he admired, both as an artist and as a morally exemplary human being. Nevertheless, Halffter was aware of his all-round musical talent, and that he was not lacking in ideas.

His father, Ernest Halffter Hein, a Prussian jeweller, who had settled in Madrid and married a Spaniard, Rosario Escriche Erradón, was completely supportive of the idea of his eldest and third-born sons, Rodolfo and Ernesto, choosing music as a profession. Perhaps this interest in music was inherited from their grandparents, Andalusians hailing from Écija (Seville), who were both opera lovers, while, according to Yolanda Acker, the musicologist and specialist in the works of Ernesto Halffter, their grandfather, Emilio Escriche, was also an excellent painter.

Ernesto began his education at the Colegio Alemán in Madrid and soon stood out in the world of music, as did his brother Rodolfo, for whom he wrote opera libretti. His earliest composition dates from 1911, when he was just six years old. In 1922 Ernesto’s piano teacher, the Hungarian Fernando Ember, performed his pupil’s first piano works, including the three pieces from Crepúsculos at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid. A short time later after their first meeting in 1923, the young Halffter sent Falla the score of his Trio for violin, violoncello and piano, on which the Andalusian composer, wrote “Bravo!”

Crepúsculos already showed signs of the great composer who, at the of age twenty, would receive the Premio Nacional de Música for his splendid Sinfonietta, a prize he would again be awarded in 1983 for his ‘continuous contribution to Spanish music’. This piano triptych was initially titled Tres piezas líricas (Three Lyric Pieces). The composer wrote a program for the first, El viejo reloj del castillo (The Old Castle Clock), which might have been based on one of the legends by the great romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, whose Rimas (Rhymes) Albéniz, Falla and Turina turned into very beautiful songs. According to the critic Adolfo Salazar, the third, Una ermita en el bosque (A Hermitage in the Forest), had a certain rural flavour in the style of Granados. The second, Lullaby, reflects the impressionism Ernesto experienced several years later, from 1926 to 1928, in the Paris of Les Six. Halffter felt a close affinity to some of its members such as Poulenc, Auric and Milhaud. In Madrid he also formed part of the group of composers representing the so-called ‘Generation of 27’ or ‘of the Republic’, the famous literary (and musical) group launched during the very creative Roaring 20s, which dominated Spanish music until 1936. The group was based around the Residencia de Estudiantes, the institution derived from the very liberal, lay, and innovative Institución Libre de Enseñanza.

The premiere of the Marche joyeuse took place at the Residencia de Estudiantes in 1922. This piece is admirable for its charm and modern spirit, much in keeping with that of the generation of writers and artists featuring García Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí, Gerardo Diego, Aleixandre, etc. It was published with a cover by Salvador Dalí and soon formed part of the repertory of the famous Artur Rubinstein. Halffter reveals his very clever and ingenious use of bitonality and a varied array of rhythms.

In 1926 Halffter began composing his Sonata per pianoforte, which would not be completed until six years later. It could be described as a modern version of Scarlatti or of the spirit behind the Spanish harpsichord school. But upon closer listening, there are traces of a composer who, without discarding his customary joviality, is capable of revealing a side to his music that was as serious and profound as that of his admired Falla. It could also be a disguised homage to Granados, clearly cited towards the end of the Sonata, in both his Goyesque and Scarlattian aspects. The Sonata per pianoforte, dedicated to Janine Cools, was given its premiere by the pianist, Leopoldo Querol, in Madrid in May 1934. This was the only sonata of the three Halffter was required to compose in a contract he signed with the publishing house Max Eschig of Paris, of which the composer Eugène Cools (1877-1936) was Director.

L’espagnolade formed part of the album Parc d’attractions, a collective homage to the French pianist and teacher Marguerite Long (1874-1966), which took place at the 1937 Paris Exposition. This involved numerous foreign composers who resided in Paris at the time, including Tibor Harsányi (1898-1954), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Bohuslav MartinÛ (1890-1959), Marcel Mihalovici (1898-1985), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994), Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) and Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977). L’espagnolade is an ironic pasodoble, a charming imitation of an Andalusian musical form that flourished during the mid-nineteenth century. The premiere, given at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in 1938, was entrusted to the French pianist, Nicole Henriot (1925-2001), one of Marguerite Long’s favourite pupils.

Grüss (salute, greeting) follows the tradition of the German romantic Lied. The composer himself did not consider the piece to be of the slightest importance and never published it himself as he believed composers of his generation would not take it seriously. However, it exudes an intimate charm like that of other pieces of the same genre by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Gade or Grieg. It is as if it had been composed in 1840 instead of 1940. The title reveals its obvious Germanic precedents (similar to a romance without words, album leaf, or lyric piece), but it was also a Christmas greeting for his father, Herr Ernest Halffter. Max Eschig published Grüss in 1994.

In 1943 the composer (married to Alicia Camara Santos, the Portuguese pianist, since 1928), composed incidental music to Carlos Salvagem’s heroic farce Dulcinea, premiered at the Teatro Nacional in Lisbon in January 1944. Halffter arranged the work into a symphonic suite, presented in Madrid on 9 December 1945 during a benefit concert for the Press Association at the Teatro Monumental, when the composer himself conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica Arbós. The work consists of various parts, Preludio y alborada, Los pastores, Nocturnos, Serenata, and Final. As well as a version for violoncello transcribed by Gaspar Cassadó, and a piano and violoncello transcription by Maurice Gendron, the penultimate Serenata was also arranged for the piano. In ternary form, the opening section evokes the plucking of the guitar, accompanying a short melody whose text could well be You are my love, Dulcinea. In the centre section, there is a sad and desolate nocturne, in which the guitar strums while Don Quixote serenades his beloved, a peasant whom the knight believes to be a princess.

“Cuba had been lost and now it was true. It wasn’t a lie…”, wrote Rafael Alberti in his evocative poem Cuba dentro de un piano (Cuba Inside a Piano), which Xavier Montsalvatge so beautifully set to music. But a shattered, post-war Spain began to miss the gem of the West Indies, though Cuban influence was still felt as is very clear in the Pregón, with its Afro-Cuban and Spanish rhythms. And even more so in the Habanera, one of those well-written works that cannot be forgotten, even on a single hearing. This straightforward beautiful piece exudes the indolence and drowsiness provoked by the warm Caribbean climate with melancholic naturalness. Both the Pregón and the Habanera are featured in the film Bambú. Directed by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, it is a love story set in Spanish Cuba during the period of its independence following the war between Spain and the United States in 1898. The film, starring Imperio Argentina, Sara Montiel, Fernando Fernán-Gómez and Luis Peña, was premiered in Madrid on 15 October 1945. Regino Sainz de la Maza, the guitarist who premiered Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, also appeared in the movie.

Preludio y danza, composed for the inauguration of the Alonso Ortiz family house at El Escorial, dates from June 1974 (being premiered in the new house by Manuel Carra on the 11th of that month). It consists of two sections of the same length, including a Prelude in the style of the eighteenth-century recercadas by Sebastián Albero (1722-1756), slightly austere despite being very arpeggiated and finishing with a cadenza. This is followed by a very Halffterian dance of a characteristically Spanish nature.

Ernesto Halffter began writing Suite lírica in 1940 during his Lisbon period, reflected in works such as Rapsodia portuguesa and Seis canciones portuguesas. But the extract titled Llanto por Ricardo Viñes was probably composed between 29 April (the date of Viñes’s death in Barcelona), and 20 December 1943, the day it was premiered by the Portuguese pianist, Elena da Costa.

Federico Sopeña was fully justified when he commented that ‘the history of modern music (i.e. the first half of the twentieth century) could not be written without Ricardo Viñes’. A number of very significant twentieth-century piano compositions were dedicated to Ricardo Viñes Roda (1875-1943) and he himself premiered a great number of works. Educated in Lérida, his native city, and later in Barcelona under Joan Baptista Pujol (piano) and Pedrell (harmony), in 1890 he launched a career that would lead him to form part of the principal artistic and intellectual circles of Paris, where Halffter benefited from his expertise and friendship. Viñes, a man of vast musical and literary culture, was described by Professor Tomás Andrade de Silva as ‘the most unique pianist Spain ever had, both for his intimate awareness of sonority and for the inspired architectural conception of his interpretations’. Llanto por Ricardo Viñes, which did so much for Spanish music abroad, is the Madrilenian composer’s sad and solemn lament for the great Catalonian pianist. In the style of pieces Falla dedicated to Debussy and Dukas, its arpeggiated chords give a somewhat medieval atmosphere to the opening of the work. The poetic chords and sombre motives that follow signify a serene farewell.

Although Spanish keyboard music was already very advanced by the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with composers such as Cabanilles and Rodríguez Monllor, the work of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) provided a tremendous inspiration, as can be seen in the music of Antonio Soler and others. Nationalistic piano music, from Granados to Falla, Rodolfo Halffter, Rodrigo and Ernesto Halffter, paid special attention to the Neapolitan genius. The presence of Scarlattian elements could already be perceived in the composer’s early music as well as in the famous Sinfonietta and Sonatina. Sonata homenaje a Scalatti presents a musical form similar to those created by the the Italian musician at the Spanish court, transformed into the neo-baroque aesthetic of the twentieth century. Genoveva Gálvez gave the premiere at the Prado Museum, Madrid, on 14 September 1985, the year of Scarlatti’s bicentenary. Towards the end of the sonata, Halffter quotes the theme from the well-known Cat’s Fugue from D. Scarlatti’s Sonata in G minor K. 30. Genoveva Gálvez played the work on the harpsichord, which seems closer to the composer being celebrated, but Halffter conceived the work for piano, and this justifies its performance on either instrument.

I had the privilege of hearing the composer himself perform Nocturno otoñal: recordando a Chopin, at his last home in Madrid. To commemorate the centenary in 1987 of the birth of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982), the founder of the Santander International Piano Competition, Paloma O’Shea, commissioned a series of works in homage to the great Polish pianist, one of the most eminent performers of Chopin’s music. In this work, written in the autumn of his life (he died two years later in Madrid on 5 July 1989), Ernesto expressed the melancholy of time irremediably running out.

But Halffter would still complete three piano pieces in homage to the memory of three Spanish colleagues and friends – llian Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) of Seville, Federico Mompou (1893-1987) of Barcelona, and his brother, Rodolfo Halffter (1900-1987) from Madrid. Guillermo González premiered all three works, the first two during the inauguration of the Manuel de Falla Archive in Granada (9 March 1981), and Homenaje a Rodolfo Halffter at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, Madrid (5 December 1992).

Role: Classical Composer 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
ARGENTINA Best of Tango Argentino ARC
BBC LEGENDS - Great Recordings from the Archive, Vol. 2 (20 CD Box Set) ICA Classics
HALFFTER, E.: Carmen [film score] (Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Fitz-Gerald) Naxos
HALFFTER, E.: Piano Music Naxos
Instrumental, Chamber Music, Instrumental
Heifetz, Jascha: Encores, Vol. 2 (1946-1947) Naxos Historical
Chamber Music

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