Spanish composer Manuel de Falla always considered La vida breve his "opus 1," insisting that in his prior works there was "nothing, nothing." While this harsh assessment encapsulates Falla's perfectionist streak more perfectly than it evaluates his early salon and chamber works, in which some graceful moments can certainly be found, it nonetheless highlights La vida breve's importance for his career. He began the opera in August 1904, hoping to win a contest sponsored by Madrid's Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. One of that august entity's goals was to encourage Spanish-language opera, an urgent matter given the preponderance of Italian bel canto and Wagnerian music drama in Spain's opera houses. Things had come to such a pass that some Spanish intellectuals even doubted that there would ever be such a thing as a national opera in their native land.
Enter La vida breve, hailed by some as the quintessentially Spanish opera. Carlos Fernández Shaw's libretto incorporates the non-standard diction of Spain's gypsy underclass; the action, moreover, takes place in the Andalusian city of Granada, famous for its elegiac beauty and lively gypsy quarter. (When first beginning La vida breve, Falla, who had never visited Granada, desperately asked friends to rush him postcards for inspiration.)
Despite its Spanish subject matter, however, La vida breve also proves Falla's assimilation of cosmopolitan styles; indeed, it was his constant looking across the Pyrenees that sometimes caused his compatriots to dismiss his works as insufficiently Spanish. La vida breve includes verismo passages akin to Mascagni or Leoncavallo, the harmonic language of French music, and the occasional foray into counterpoint, as in the song of the forge workers, who, like a Greek chorus, intermittently sing of the inscrutability of fate. Perhaps most striking are La vida breve's "Wagnerian" touches. When the duplicitous Paco vows never to forget Salud, for example, an ascending chromatic line rising out of a half-diminished chord, along with other unresolved and unprepared non-harmonic tones, vividly recall the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, as the Falla scholar Yvan Nommick has observed. Falla also approximates leitmotiv strategy: among many examples is the initial motive of Salud's act one meditation, "Vivan los que rien" (Long live those who laugh), which insinuates itself into Sarvaor's pathetic offer to sing and dance for the wedding guests and ultimately marks Salud's death in the final four measures. A "love theme" recurs as well: ironically, its most forthright statement is uttered by the two-timing Paco, who exuberantly proclaims to Salud, "Por ti yo desprecio las galas del mundo" (For you, I renounce the gains of the world).
Even as La vida breve's score reminds us that aesthetic category of "hybrid" is not necessarily pejorative, its most enduring moments are explicitly Spanish. The popular "Dance," which has been arranged for numerous instrumental combinations, artfully balances incisive rhythm and thematic ingenuity with simple but gratifying bursts of harmonic color and fleeting primitivism. With the song of the cantaor (flamenco singer), Falla offers a highly realistic homage to gypsy music; indeed, its guitar accompaniment, free-wheeling vocal fioritura in Phyrgian mode, and mournful "Ôays!" create one of the more authentic moments in Spanish stage music and one of the most unusual in all of opera.
Falla won that 1904 contest in Madrid by a unanimous vote, then waited eagerly for the city's principal opera house, the Teatro Real, to mount La vida breve. No performance materialized, however. Frustrated with what he considered the backwardness of musical life in his native land, Falla headed for Paris in 1907. Planning to stay only a few weeks, he remained seven years. There, La vida breve proved his calling card: many French musicians, including Claude Debussy, were instantly impressed with it and encouraged him to seek a performance at the Opéra-Comique. When this finally transpired in January 1914 (after a short run in Nice the previous year) French critics hailed Falla as the leader of the "new Spanish school," one who combined Spanish temperament with qualities such as taste, elegance, élan‹that is, qualities largely considered French. Eventually Falla's compatriots saw the light. In November 1914, by which time the outbreak of the Great War had prompted Falla to return to Spain, Madrid warmly applauded La vida breve in a production at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. But the course of Spanish musical nationalism never did run smooth, and the Real would not mount La vida breve until 1997. By this time, democracy had triumphed in Spain after decades of political strife, a civil war, and a repressive dictatorship had sent many Spanish artists and intellectuals into exile, a situation from which Spanish musical life has happily recovered.
Falla, who never married and led a life of monk-like asceticism, has sometimes been accused of misogyny. Yet he treated his female characters most sympathetically. Besides the innocent Salud of La vida breve, Candelas, the heroine of El amor brujo, prevails through integrity and persistence; as gypsies, moreover, both Candelas and Salud challenge the image of the primitive femme fatale enshrined in Bizet's Carmen. A woman, however, created Candelas: although the printed score tells us that the author of El amor brujo's scenario was the Madrid-based impresario Gregorio Martìnez Sierra, it was really Gregorio's talented wife Marìa who ghost-wrote the vast majority of the plays that bear her husband's name. Most center on strong, competent women who defy the expectations of their patriarchal society.
In El amor brujo, Candelas defies the sexual double standard, a bold stance in that environment. The vehicle for her self-realization is flamenco song. As shown in La vida breve, Falla admired this music. Many of his contemporaries believed that flamenco's presumably unsavory origins‹bars, houses of prostitution, late-night revels‹were incompatible with "high art." Yet Falla persisted, even contracting a well-known flamenco singer, Pastora Imperio, for the role of Candelas. Pastora was musically illiterate. But her keen ear enabled her to learn the score with "the ease of a consummate solfègist," as Falla declared enthusiastically in an interview just before El amor brujo's premiere in April 1915. Certainly his score gave ample opportunity for her artistry. In the savage "Canción del amor dolido" (Song of a Broken Heart), Candelas declares she doesn't know "what [she feels], nor what is happening to [her]" since "that damned gypsy" abandoned her. Unlike Lucia de Lammermoor, who loses her mind at the conclusion of Donizetti's opera, mental deterioration threatens Candelas from the outset; accordingly, Falla employs nervous hemiolas and desperate cries of "ÔAy!" to reinforce her obsession. Her second solo, the "Canción del Fuego Fatuo" (Song of the Will-o'-the-Wisp), unfolds in three repetitions of an AABA verse, each separated by a refrain based on familiar flamenco riffs, an unflinching musical structure that projects stoicism and distancing as Candelas gains strength. Then, in the gently swaying guajira (a metrically flexible Cuban dance) she seduces her lover, who has appeared out of the shadows. Dazzled by her magnificence, he asks her pardon, and repeated open fourths and fifths in the finale, "Las campanas de amanecer"(The Bells of Dawn) suggest the unreserved pealing of bells. Rounding off Candelas's final phrase is a telling reworking of the guajira music: if moments earlier it bespoke her powers of seduction, in the finale it heralds her newfound resolve in an unwavering 4/4 meter. This decidedly non-exotic conclusion to a flamenco work confirms that Candelas, like all of Marìa's female protagonists, has both feet firmly on the ground.
In El amor brujo, Falla also drew on impressionistic sonorities, symphonic string writing, and motives of reminiscence. All this, in combination with the flamenco idiom, proved too much for many of Madrid's critics, however. Some believed Pastora was out of her depth. Others considered flamenco unworthy of "serious" Spanish music. Another contingent, intent on promoting its view of Spanish identity, noted Falla's "obsession" with the modern French school, with one priggishly observing that "one cannot compose Spanish music while thinking of Debussy and Ravel." Over the next ten years, Falla adjusted El amor brujo's structure, pacing, and plot‹while holding fast to its flamenco elements‹and in 1925, the definitive ballet version premiered in Paris. As with La vida breve, the French warmly applauded Falla's "spin" on Spanish nationalism. In addition, the "Ritual Fire Dance" has enjoyed tremendous success. Initially popularized by Artur Rubinstein in a solo piano version, it later appeared in MGM musicals and on albums by artists as diverse as Tommy Dorsey, the Harmonicats, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians‹and in some bizarre arrangements that might cause poor Falla to turn in his grave. This phenomenon is one more facet of the curious and sometimes tortured trajectory of Spanish musical nationalism. What is Spanish music? During Falla's lifetime the question sparked a wide range of opinion, both in Spain and elsewhere. But as scholars of musical nationalism have argued, there is no single answer to this infinitely debatable and sometimes volatile question. Rather than seek facile labels, we might instead appreciate the complex mix of local and cosmopolitan influences‹not to mention the composer's individual voice‹in any "nationalist" score and enjoy the rich and suggestive ambivalence such engagement affords.
Carol A. Hess is a specialist in Spanish music whose most recent book is Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898-1936. Her new biography of Falla will be published early this year.