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(1806 - 1826)

Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga was born in Bilbao, Spain, where his father and brother had strong musical ties to the Madrid court. As a child, he was an excellent and intuitive musician whose promise in the field was cut short with his premature death at age 19. His earliest compositions include the divertimento Nada y mucho (1817), composed at the age of 11, the 2-act opera Los esclavos felices (‘The Happy Slaves’) (1819), and a number of vocal works. His opera was given its premiere in Bilbao in 1820 to great acclaim.

In September 1821, Arriaga went to Paris and was introduced to Cherubini, at that time one of the inspectors of the Paris Conservatoire. He was admitted to study counterpoint and fugue under Fetis and violin with Pierre Baillot. The works composed in this period, like the three string quartets, the stage music for Agar dans le desert, the Symphony in D, and 3 Etudes or Caprices for piano solo, show his continuing strength of invention and artistry in counterpoint. He died prematurely from exhaustion and a pulmonary infection in 1826, 10 days before his 20th birthday.


His most important works, the string quartets and the Symphony in D, appear to be hesitating between Mozart and the early Romanticism of Beethoven or Schubert, or even of Rossini. Arriaga studied in Paris (where he also died), showing an unusual talent for instrumental music and for the serious learning of his trade (Arriaga was an excellent violinist as well as an assistant to Fetis in counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire).

Arriaga’s three string quartets were published in Paris in 1824. These most accomplished pieces are rich in melody, with enormous technical precision in the contrapuntal writing of the different parts. Arriaga’s genius for invention comes through in their innovative movement layout and structure, which differ somewhat from traditional models.

The Quartet No. 1 in D minor is in four movements. The Allegro develops a mournful theme to which a second, folk-inspired idea then responds. The Adagio is based on a long drawn-out phrase for first violin. In place of a scherzo, the third movement is a Menuet, whose trio features pizzicato chords with a guitar-like accompaniment. An adagio phrase which unexpectedly recurs before the conclusion acts as an introduction to the Allegretto finale.

Quartet No. 2 in A major is formally the most traditional of the three. The atmosphere of the Allegro is one of great vitality, in which the four instruments converse together, the four parts being remarkably independent but well balanced. The Andante con variaciones takes the place of a slow movement, the last variation created by a pizzicato effect. The Menuetto is followed by a cadenza-like passage which is repeated in the final Allegro, after the exposition.

Quartet No. 3 in E flat major is the most technically developed of the three pieces. The opening unison in the Allegro is followed by a concertante interchange of motifs between the instruments, the development being marked by its expressive nature and shifts in tonality. The second movement is a Pastorale rather than an Adagio, whose different episodes feature various descriptive effects, for example the tremolo to suggest a storm. Arriaga then lifts his thematic writing to a high point in the final Presto agitato.

The Symphony in D is in a traditional form on the model of Beethoven and Schubert, and was one of Arriaga’s last compositions. The dark atmosphere, the modulations and the most unexpected chromatic developments, the alternation between D major and D minor, the audacious writing for the winds, and the power of the development sections (mainly in the first and last movements) are traits which add up to a work which is a clear anticipation of the musical romanticism which had already pervaded Europe at that time but had not yet reached the Iberian Peninsula. It is also a precocious sister of the famous Symphony in C which Bizet composed at the same age as Arriaga composed his Symphony in D.

Role: Classical Composer 
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